In Christopher Nicholson's Winter, Thomas Hardy becomes the latest literary giant to provide the subject matter for a novel. J M Coetzee and Colm Toíbín produced memorable works when they imagined the minds of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Henry James respectively, while more recent novels about Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville and H G Wells have achieved mixed results.
Even the best books within this burgeoning sub-genre imply that artistic greatness belongs to the past. Why didn't, say, Dostoevsky fictionalise the life of Pushkin? Because he was busy writing about what James urged Edith Wharton to confront: "the immediate."
In 1924, Hardy is "among the last survivors of a distant age", a Victorian man amid modern upheaval. When he adapts his great novel, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, for an amateur dramatics group, he's captivated by Gertie Bugler, the young woman who plays Tess, and insists that she perform the part when the play transfers to the London stage. You needn't know Hardy's work in depth to enjoy Nicholson's third novel but Tess fans will find lots to relish, as similarities, and differences, between Hardy's tragic heroine and Gertie, as well as aspects of his fictionalised Wessex, are pertinent.
Most of Winter alternates between third-person narration, where Nicholson explores Hardy's thoughts in deft prose, and the account of his second wife, Florence, who feels "stunted from living in his shadow". She begs her husband, who is almost twice her age, to cut down the pine trees that shroud their home in gloom and feels eclipsed by his late first wife who herself accused Hardy of preferring his mother.
He covets "an ideal though unattainable female spirit… (that) moves freely from one woman to another", and his longing for Gertie borders on a portrait of the artist as an octogenarian lecher. Nicholson's clear-sighted take on his subject, however, demonstrates that it's the contradictions in Hardy, "who cares more for the company of his pen than that of his wife", which make him interesting.
Florence's reaction to reading Hardy's poems about Gertie is vindictive. Following his death in 1928, the real Florence made some amends for this, as Gertie explains in one of two chapters which she narrates. These passages recover a silenced voice but also fill gaps in the narrative, taking Nicholson near the territory of the "literary detectives" who Hardy resented. Winter never quite convinces you that this story needed to be fictionalised and the image of the elderly poet at his desk, trying to connect his emotions to the world, is a reminder that, while good writers find subjects, the great invent them.