Emma Lavinia Gifford (1840-1912)

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Robert Gittings
Michael Millgate
Martin Seymour-Smith

From Robert Gittings, Young Thomas Hardy. Boston: Little, Brown, 1975. 126-127.

“Emma Livinia Gifford, named after her mother and an aunt who died in infancy, was the youngest daughter of John Attersoll Gifford and Emma Farman. though her father’s family had originally come from Staines in Middlesex, he and his bride were both Bristolians, and at one time had been brought up in the same street in that city, Norfolk Street in the parish of St. Paul’s. Mr. Gifford was the son of a school-master, Richard Ireland Gifford, one of whose early eighteenth-century connections had kept a girls’ school at Kingston. His own profession may have prompted his granddaughter’s quaintly ingenuous remark that ‘the scholastic line was always taken at times of declining fortunes’; he himself kept a small private school, described as ‘French and Commercial’, at his home in Norfolk Street. Emma Farman, whom John Attersoll Gifford married ar Raglan, Monmouthshire, on 24 April 1832, came from an old-established Bristol family. Her ancestors had been traders and merchants, and her father, William Farman, was an apparently well-to-do accountant. John Attersoll Gifford had qualified as a solicitor, and had practised in Plymouth for a short time before his marriage. He returned to his native Bristol and practised there for the first five years of his married life, before going back again to Plymouth, where his mother, a Devonshire woman, had moved after her husband’s death. Emma Lavinia Gifford, the youngest but one of a family of five, was born there on 24 November 1840; she was therefore a few months younger than Hardy himself.

She herself described her childhood home as ‘a most intellectual one and not only so but one of exquisite home-training and refinement’. In her recollections in old age, there are idyllic pictures of family music and singing, of readings and discussions of books. Yet there was a darker side, which even memory could not altogether disguise. Part of this came from a peculiar money situation. John Attersol Gifford was his widowed mother’s favourite son. When he rejoined her in Plymouth, she decided to live in the same house with him, contributing her own considerable private income. She not only used this to bring up his children, but, in his youngest daughter’s words, ‘she considered it best that he should give up his profession which he disliked, and live a life of quiet cultivated leisure’. One gets the impression, incidentally, that his own wife, a simple character who read nothing except the Bible and East Lynne, did not count for much in this household dominated by the older woman. The awakening came when the latter died in 1860. She had set up a trust, from which her favourite son and his wife were to receive all the interest. Unfortunately, she had so depleted the capital that there was hardly any left, her estate being sworn at under £1000. Though still appearing in the Law lists as a solicitor, John Attersoll Gifford had evidently taken his mother’s advice, and failed to build up a practice. Money was desperately short; the house had to be sold, and the family moved to the remote district of Bodmin in North Cornwell, where living was cheaper. Even then, Emma and her elder sister had to go out to work as governesses. The sister, Helen Catherine, then became an unpaid companion to an old lady, in whose home she met her husband, the Reverend Caddell Holder. Emma joined her in 1868, and was helping with the duties of the rectory two years later when Thomas Hardy arrived on the scene.

As well as poverty, there was an even darker shadow on the Gifford household. In times of crisis, John Attersoll Gifford drank heavily. As his daughter artlessly but frankly put it, ‘never a wedding, removal or death occurred in the family but he broke out again.’ The origin of this pattern of outbursts is more than a little puzzling. Its so-called explanation came from his mother, who ‘sympathised with him in the great sorrow of his life’. Her own father, William Davie, had had the reputation of never going to bed sober, so that she may well have felt sympathetic. Her son’s alleged sorrow was that he had originally been engaged to his wife’s elder sister, a girl of eighteen with beautiful golden hair. She had died of scarlet fever; his drinking habits started then, and continued through his subsequent marriage. Emma was his only child with fair hair like her dead aunt; he used, she said, to stroke it, sighing at the memory. This romantic story, which Emma obviously felt gave her a special place in her father’s affections, is perhaps not true. Neither in the St. Paul’s parish registers, nor in the Bristol newspapers is there any trace of the death of an elder Farman girl. though there may be some other explanation, it is at least possible that the story was partly invented by his doting mother to excuse her favourite son’s alcoholic outbreaks. Its probable basis is that a younger Farman girl did die, aged fifteen, three weeks before John Attersoll Gifford’s marriage.

Emma Lavinia Gifford certainly appears, in the light of all this, as the spoilt child of a spoilt father. There is no doubt at all that wilfulness and lack of restraint gave her a dash and charm that captivated Hardy from the moment they met. He did not consider, any more than most men would have done, that a childish impulsiveness and inconsequential manner, charming at thirty, might grate on him when carried into middle age.

From Michael Millgate, Thomas Hardy: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1982. 121-123.

