Monday 12 December 2022

Guest review by Sophie Haydock: THE CHOSEN by Elizabeth Lowry


"A haunting and accomplished portrait of raw grief, of dissatisfied love, of regret, and the self-imposed sacrifices one makes in a bid for greatness." 

Sophie Haydock
's debut novel, The Flames, is about the four muses who posed for the artist Egon Schiele in fin-de-siècle Vienna. She is the winner of the Impress Prize for New Writers and in 2022 The Flames was longlisted for the Historical Writers' Association Debut Crown Award.

Sophie trained as a journalist at City University, London, and has worked at the Sunday Times Magazine, Tatler and BBC Three, as well as freelancing for publications including the Financial Times, Guardian Weekend magazine, Arts Council, Royal Academy and Sotheby’s.

She has interviewed leading authors, including Hilary Mantel, Maggie O’Farrell, Bernardine Evaristo, Sally Rooney and Amy Tan. Passionate about short stories, Sophie also works as a digital editor for the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award and is associate director of the Word Factory literary organisation.

Her Instagram account @egonschieleswomen – dedicated to the women who posed for Egon Schiele – has a community of over 110,000 followers. For more information, visit:

A marriage is a mysterious union, even to the people who are bound by it. It’s this sentiment that haunts Elizabeth Lowry’s judderingly poetic novel The Chosen, about the writer Thomas Hardy – a self-contained, single-minded man who’s lost the intimate connection to his wife, Emma, over the course of their forty-year marriage, to the extent that they pass in the house they share like ghosts, neither speaking to one another, nor touching; as cold as the grave.

It’s ironic, therefore, that when Hardy – the Victorian writer best known for Tess of the d’Urbervilles – finds the lifeless body of his wife after she dies unexpectedly in the hours after their final bitter argument, he is confronted, for the first time in decades, with a vibrant and urgent vision of a woman who he’s now unwilling to shake to the margins. Indeed, he’s unable to eat, sleep, or write. “Language has left him,” Lowry writes poignantly.

Hardy sees his wife everywhere – as a “smirk of light on the threshold”. She’s “on the cliffs, waving to him across that dark space as the spume flies up: waving or beckoning, goodbye or hello”. He cannot tear his thoughts away, even when Florence, the younger woman with whom he has been engaged in an affair, shows up to take her place by his side. Florence expects to meet a man relieved of his burden, but instead must grapple with a stranger who’s willingly withdrawing from life under the deluge of his grief. “It’s as if he’s being drawn down to the bottom of the sea. He has no choice but to sink. He wants to sink. He hasn’t been able to admit to Florence how powerful this urge is: the desire to slide from himself.”

Emma’s ghost is evoked more sharply when Hardy discovers a cache of notebooks that his downtrodden wife kept secret over their difficult marriage – detailing her resentment at her husband’s stubbornness, his selfish commitment to the imaginary characters he evokes alone in his study, his lack of intimacy, which deprived her of children: “He’s at a loss to know why Emma started keeping such a catalogue of grievances at all […] The uncertainty and unhappiness were, as he remembers things – as till now he’s always thought them – all his.”

Emma’s widow pores over her diaries with the intensity of a scholar. It’s here the poignancy of The Chosen truly deepens. We see Emma through her own eyes, her voice restored, her recollections of their shared life the central force. “I’ve offered my help,” she writes. “I think he’s accepted it – it’s hard to tell. His delicate irony is too often mistaken for tenderness.”

By doing so, the novel agitates themes of the (un)silencing of women, as well as the role of creativity and who takes ownership. Emma herself harboured a desire to write from before she married the then-unpublished author, and her efforts were ridiculed by her husband as his success grew, while her own contributions to his works wilfully dismissed and overlooked.

Hardy is suddenly faced with the most annihilating question of his life: did he know his wife at all, in any meaningful way? As a result, the writer’s inner world, his version of himself and his life’s work, his role as a husband, is detonated, blasted beyond all recognition, his own memories bleached by the accusation found in her words. He cannot believe he no longer has access to the woman who he now realises he has loved so insufficiently for most of her life.

Lowry, as author, blends the facts of the past delicately with her own fictional take on their relationship, and what may have passed between husband and wife. What’s true is that Emma wrote such diaries, the contents of which are a mystery. They were read by Hardy after her death. He was so moved and horrified by her verdict that he burned them, reducing her world to ash. We know of their existence thanks to references in letters made by his new wife.

The Chosen expertly spotlights the interplay of grief and regret, alongside renewed, almost obsessive, love. Hardy turns the problematic reality of Emma, a woman he found difficult when alive, into something concrete he can control – and sets about mourning her in an artistically selfish way, losing himself to her memory. He writes powerful love poetry in her honour, much to the chagrin of Florence, who before long becomes the second Mrs Hardy.

The poignant complexity of marriage is captured beautifully by Lowry, who towards the finale of The Chosen shares a detail that is the redemptive moment for Hardy – that Emma called for her husband from her sick bed: “She wanted you. She said it had to be you, sir.”

Emma’s final gift to her husband was to inspire the poetry that cemented his name as one of the great poets in the English language. “It’s difficult for me to grasp what it means to love you after you are dead, and what I can possibly put into words that you would want to hear.”

Lowry’s The Chosen is a haunting and accomplished portrait of raw grief, of dissatisfied love, of regret, and the self-imposed sacrifices one makes in a bid for greatness. As Hardy realises too late, he has dedicated his life to the wrong passions. “What have I ever written about, Em? he laughs. I thought I was writing about the world, but I was just writing words.”

The Chosen is published by Riverrun.

Sophie's The Flames is reviewed here by Alison MacLeod.

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