The novelist and poet Thomas Hardy was once asked if he’d read “Wuthering Heights.” No, he never had. And why not? Because, explained the author of the heartbreaking “Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” he’d heard that it was “depressing.”

That exchange won’t be found in Christopher Nicholson’s novel, “Winter,” but the man who posed the question — J.M. Barrie, creator of “Peter Pan”— does make a couple of brief appearances. So do T.E. Lawrence (i.e., “Lawrence of Arabia”) and Hardy’s literary executor Sydney Cockerell. In fact, everyone in the book is an actual historical figure, and the plot — revolving around a production in the mid-1920s of a play version of “Tess” — closely follows the lives of Hardy, his second wife, Florence, and a young actress named Gertrude Bugler. But first a little background.

Thomas Hardy was born the son of a mason and builder in 1840, was apprenticed to an ecclesiastical architect at 16, and at 30 launched his career as a novelist. He kept producing fiction— “Far From the Madding Crowd,” “The Return of the Native,” “The Mayor of Casterbridge,” “Jude the Obscure” — till he was in his mid-50s. Then he stopped, retreated to the Dorset countryside where he’d grown up, and began to write poetry exclusively. His first wife, Emma, died in 1912; in 1914 the septuagenarian married Florence Dugdale, a schoolteacher almost 40 years his junior. She became his secretary and the guardian of his privacy.

Life wasn’t easy for Florence. Though Hardy and his first wife had grown estranged during the last half of their marriage, his lovelorn poetry is haunted by her spectral presence. Consider “An Upbraiding”:

Now I am dead you sing to me

   The songs we used to know,

But while I lived you had no wish

   Or care for doing so.

Now I am dead you come to me

   In the moonlight, comfortless;

Ah, what would I have given alive

   To win such tenderness!

When you are dead, and stand to me

   Not differenced, as now,

But like again, will you be cold

   As when we lived, or how?

This is a poem spoken by Emma’s ghost, but the same emotional wintriness characterizes Hardy’s marriage to Florence. “Is history repeating itself?” she wonders. “Am I merely the dull echo of his first wife?” The 84-year-old writer treats Florence with at best kindly solicitude, even as he sweetly daydreams about the dead Emma or the very much alive Gertrude Bugler, the young actress playing Tess for the local theater company. On the night of the play’s premiere, just before going on stage, Gertie — as he thinks of her — suddenly remembers her wedding ring and gives it to Hardy for safekeeping. How could he not fantasize, at least a little, after such a symbolic gesture? Not only is Gertie vivacious and adoring, she is the very image of his doomed heroine. Thirty years earlier, he had glimpsed a milkmaid whose beauty sparked him to write “Tess of the d’Urbervilles.” That milkmaid — not just in “Winter” but also in biographical fact — was Gertie’s mother.

The constant interlacing of past and present (and sometimes future), of mirrorings and repeated patterns, of multiple points of view on the same incidents, of anguished first-person monologue and serene, slightly antiquated formal discourse, of the real and the imagined — all these Nicholson uses to delineate the inner lives of his three major characters. The old writer perceives in Gertie the latest avatar of his soul mate, his ideal woman. Florence suffers from heartbreak and jealousy, compounded by worries about her health. The captivating Gertrude dreams of a career on the London stage and is supported in her ambition by her war-hero husband. While the Buglers lavish love on their baby, the childless Hardys dote on an aged dog.

Surprisingly, Fate doesn’t impose a tragic ending a la “Tess”— that’s only for novels. Despite the greatness of Thomas Hardy and the lovely goodness of Gertrude Bugler, “Winter” comes to be dominated by the simple, desperate loneliness of Florence. At times, she confesses to the crushing sense “of not being as completely alive as I ought to be, the sense of not being alive at all.” Even though she guards her husband like some fierce Cerberus, she is a soft touch for any charity that helps needy children. Without a child of her own, Florence feels doubly starved for tenderness, for love. Desolate, she sometimes implores the telephone to ring: “Is there no one in the whole world who would like to speak to me on any matter, however trifling?” As it is, she can’t even persuade her obstinate husband to trim back some surrounding trees that make their house feel so gloomy. Hardy, lost in his poetic and erotic reveries, cares more for the pines and beeches than he does for most people. What should she do? “I am forty-five years old and my life is in tatters. This is where I am now, this is what my life is like.”

Eventually, Florence begins to fantasize about her elderly husband’s death. A branch from one of those trees he so loves could fall and crush him. The house could catch on fire and instead of England’s greatest writer she’ll rescue the dog. Or, maybe, she should just take the gardener’s ax. . . . Before long, increasingly crazed, she begins to wonder if Gertie’s little Diana might actually be Hardy’s child.

Confronted by his wife’s hysterical outbursts, Hardy initially explains away his love poems to Gertie as mere literary constructs, but soon loses interest in self-justification. “After all, the scene was such as he might have contrived for a novel many years ago: the wronged wife, her hot tears, her bitter accusations ringing about the ears of her husband. . . how many times, down the long centuries, had this encounter been played out, and with how many variations?”

As should be evident, the complexly layered “Winter” is a book for grown-ups, one that finds the acme of human happiness in a young mother looking out at a starry winter’s night, while she holds her baby in her arms. For Florence, though, there can be no such contentment. And for Hardy, daydreaming about his own funeral, there awaits only a veiled woman whom he sees standing at his graveside. She is, he realizes, the elusive feminine ideal he has sought through all his many years and that he has loved in Emma, Florence and Gertie. But as he steps toward her, she quickly fades from view, “and he was left alone by the yew tree, in the winter wind.”

Thomas Hardy died in 1928; Florence Hardy succumbed to the cancer she feared in 1937. Gertrude Bugler, after a happy life in the country with her husband and child, died at age 95 in 1992. It is said that in her later years she remained beautiful and often spoke of her friend Mr. Hardy.

Michael Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and is the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”


By Christopher Nicholson

Europa. 269 pp. Paperback, $17