Award-winning writer Floyd Skloot recounts the journey to England that inspired him to write his new novel The Phantom of Thomas Hardy, published by the University of Wisconsin Press this week.
My wife Beverly and I didn’t travel to England in the spring of 2012 so that I could research a novel about Thomas Hardy. The idea that I would write a book-length work about Hardy never occurred to me, until I began to write a book-length work about Hardy nine months after we returned from our trip.
It had been hard to decide what to cram into our two weeks in England. We’d be there from May 22 through June 5. Beverly, who’d lived in the UK for four years in the early 1980s, wanted to see landscapes, gardens, and ancient sites. I wanted to pay homage to a few writers whose work and lives had mattered to me for the nearly fifty years I’d been writing. And we wanted to walk as much as possible, to get off the usual tourist track, explore. So after a couple of days in London we rented a car and confined our travels to southern England this time, vowing to return another time and head north.
Walks in the Cotswolds, on Bodmin Moor, and around Cornwall and Carmarthen Bay had all made the itinerary. Also, we planned to visit Hidcote Manor Gardens, the Welsh National Botanic Gardens and Dinefwr Castle, and Lanhydrock Garden in Cornwall. But Beverly sacrificed visits to the gardens of Barnsley House, the grounds of Blenheim Palace, and the Bronze Age Rollright stones. And I chose Dylan Thomas’ home at Laugharne and Thomas Hardy’s Dorset, sacrificing visits to the places where T.S. Eliot set his Four Quartets, the homes of the Dymock poets, and the Hay-on-Wye bookstores.
For me, finally seeing Hardy territory was the centerpiece. As a student at Franklin & Marshall College in the late 1960s, I’d written my undergraduate honors thesis on Hardy’s novels, brought to them by my mentor/employer/substitute father, Professor Robert Russell, who had died at age eighty-six just a few months before we began planning our trip. It felt important to me that I visit Hardy territory in the wake of Russell’s death. Since I’d published an essay about Hardy in 2007, I didn’t anticipate writing about him again. In fact, I felt certain that visiting his places would mark the end of my long engagement with him.
We stayed at a B&B in Dorchester for two nights, which gave us parts of three days—June 3, 4, and 5—to look around, tour Hardy’s birthplace and the home called Max Gate that he built and lived in for the final forty-three years of his life, see his grave at Stinsford Churchyard, and walk some of the places he wrote about such as the Weymouth shoreline or Lulworth Cove.
Nothing unusual happened during our time in Dorset. We met no one connected with Hardy, spoke to no one about Hardy. It was moving to me to be there, and it did seem like a time of closure. Only once, in downtown Dorchester at the start of our Hardy wanderings, did I feel even the slightest sense of the writer’s presence, accompanied by a passing thought that it would have been sweet to somehow call Dr. Russell from where I stood at #10 South Street, beside the heavy wooden door of a Barclays Bank that bore a round blue plaque saying “This house is reputed to have been lived in by the MAYOR of CASTERBRIDGE in THOMAS HARDY’S story of that name written in 1885.”
In June and July, back home in Portland, I wrote an essay about our trip, “To Land’s End and Back: A 1,512-Mile Drive Around Southern England.” That essay included a mere three paragraphs about what we saw during our time in Dorset. It completed my book Revertigo: An Off-Kilter Memoir (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), and was – I believed – all I had to say about going to Hardy country.
But my thoughts kept returning to Dorset, to Hardy, and to Dr. Russell. I spoke about this with my daughter Rebecca, who reminded me to write notes about these thoughts and let them go wherever they might take me. She was surprised to learn that I no longer had a copy of my college thesis and encouraged me to see if I could track one down at Franklin & Marshall. In July I found myself drawn to rereading Hardy’s short second novel, Under the Greenwood Tree, set in and around the author’s childhood home where we’d spent a couple of hours. Then I reread Claire Tomalin’s biography, Thomas Hardy, which I’d reviewed for the Boston Globe in 2007. My notebook was filling. By August I felt pretty sure that I did, after all, need to write something much longer than the three paragraphs in my earlier essay, but I wasn’t sure what form that writing would take. Then I reread Michael Millgate’s Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revisited (2004) and Ralph Pite’s Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life (2006), both of which I’d first read as soon as they were published. I found and read several more biographies. My sense of Hardy as a person, a character, was deepening in ways I’d never considered before.
And I kept returning to the memory of when I was standing in front of the Barclay Bank building in Dorchester vaguely sensing Hardy’s presence and wishing I could call Dr. Russell. In March 2013, in a fresh notebook, I wrote, “Beverly and I walked up South Street in Dorchester, following a tourist map past Trespass Outdoor Clothing, Carphone Warehouse, Top Drawer Cards & Gifts, a shuttered O2 Store.”
And that was the beginning of the novel! While standing in front of that Barclays Bank building, pondering the enigma of a fictional character living in a factual building, my character Floyd is approached by the ghost of Hardy himself. Read more about the novel here.
Revertigo: An Off-Kilter Memoir and The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer’s Life. He lives in Portland, Oregon.is an award-winning writer of fiction, essays, poetry, and creative nonfiction. His twenty books include