"On a blue November dawn" in the 1920s, an old man with a stoop, a stick and a wire-haired terrier is walking in a "secluded, lonely place." The old man — he is 84 — is Thomas Hardy; the terrier is his beloved dog Wessex, and the secluded place is Max Gate, the house he designed for himself and his first wife, Emma, and which has been his home for almost 40 years. As the novel opens, the loneliness of Max Gate is about to be ameliorated for Hardy (though exacerbated for his second wife, Florence), for he is awaiting a visit from Gertrude (Gertie) Bugler, a young married woman with whom he has become quite infatuated.
The plot of "Winter," drawn from a real episode in Hardy's life, can be summarized succinctly: When Hardy agrees to a London stage dramatization of "Tess of the d'Urbervilles," he stipulates that Gertie, who plays Tess in the local amateur production, should have the same role in London. This, of course, necessitates frequent contact with Gertie, rejuvenating Hardy's poetry but devastating his wife.
The plot is, however, just a bit player in this lovely, understated novel, which evokes the best of Hardy's own prose with nary a whiff of pastiche. Nicholson tells the story from the perspectives of all three characters — Hardy, Florence and Gertie. The two women narrate in the first person, while Hardy is narrated in the third person by an observer who is Hardyesque in his access to thoughts and emotions.
All three are portrayed unsentimentally, though with empathy and understanding; Florence's narrative is especially fine. She has not always been viewed sympathetically by Hardy's biographers — Martin Seymour-Smith, for example, depicts her as profoundly deceitful and hysterical. Elements of tiresome, self-absorbed hypochondria do thread through her narrative, but Nicholson equally illuminates the anguish of a wife who feels invisible, aware that her husband "cares more for the company of his pen than that of his wife" and who compares her unfavorably to an idealized first wife (largely invented by Hardy after her death) and an equally idealized (and invented) actress a quarter of her husband's age.
Ironically, Hardy's first marriage soured at least in part because Emma believed he loved his mother far more than he loved her. Perhaps for Hardy the only good woman was a dead one — or at least an unattainable one. In "Winter" he longs for "an ideal though unattainable female spirit" — part muse, part lover — that "moves freely from one woman to another," a succession of perfect women of his own creation with whom no real women could compete.
This is not to say that Hardy is demonized; we see in him the complexities and contradictions of an aging poet who, if not quite raging against the dying of the light, nevertheless sees no reason to go gentle — yet.
"Winter" is quietly intelligent and compassionate, but what stands out most is that it is gorgeously, gorgeously written in prose so elegantly crafted that it becomes, paradoxically, almost invisible. It never shouts, never startles, just moves lithely along with an almost miraculous sense of rightness.