Monday, October 23, 2006

Thoughts on Tryphena

And there was another woman and a woman writing about her in that rich mid-sixties gossipy period of mid-Devon gossip (which included mutterings on Plath and Rhys). Hearing of the new Hardy biography, The Time Torn Man by Claire Tomalin and watching the South Bank Show it all came back and made me chase up old notes and google. Tryphena. Tryphena Sparks and Lois Deacon. Deacon lived in Chagford and my Aunt knew her and told me a bit (not too much as I was thought too young to know). Just enough to intrigue and make a teenage girl want to know more, of course. The book, Providence and Mr Hardy, by Deacon had just come out in 1966. The rumours about Tryphena begun by Deacon coincided with the clutch of stuff about Rhys and Plath. The gist of Deacon's take on Tryphena was that she and Hardy had had a passionate affair and that she (his first cousin, second cousin or niece according to which account you read) had then born his illegitimate son (or daughter - again this depends on which account you come across). Lois Deacon was a Devonian - and her archive is now at Exeter University. Tryphena was from Dorset but taught in Plymouth and then married and lived in Topsham until her death; she wasn't, in other words, just one of those winsome village girls. Did she write? Hardy's poem on her, Thoughts on Phena at News of her Death - the only one all the critics refer to - focuses on her "writings": Not a line of her writing have I You can't help but wonder. Was she also a poet; a novelist? One of those lost - usually beautiful - woman (writers) who, acting as muse herself to a (famous) male counterpart, was subsumed into a virtual-life within the signified weave of the novels and thus erased from her real-life? This piece is written only from accumulations of myth and local gossip; I have not even read Tomalin's biography and I do not pretend to have in-depth knowledge of Hardy or his work - only nostalgic memories of the evocations of Hardy's Dorset country (bordering that of Devon) accumulated from teenage readings of Tess etc etc. Yet it seems in this review that Tryphena has been air-brushed from this most up-to-date narrative of Hardy's his-story. And so the narrative-of-vanishing is perpetuated. Even Melvyn Bragg didn't challenge the omission; instead he was complicit with Tomalin's (worshipful?) stance of Hardy, which appeared to want to white-wash his reputation and emphasise his High Priestly status on the cusp of Victorianism. Browsing through the summaries of recent Hardy criticism this seems to be the trend. Those few who do mention Tryphena emphasise the lack of any credible evidence to support a romantic or sexual liaison between them - one or two appear to more or less ridicule Deacon - and so refuse any opinion on the possibility of any relationship on those grounds. There is little on Tryphena on the web and although Robert Feitz on the Hardy web-site does provide a full account of her life, even this is implicitly in the anti-Tryphena camp. I don't have an opinion either but I do not like the way in which most highly esteemed biographers writing NOW (ie Tomalin etc) can so easily direct public awareness away from some of the most richly controversial material about a writer so that it quickly becomes buried, forgotten in an archive and hidden from public view. As yet I haven't pursued Lois Deacon's work but now I am impelled to so do; otherwise her evident hard worked for research back in the sixties/seventies will be in danger of such a fate as that of Tryphena, the woman she became (academically) obsessed with - almost as bad as the fate of some of Hardy's (fictional?) heroines.

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