Syphilis and Mrs Hardy
Much agitation at the TLS today. Did Thomas Hardy's first wife die of syphilis?
“The moment when Thomas Hardy became a great poet”, according to Claire Tomalin in her new biography, was when his wife, Emma, died in 1912. That was when her husband began to write the “extraordinary elegies of tender, guilty, evanescent remembrance” that are among the greatest achievements of English poetry, according to Jonathan Bate in his review of Tomalin’s book in this week’s TLS.
But could there have been a hidden reason for the guilt that is inextricably mixed with grief in these poems – one that is not mentioned by Tomalin or any of Hardy’s earlier biographers?
The cause of Emma’s death was given as “heart failure and impacted gallstones” by her husband’s GP. But, according to Robert Alan Frizzell, a retired medical practitioner also writing in this week’s TLS, this was most likely a cover-up.
Dr Frizzell’s “retrospective diagnosis” is that Emma’s death, and her various symptoms in the years before she died, were due to syphilis. His startling new interpretations of some of Hardy’s greatest poems chart the first appearance of symptoms, the progression of the disease, and the terrible rift that occurred in the marriage as Emma “withdrew all favour” from the husband who had most likely infected her.
“We know that Hardy had a weakness for pretty young women, and in the nineteenth century it was not necessary to be especially promiscuous to contract syphilis, just unlucky…. But however unlucky Hardy was, he was well aware that Emma had by far the worst of it.”