“There was, however, one Hicks restoration outside of Dorset which Crickmay had not yet taken in hand, and it was on 11 February 1970 that he wrote to ask Hardy if he would go to Cornwall and ‘take a plan and particulars’ of the dilapidated church in the tiny hamlet of St. Juliot. Hardy delayed his journey until he was ready, on 5 March, to send off to Alexander Macmillan the nearly completed manuscript of Desperate Remedies. Two days later he set off from Bockhampton in the small hours of the morning (‘starlight lit my lonesomeness’) and reached St. Juliot that same evening.

At the door of the rectory he was greeted not by the rector himself, The Revd Caddell Holder, who was in bed with gout, nor by the rector’s wife, who was nursing her husband, but by a ‘young lady in brown’ who proved to be Miss Emma Lavinia Gifford, the rector’s sister-in-law. Miss Gifford felt, as she later recorded, ‘a curious uneasy embarrassment at receiving anyone, especially so necessary a person as the Architect. I was immediately arrested by his familiar appearance, as if I had seen him in a dream–his slightly different accent, his soft voice; also I noticed a blue paper sticking out of his pocket.’

Emma Gifford’s nervousness sprang from much anticipatory speculation ‘as to what the Architect would be like’. Tiny and remote, St. Juliot offered little in the way of society beyond the occasional visiting clergyman or school inspector, and any visitor was welcome–‘even the dentist from Camelford who called regularly & actually dined with us at our mid-day dinner, Mr. Holder having much employment for him.’ Following the death of his first wife in 1867, when he was sixty-four, Holder had married Helen Catherine Gifford, daughter of John Attersoll Gifford of Bodmin, formerly a solicitor in Plymouth, and a niece of Canon Edwin Hamilton Gifford, later Archdeacon of London. When the second Mrs Holder, thirty-five years her husband’s junior, moved into the rectory in the autumn of 1868 her younger sister, Emma Lavinia, came with her–chiefly, it would seem, as a way of escaping from the pressures of life at home with an embittered and often drunken father. The situation at the rectory, however, was itself far from idyllic. The rector, though generally tolerant and humorous in his outlook upon life, was subject to frequent illnesses, while Helen Holder’s loyalty to her husband did not change the fact that she had married a man so much older than herself in order to escape the alternative fate of a life as a governess or companion. She was often at odds with her sister, and perhaps resentful of Emma’s freedom from domestic responsibilities, but ready enough to co-operate in any campaign to find her a husband. Before Hardy’s appearance upon the scene a local farmer–probably John Jose, son of the widowed Cordelia Jose of Pennycrocker–had been ‘nearly secured’ for Emma, but his active pretensions to her hand were no doubt exaggerated for Hardy’s benefit, like those of the young churchwarden who ‘scanned / Her and me’ and lit the candles with a ‘vanquished air’, and of the dying William Henry Serjeant of St. Clether, the apparent ‘original’ of “The Face at the Casement”.

There can be little doubt that Hardy’s engagement and eventual marriage to Emma Gifford were in some measure the calculated outcome of a conspiracy–if only of discretion–involving the entire rectory household. But if he was ‘caught’ by Emma, is no less true that he was in the early stage of their courtship entirely captivated by her: he did indeed return from Lyonnesse with ‘magic’ in his eyes. Although Emma was born on 24 November 1840, less than six months after Hardy himself, he probably believed her to be younger. At the 1871 Census her age was entered as only twenty-five when it was in fact thirty, and it is hard to think that she would have told so gross an official lie if she had not been anxious to sustain a deception of every day. At twenty-nine, when Hardy first met her, Emma wore her spectacular and as yet unfaded corn-coloured hair in long ringlets down either side of her face–giving her, as a friend wrote, ‘the look of the old pictures in Hampton Court Palace’–and she made a striking figure as she rode dashingly about the countryside in her ‘soft deep dark coloured brown habit, longer than to [her] heels’. Writing after Emma’s death to the then rector of St. Juliot, Hardy suggested that some of the old parishioners might yet ‘recall her golden curls & rosy colour as she rode about, for she was very attractive at that time’.

From Martin Seymour-Smith, Hardy. London: Bloomsbury, 1994. 105-109.

“The church of St. Juliot, which lay, with its adjacent rectory, on a wooded slope, had long been falling into decay, and had been on Hicks’ books for at least three years. Hicks himself, not long before his death, had called to inspect it. Tom described it accurately enough in A Pair of Blue Eyes, although there he made it lie more open to the sea: ‘On the brow of the hill…stood the church…The lonely edifice was black and bare, cutting up into the sky from the very tip of the hill.’ About a mile away was Beeny Cliff and the sea.

