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Topsham Heritage Year: March

The 19th century: Thomas Hardy's Rural Britain

Thomas Hardy's relationship with his cousin Tryphena Sparkes has been the subject of much speculation. When the relationship was ended she became a resident of Topsham where she married Charles Gale a Topsham publican. The Estuary Players drama will be centred around the relationship between Hardy and Tryphena Sparkes and will draw on his novels.


Photo: St. Margaret's Church Choir

Date: Saturday 11th March
Time: 7:30pm
Venue: St Margaret's Church, Topsham, Exeter
Cost: Admission by programme, £3 at the door.

Description: "Victorian Church Music": Hymns, anthems, prose and poetry. A concert given by St. Margaret's Church Choir, directed by Tony Yates, with Peter Burness, organist of St. Peter's, Budleigh Salterton. There will be hymns for all to sing, and anthems by Mendelssohn, Brahms & S. S. Wesley, (organist of Exeter Cathedral, long ago.)

Photo: Tony Yates and Sally Leger

Date: Saturday 25th March

Time: 7:30pm

Venue: St Margaret's Church, Topsham, Exeter

Cost: Admission by programme, £3 at the door.

Description: Shubert's "Winterreise" (Winter's Journey). This is widely considered to be the finest of all romantic song-cycles: it charts the despair of a young man thwarted in love. Tony Yates, baritone; Sally Leger, piano. The churces Bechstein piano will be regulated specially for this concert by Richard Gardner.

Date: 29th March - 1st April
Time: unknown
Venue: unknown
Cost: unknown

Description:"Dancer in the Leaves" by Estuary Players

As part of Topsham's Heritage 2000 programme, Estuary Players have commissioned a new play about Thomas Hardy's relationship with Tryphena Sparks, who lived in Topsham, and is buried in the town's cemetery. Called 'Dancers in the Leaves', the play is the work of local writer Nick Jones, whose previous work includes three plays for Gloucestershire's Everyman Theatre. 'Dancers in the Leaves' will involve a large cast of local actors, dancers and musicians, and will be performed in the Matthews Hall in the week beginning 28th March. Auditions will be held early in January. Expressions of interest are welcome: Estuary Players can be contacted on 877810 or 873050. In this article, Nick Jones outlines the history on which the play is based.

Tryphena Sparks was born to a rural working class family at Puddletown, in Dorset, in 1851. At the age of twenty, she was appointed headmistress of an elementary school in Plymouth, where she remained for six years. During this time she was courted by Charles Gale, then working for a Plymouth firm, but born in Topsham, where his family owned The Steam Packet and the South Western Inn. In 1877 Tryphena gave up her teaching post, married Charles Gale, and moved to Topsham, where the couple lived at 13 Fore Street, currently Mere Antiques. She bore four children, and died in 1890, at the age of 38. She is buried in Topsham cemetery, along with other members of the Gale family.

Those are the facts. But the interest which surrounds Tryphena Sparks concerns her relationship with Thomas Hardy, and this is where we leave facts behind, and enter the area of speculation. Hardy was notoriously defensive about his personal biography, and in later years went to some lengths to destroy the evidence of letters, diaries and notebooks. But his poetry, written and re-written over 60 years, implies an unusually complicated emotional life, involving rather more women than the two he married. In the case of his relationship with Tryphena, we know for certain only that she was Hardy's cousin - their mothers were sisters - eleven years younger than him, but known to him from childhood. And that in the year of her death he wrote and later published a poem, 'Thoughts of Phena', which suggests a particular closeness in their past relationship.

The idea that Tryphena may have been more to Hardy than either a favourite younger cousin or a casual flirtation was first proposed by a Devonshire Hardy enthusiast called Lois Deacon. In 1959 Deacon chanced to make the acquaintance of Eleanor Tryphena Bromell, Tryphena's daughter, born in Topsham in 1878, but at that time living in a farmhouse on the edge of Dartmoor. In a series of interviews, Nellie Bromell recalled how her mother had talked of being engaged to Hardy, and of returning his ring at the time of Hardy's courtship of Emma Giffard. She also described a visit which Hardy had made to Topsham some time after Tryphena's death, to lay a wreath upon her grave.

Lois Deacon's correspondence with Nellie Bromell continued until the old lady's death, in Okehampton's Castle Hospital, in 1965. By this time, Deacon had begun to propose, in a series of pamphlets, and then in the book 'Providence and Mr Hardy', a startling thesis: that in 1867, following Hardy's return to Dorset after five years as an architect in London, Hardy and Tryphena had become lovers, the affair resulting in a male child called Randle. Their engagement had ended, Deacon decided, because Hardy had good reason to believe that Tryphena was in fact his niece, a marital relationship forbidden by the church. Thereafter, Tryphena became the secret subject of a host of love poems, and the inspiration for some of Hardy's most famous heroines.

Since the 1960s, any version of Hardy's life has been obliged to take some account of Lois Deacon's researches. The idea of a secret love-child has been roundly dismissed, and no evidence has ever been uncovered to support it. But the story of a Puddletown courtship, continued when Hardy moved briefly to Weymouth, and keenly remembered during a late visit to Topsham, has been largely accepted; and there are certain poems, both dated and located by Hardy, and certain details from the novels - in particular, from that complete oddity in Hardy's fiction, 'The Well-Beloved' - which slip persuasively into the historical narrative as we know it.

'Dancers in the Leaves' (the title comes from Hardy's poem, 'Voices from Things Growing in a Country Churchyard') is an exploration both of what we know about Hardy and Tryphena, and the way in which we have come to know it. It's set in Dorset and Topsham in the years between 1867 and the 1890s. But it's also about Nellie Bromell, and Lois Deacon, and the beguiling complexities of memory and imagination. I'm looking forward to working on the production.

Nick Jones



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