Tryphena Sparks

Tryphena Sparks

Tryphena Sparks, the youngest child of James and Maria Sparks, was born in Puddletown, Dorset, on 20th March 1851. As a child, Tryphena attended a small Nonconformist elementary school in Athelhampton.

In 1866 she became a pupil-teacher at the Church of England school in Puddletown. After a dispute with the headmistress and was transferred to the boys school the following year. In November, 1868, her mother died of consumption.

On 28th January, 1870 she entered the Stockwell Normal College in London. It was at this time she began a romance with her cousin, Thomas Hardy, who was eleven years her senior. Tryphena was the daughter of Hardy's mother's sister. As Claire Tomalin, the author of Thomas Hardy: The Time Torn Man (2006) has pointed out: "Cousins could be a heaven sent answer to the need for emotional experiment and sexual adventure in Victorian England. They were accessible, flirtable with, almost sisters, part of the family, and, indeed, in many families marriages took place between cousins. So it is likely that Tom throughly enjoyed the company of all his girl cousins, flirted with them and made as much love to them as he could get away with when he had the chance... She was clever and pretty... and it seems that a warm cousinly affection developed as they got to know one another better."

In her book, Providence and Mr Hardy (1966), Lois Deacon argued that Tryphena gave birth to Hardy's illegitimate son. Robert Gittings, the author of The Young Thomas Hardy (2001) has argued that there is no real evidence for this claim: "What is certain is that Hardy became involved in some way with Tryphena... What passed between them... is difficult to say". Hardy's biographer, Michael Millgate, agrees with Gittings, and was unable to find any evidence of a child "capable of withstanding scholarly or even common-sensical scrutiny". However, he adds: "The two were often alone together, and it would not be extraordinary if they made love. But there was certainly no child, probably no formal engagement". The relationship came to an end when Hardy became engaged to Emma Gifford.

In January 1872 Tryphena Sparks became headmistress of Plymouth Day School, at a salary of nearly £100 a year. In 1873 she met Charles Frederick Gale, the proprietor of a public house in Topsham, Devon. They were married on 15th December, 1877. Over the next few years she gave birth to Eleanor (1878), Charles (1880), George (1882) and Herbert (1886).

After the birth of her last child Tryphena suffered from ill-health. She died three days before her 39th birthday, on 17th March, 1890. On hearing of her death Thomas Hardy wrote Thoughts of Phena. The poem begins with the words: "That no line of her writing have I. Nor a thread of her hair." Hardy goes on to recall her as "my lost prize".

Primary Sources

(1) Thomas Hardy, Thoughts of Phena (1890)

Not a line of her writing have I,

Not a thread of her hair,

No mark of her late time as dame in her dwelling, whereby

I may picture her there;

And in vain do I urge my unsight

To conceive my lost prize

At her close, whom I knew when her dreams were upbrimming with light,

And with laughter her eyes.

What scenes spread around her last days,

Sad, shining, or dim?

Did her gifts and compassions enray and enarch her sweet ways

With an aureate nimb?

Or did life-light decline from her years,

And mischances control

Her full day-star; unease, or regret, or forebodings, or fears

Disennoble her soul?

Thus I do but the phantom retain

Of the maiden of yore

As my relic; yet haply the best of her - fined in my brain

It maybe the more

That no line of her writing have I,

Nor a thread of her hair,

No mark of her late time as dame in her dwelling, whereby

I may picture her there.