Some of my all-time favourite novels are works of historical fiction, with the Victorian era being of particular interest to me (as a glance through my wardrobe would indicate!) and I also love books about books and writers, so naturally, when I first read the blurb for Elizabeth Lowry’s forthcoming novel, The Chosen, I was keen to read it, as Lowry takes the reader on a journey into the life and loves of the author Thomas Hardy.
Admittedly, I didn’t know too much about Thomas Hardy prior to my reading of this novel, but on turning the final page I was grateful for the journey that this story took me on, as I became immersed in the home – and mind – of one of England’s most famous writers (who I again, admittedly, haven’t read much of. But I promise, Penguin Clothbound Jude the Obscure, I will read you!) Thomas Hardy’s first wife, Emma Gifford, was the love of Hardy’s life. A woman he built a home for, and who in return assisted him in his career as a writer. But this marriage was not a happy one, and certainly did not appear to be the marriage that Emma craved. This was something Hardy discovered in the aftermath of Emma’s death, an event which took him by surprise, and leaving him consumed by grief, not only for the physical loss of Emma, but the loss of the woman he knew twenty years before, the wife she was and could have been.
With events taken place in the aftermath of Emma Gifford’s passing in 1912, whilst also exploring the earlier stages of their life and marriage, I was gripped by this honest insight into their relationship. The reality of their marriage and the distance between the pair, is evidenced in the form of diary entries which are found by Hardy amongst Emma’s personal effects. Not only does Hardy mourn the sudden loss of his wife, but he must also come to terms with these new found revelations surrounding their relationship, the way in which they grew apart, with Hardy’s successful career proving something as a barrier for a woman desperate to be seen and loved, and who in the absence of family and affection, hides herself away for two decades. Given the era and the subject matter The Chosen was a book that I was quickly drawn into, and Lowry captures this sense of time and place perfectly, resulting in Hardy and Gifford’s voices feeling authentic. Whilst the real diary entries detailing Emma’s dissatisfaction were destroyed by Hardy, Lowry drew on the surviving letters to help build up an accurate impression of their story, and at times I forgot I was reading a work of fiction, as Gifford’s torment and feelings of being trapped, and Hardy’s subsequent feelings of grief and guilt were vividly, and often beautifully described.
The Chosen is a novel to look out for if you, like me, have an interest in historical fiction and historical writers, in addition to an exploration of love and marriage, the expectations and the reality. It is a complex love story, but also a ghost story, as we see a man grapple with his memories, and the ghost of his former love. Through this interpretation of Thomas and Emma Hardy’s relationship, Lowry has delved into the heart of a Victorian marriage, painting a sombre portrait of a man absorbed by his own success, as he comes to the realisation that the woman he mourns may have paid the price for her husband’s fame and fortune…
The Chosen is to be published on 14th April 2022 by riverrun books, with thanks to Ana Sampson McLaughlin for providing a copy for review.