Full review from edition 4.
Professional playwright, poet and theatre director Peter John Cooper is no stranger to adapting the works of Thomas Hardy for the stage and certainly no stranger to Hardy’s landscape, born and raised as he was on the farms and fields of Wessex. What is a first for him, however, is publishing a book which includes the full script of one of his plays together with detailed notes about the writing of what Peter calls “a fantasy slipped into the little chinks and crevices between recorded facts.” She Opened the Door is a story which seeks to shed light on the life and workings of a high profile and influential, yet very private, man through the personalities and interactions of four women, real and imagined, with whom he was thought to be close, sharing his day-to-day existence.
Peter’s lively and compelling characters are The Wife, The Mother, The Other Woman and The Maid. The play is in two acts and set in the gardens of Max Gate on the edge of Dorchester, the home Thomas shared for over 25 years with first wife, Emma, which he designed and his brother built. It’s a September afternoon in 1895 and it appears Emma, with whom it’s generally understood Thomas had largely a troubled relationship, is about to burn the manuscript of Hardy’s last novel, Jude The Obscure: the book which ultimately went on to strengthen and assure his material and literary success.
Although the script is liberally peppered with his writing and Hardy is central to the plot, he is otherwise an “absent presence” throughout this play in which his precious final manuscript seemingly risks extinction – being wrestled and bandied about in, at times, almost comedic fashion by his female attendants. The scene unfolds and is driven entirely through the engagement of the four women in a story that explores in an extraordinary way what reality “might have been” for them as well as for Thomas. Emma is an eccentric and disappointed woman, approaching late middle-age childless and lame. She does not get on well with The Mother who still maintains a very close relationship with her son and who, although self-educated, Emma considers to be her social inferior. Amelia, The Maid, might be thought of as a “Tess”-a-like, ‘ruined’ in Bournemouth and returning to service in the Hardy household with child, but also with a modicum of education that might just serve to elevate her to better things in the Brave New World, rapidly advancing. The Other Woman is a “beautiful and vigorous” 40-yr old based on Florence Henniker, local novelist and staunch advocate of women’s rights.
The recent advent of bicycling is a key theme and metaphor for the liberation each of these characters seeks from the ways in which they feel themselves personally disadvantaged: a theme that also constantly plays out in the lives and circumstance of some of the most central females in Hardy’s own novels.
Emma perhaps exhibited traits that Thomas, with his strong maternal and familial bonds, might have found difficult to deal with. Jemima (a powerful matriarch who had impressed upon her children the need for education, learning and independence) is also a conflation of a number of Hardy family members – including his grandmother and sisters – serving to demonstrate the not-inconsiderable pressure Emma must have felt from the in-laws living just a short walk away across the water meadows. But although the commonly held views are not exactly kind, Peter says “I hope I may have found something in Emma that is a little less hard, a little more deserving of sympathy.”
Through the struggles of these women, Peter points at what was perhaps the contemporary issue and principal force that drove Hardy to write: that of “the iniquity of stifling social hierarchy” which he had himself battled most of his life. Each of the four characters in She Opened the Door deals with problems of this kind, as articulated by the soliloquy-type songs (with music by Roderick Skeaping) giving insight into their private thoughts. Hardy might be said to have a flair for drama which Peter picked up on here: setting the play where, when and how he has, is poignant, demonstrating perhaps that, rather than Jude being “an endpoint and a dam on the river of his social conscience”, it was instead a floodgate opened by the furore surrounding it which then enabled Thomas to reinterpret much of his earlier work with fresh honesty.
She Opened the Door is arresting, intriguing and delightful, engaging our fascination with the personal lives of eminent figures past and teasing our contemporary hunger for insight and speculation. The characters are larger than life, the dialogue and plot fast-moving, so it’s useful as well as pleasurable to be able to read the script at leisure. It makes me regret not having seen the production when it was originally performed at the Corn Exchange in Dorchester as part of the 19th International Hardy Conference in August 2010, or in the grounds of its actual setting at Max Gate in September 2011. Let’s hope that, such will be the interest in this book, there is a new tour of the play, satisfying all those (and more!) whose interest will have been quickened by this lively, unique exploration. (see below – ed)
She Opened the Door – The Wife and Women who Haunted Thomas Hardy is published by Roving Press at £7.99 paperback. ISBN 978-1-906651-183
STOP PRESS – Peter will be staging his play “What Would Jane Say? – Jane Austen in the 21st Century” at the Mowlem Institute, Swanage, for the new Purbeck Literary Festival on February 28th, 2013.