STANDARD BIOGRAPHIES of "Great Men of English Letters" have only recently been supplemented by books on the "lesser lives," as Diane Johnson calls them, that made prodigbious literary productivity possible. These new studies spring from a sympathetic shift in perspective that uncovers the speaking silence of the woman behind the Great Man, "without whose sympathy and secretarial assistance this book could never have been written." Such a conventional preface effectively effaces the women whose life has been dedicated to the books she presumably inspired, the husband she perpetually served, and the biographers she sponsored for the caretaking of his beloved memory. In The Second Mrs. Hardy, Robert Gittings and Jo Manton deal tactfully with just such an effaced life, and their book lends insight into the dwarfed opportunities of women even in an age heralded as giving rise to the independent New Woman.

Florence Dugdale Hardy's life was not spectacular, except that it seems to read like a dreary Hardy plot, full of cruel ironies and stillborn dreams. Actually it reads like Hardy's retelling of that great Victorian novel Jane Eyre. Like Jane, for example, Florence Duddale attended church schools that sought to inculcate submission to authority through Bible stories and needlework in overcrowded and underheated buildings where ringworm and measles flourished. A succession of thest gloomy institutions, where Florence was first a student, then a teacher, infected her, significantly, with chronic laryngitis. Her first love for a poor, tubercular poet, like Jane's for Helen Burns, was thwarted by death, although the poet, A. H. Hyatt, did have time to help her publish a number of her nature stories and children's essays.

It was possibly this kind of help, which Thomas Hardy could and did procure for her, that attracted the 28-year-old literary apprentice to the 67-year-old established author. Ironically, their secret meetings gave way to a more public relationship when Florence became an intimate friend to the wife Hardy had so determinedly ignored. The first Mrs. Hardy was no madwoman, although Hardy was fond of calling her one. Yet she did live her final years out in obstinate seclusion in the attic of his house, and something like Bertha Mason Rochester's fiery independence can be seen in Emma Hardy's fondness for annoying her husband with her gaiety and her feminism. Her death in 1912, just when Florence Dudgade had received an inheritance, liberated Hardy to propose to the woman he was sure could act efficiently, keeping his house, helping with his correspondence, reading aloud, screening him from visitors, and doing his typing.

The crowning irony of Florence Hardy's life was that her marriage seemed to arouse Hardy's love for his dead wife. He had proposed to Florence in the family graveyard, where he pointed out a spot available for her grave close to his ex-wife's, but she was still amazed and dismayed when this late despised wife became immortalized in a series of his finest poems. Hardy, who was to have helped Florence Dugdale become a literary woman, reduced the second Mrs. Hardy to a secretary. Finally, she was only allowed to "author" what Hardy himself wrote: he affixed her name to the "biography" of himself he had written for posthumous publication.

It is hard to see why Gittings and Manton think it was "neurotic" of Florence Hardy to become a kind of "prophetess of doom." She seems well schooled to that role. Actually their biography proves that the second Mrs. Hardy was no less a puppet of her husband's imperious will than any of his female characters. Using a number of unpublished letters, they explore Florence Hardy's sense that, like her famous namesake Florence Nightingale, she was "never so happy as when I have someone to take care of". But their work-manlike study obscures the full implications of her willingness to play the traditional Victorian role of the renunciatory angel in the house. It might have been fascinating, for example, to compare this Great Man's wife to other long-suffering Victorian spouses like Mrs. Carlyle or Mrs. Dickens.

In light of Hardy's psychology, the history of the second Mrs. Hardy, who died in 1937, nine years after her husband, needs to be placed in the pattern of infatuation repeated with Louisa Harding, Tryphena Sparks, Florence Hennicker and Emma Gifford Hardy. This pattern implies that only rejection or physical seperation would lead him to the sort of necrophilia that seemed so often to inspire his poems. What this tells us about thwarted intimacy in Hardy's novels is yet to be analyzed. The cross-generational love affair with Florence Dugdale also raises interesting questions about the father-daughter, patient-nurse rhetoric of their letters about each other. In this respect, Gittings and Manton are too brief or too reticent. We are not given enough quotations from the letters or the poems to clear up doubts why "persistent ill-health seemed, strangely, part of Florence's charm for him," what the "diabolical diaries" of Emma were, how the late friendship between Florence and the poet Charlotte Mew grew, and what the nature of the disease that ended her life was.

Still this is a book worth reading, for the second Mrs. Hardy's verdict on Hardy's famous philosophical pessimism -- "My husband is very well & amazingly cheerful in spite of his gloomy poems" -- should give pause to the critics of those poems. Was there some element of retribution in her consent to have his body buried in Westminster Abbey, his heart in the family churchyard? The Second Mrs. Hardy reminds us of the unacknowledged price paid by women for the realization of male creativity.