THOMAS HARDY's parting words to Gertrude Bugler at their last meeting - 'If anyone asks you if you knew Thomas Hardy, say, 'Yes, he was my friend' ' - were always recalled, and with obvious pleasure and pride, whenever she wrote about him, talked with Hardy scholars and enthusiasts, or was interviewed by the many journalists and film and television crews who descended upon her Dorset home with increasing frequency in recent years.
The story, indeed, was always essentially the same - 'The answers I know by heart nowadays,' she wrote to me after one such visitation in September 1989 - but it was a good story, infinitely retellable, and she told it with a seriousness, eagerness, and directness of address that seemed to cast every hearer in the role of chosen confidant - additionally privileged by awareness of the beauty that had so distracted Hardy when he was in his seventies and eighties and that never deserted her even in extreme old age.
Gertrude Bugler was born in 1897 to a Dorchester confectioner, Arthur Bugler, and his wife Augusta - a dairyman's daughter whom Hardy remembered seeing milking outdoors in the Stinsford meadows. The Buglers' shop was used for rehearsals by the amateur actors of the Dorchester Debating and Dramatic Society, and in 1913, just after leaving school, Gertrude Bugler was cast as Marty South in a local dramatisation of Hardy's novel The Woodlanders. It was an appealing performance that attracted a good deal of attention - Hardy's immense fame ensuring that even the London critics were attracted to Dorchester for such occasions - and Hardy himself was much struck by her combination of exceptional beauty with a youthful 'country' freshness that he could think of belonging typically to Dorset.
Her performance as Eustacia Vye in The Return of the Native in 1921 clearly marked Gertrude Bugler out as the 'star' of the Hardy players, as they were now calling themselves, and Hardy, aged 81, fascinatedly involved himself in the mummers' play and other details of the production to a degree that Florence Hardy, his protective second wife, found distinctly alarming. Gertrude Bugler, she told a friend, 'looked prettier than ever in her mumming dress. TH has lost his heart to her entirely, but as she is soon getting married I don't let that cast me down too much.' Marriage - to her cousin, Ernest Bugler MC, a Beaminster farmer - removal from Dorchester, illness, and motherhood did in fact preoccupy Gertrude Bugler (as she of course remained) for the next few years, but her reappearance as Tess in the 1924 Dorchester production of Hardy's own adaptation of Tess of the D'Urbervilles was a personal triumph that for Florence Hardy, almost morbidly insecure in her comparative unattractiveness, took on an aspect of disaster.
Hardy made no secret of his pleasure in the company of the young woman he saw as the incarnation of his most famous fictional creation, and she for her part responded with innocent but gossip- provoking delight to the great man's flattering attentions. Convinced of her husband's infatuation, and pleading possible damage to his health and reputation, Florence Hardy privately succeeded in persuading her 'rival' to withdraw from a projected London professional production of Tess. While Gertrude Bugler always acknowledged that her family responsibilities would in any case have deterred her from pursuing a theatrical career, she could never quite forgive this forced abandonment of her one opportunity to go to London at an age when she might still have made a name for herself as a romantic actress.
Florence Hardy made some amends by securing for her, after Hardy's death, the leading role in a later London production of Tess, and she did finally have her experience of metropolitan publicity and applause. It was a moment only, but while many were deeply moved by her performances it seems doubtful whether, untrained as she was, she could ever have achieved a long-term professional success. She returned permanently to Beaminster, her husband and daughter (losing the former, however, in 1956), and the life of her local community, but after Florence Hardy's death in 1937 she became increasingly willing to talk about her experiences on the Dorchester and London stage and about her friendship with Hardy himself.
During her last three decades in particular, first in her own house and then, a few doors away, in the devoted care of her daughter Diana, she was able, almost to the very end of her long life, to play - with unfailing poise and evident enjoyment - the role of her increasingly famous self to a constantly changing but always admiring audience from every corner of the world. This perhaps limited but infinitely sustaining celebrity constituted one of Hardy's happier legacies, and its termination represents an irrecoverable loss to all those who not only loved and admired Gertrude Bugler herself but could fancy that they caught, through her, some yet lingering hint of a Hardyan presence.