Set in the winter of Thomas Hardy's life, it is also about his increasingly cool second marriage. Against the backdrop of the draughty, ill-heated house he built in Dorset, Winter tells the tale of Hardy's fascination with an amateur local actress, who is playing the part of Tess of the d'Urbervilles in the first theatrical production of his most controversial novel, soon to be staged in Dorchester.
Gertie Bugler is a beautiful but also a very talented actress, as the London critics all agree when they see her perform. In Nicholson's hands, she emerges as an intelligent, sensitive modern woman who is in awe of Hardy, and finds in his novels an echo of her own situation.
In reality there were several women who might have suggested the role for Hardy's heroine. For the purposes of this novel, however, Nicholson narrows these down to a single dairy maid, whose bucolic beauty sparked the idea, 30 or more years earlier. By strange coincidence, the dairymaid is the mother of Gertie Bugler, who is her mirror image, a fact that entrances the fictional Hardy.
Not surprisingly perhaps, Hardy's middle-aged second wife, Florence, resists Gertie's charms, growing profoundly jealous of the young woman's effect on her susceptible husband. "She may be striking, but beautiful? She is not beautiful. Look at her teeth. She is simply not, not beautiful." Far from lovely herself, Florence became Hardy's wife in part because she was flattered by the attentions of the eminent writer, but mainly because she saw it as her only chance of marriage. Giving up her ambitions as a children's writer, she takes up the position of Hardy's secretary as well as spouse, and the amanuensis of his biography, which she is writing at painstakingly slow speed. When Hardy rewrites and corrects her laborious prose, she bites back her irritation.
Small-minded, bitter and resentful, though still retaining affection for old Tom, Florence is depicted as an object of long-suffering fondness for her husband, and of disguised scorn by his literary associates. One cannot but feel sympathy for her. Many years earlier, when Hardy's first marriage faltered, Nicholson writes, "it struck him, not for the first time, but more forcibly than it had ever done hitherto, that the vows of lifelong love made by each party in the solemn rite of matrimony ran contrary to nature, forcing husbands and wives to endure each other's company when the fire that had brought them together was naught but ashes."
Florence may not be as clever as her husband, but she is no fool. Her fears for her marriage are not entirely unreasonable, even without the disturbing presence of a youthful rival. Added to this, she is recuperating from an operation on her throat, and remains haunted by the fear that the tumour has not been fully excised. Increasingly neurotic, she regales the reader with the petty miseries of her life. The chapters written in her voice are convincingly tedious.
Where Nicholson offers Hardy's perspective, the writing grows ponderous, as if following in this master's footsteps is too daunting for lesser literary talents. One can understand the problem, but Nicholson makes his task more difficult by trying to emulate Hardy's style and manner. The effect is disconcertingly clumsy and inauthentic: "He was, as any onlooker would have discerned, in that late stage of human existence commonly described as old age." Or, "One tranquil January morning, at a time not far removed from the present..."
Unlike Hardy, Nicholson is no portraitist of the rural or the wild. Instead, his forte is the domestic interior. More than any other element of this novel his cameos of home life come alive with his ability to render the lighting of a lamp, or the drawing of curtains, pregnant with meaning and mood.
Winter shows only a sliver of the great writer's life, and one in which the truth is manipulated to suit Nicholson's purpose. There is no evidence, for instance, that Hardy ever wrote love poems to Gertie, in which he suggested they elope. Nor that he was impotent, as an embarrassing passage in Florence's voice suggests. Quite the reverse, in fact, given the novelist's comments to a close friend, to whom he remarked that until the age of 84, he was fully virile. As the biographer who revealed this adds, "this was not a boast, but a confidence".
But while for this reader the divergence between established fact and the novelist's suppositions grates at every turn, for those who are less fiercely protective of Hardy's flame, Winter offers a sepia-tinted evocation of the literary and dramatic milieu of the period. It is also a mournful depiction of one man's struggle with love, romance and the ebbing of both, against which tide he is too philosophical or gloomy to rage.