What was the thirty-year-old Emma Gifford doing in this remote place? She was the second daughter and fourth child of a solicitor, John Attersoll Gifford, and his wife, also Emma, nee Farmer. Gifford, the son of a schoolmaster, had practised as a solicitor in Plymouth and in Bristol; when Emma was born, almost six months after Tom, on 24 November 1840, he was back in Plymouth. By 1855 he seems to have given up the law, either because he was struck off (this was Florence’s story, but unlikely), or because he retired to live off the income of his widowed mother, who also lived in Plymouth. Gifford had the airs of what in those ultra-class-conscious days was thought of as a gentleman (to be ‘retired’, even if it meant living off your mother, was preferable in some eyes to practising a profession) and an educated man; but he was given to drink. When his mother died in 1860 it was found that her capital was depleted to an alarming extent–less than £1000 was available, and that had to be divided. The Giffords fell on harder times. They went to live in rented accommodations near Bodmin, and the girls were at various times sent out as governesses or companions. Just what the Giffords lived on, since John Attersoll–who lived until 1890–did not take again to the law, is something of a mystery; possibly he did some kind of legal work to augment his ‘meager income’.

Although she attended nothing better than a dame school in Plymouth (run by ‘dear refined single ladies of perfect manners’), Emma had tender memories of a genteel life, even if it was rather impoverished, and her father was given to alcoholic outbursts. He had once signed the pledge, and kept to it for a time; but he was given to drinking whenever someone in the family died, and doubtless on other occasions. Emma remembered (with pleasure) an afternoon when, after taking too much wine, he drew the blinds of the sitting-room, got out his Shakespeare folio, and spent some hours declaiming from it. Very little is known of him, but he has been judged not a pleasant man–although if this is a typical memory, there are much worse ways of being drunk.

While acting as a companion, Helen, Emma’s older sister, had met the rector of St. Juliot, the Rev. Caddell Holder. Born in 1803, the son of a judge in Barbados, and educated at Trinity College, Oxford, he was a relaxed, humorous man. His wife died in 1867, and in the autumn of 1868 he married Helen Gifford–thirty-five years his junior. Emma came to live with her at the rectory: ‘my sister required my help, for it was a difficult parish…’. But Emma no doubt also needed to escape for a time from a father whom she adored but whose uncertain temper or habits she may have feared.

The rector, at sixty-seven, was in poor health, and subject in particular to painful attacks of gout. The household had long been awaiting ‘the architect’: ‘the whole village was alive about…the Church-restoration’, wrote Emma in her charming document ‘Some Recollections’, a substantial part of which Tom printed, with few alterations, in the Life. ‘The [assistant-architect] of [Crickmay’s] office was to come on a certain day…it was almost wonderful that a fixed date should at last be given…All were delighted.’ Emma herself had worked hare towards raising funds for the restoration, with watercolour sketches and economies with the housekeeping….Holder had had one of his sudden attacks of gout, and his wife was attending to him, when Tom felt his way along the by now dark rectory drive to the front door, and rang the bell….

Tom fell instantly in love with Emma’s artlessness, with her vitality, with her eyes (just as he described them in A Pair of Blue Eyes, although they were not as blue), with her almost extreme flurrying naturalness, which was certainly unusual if not (at this point) eccentric….Emma was attracted by the bookish young man precisely because he was not conventionally ‘handsome’. It has been said that he was ‘unprepossessing’, and that she was ‘obliged to make the best of him’; but his is a misreading of the situation, one based on a soap-opera view of sexual attraction. With the directness that was always to characterize her, and which could be as charming and admirable as it could (later) be tactless and disconcerting, she described Tom (in 1911) as he had then been in her perceptions: seeming ‘older than he was’ until she studied him by daylight, with yellowish beard and ‘shabby greatcoat’. The soap-opera view fails to take account of the ‘blue paper’ turning out to be ‘the MS of a poem’, and of what that meant to the young Emma, an accomplished horsewoman who rode about fearlessly, who sang and played the piano, and who read the poets. She might have been impressed by a ‘handsome man of business’, but she would not have been interested in him and would not have fallen in love with him.

Florence Hardy fostered the story of a conspiracy in the rectory to ‘get’ Tom as a husband for Emma; but no such conspiracy was necessary. The two fell deeply in love, and remained so for a long time after their marriage in 1874. Indeed, despite the bitter differences which developed between them, they never ceased to love each other….And he not only fell in love with the spirited, strange, ‘living’ (as he put it) young woman, but also with her enthusiasm for poetry, and for him as a writer. There is little reason to doubt his own words, that his ‘wooing’ in Cornwall ‘ran, in fact without a hitch from beginning to end, and with encouragement from all parties concerned’. The later discouragement–probably just ill temper, and perhaps drunken ill temper at that–from Emma’s father was unpleasant; but it was unimportant, for he finished the above-quoted sentence with: ‘any want of smoothness lying on his own side as to the question of ways and means to marriage’. This was cut out by Florence after his death in accordance with her own notion that he had been ‘trapped’ into marriage.”