WINTER by Christopher Nicholson (Costa Best Novel-shortlisted for The Elephant Keeper) is our recommended book of the week.

Nicholsons’s atmospheric prose transports us back to Thomas Hardy’s final years at Max Gate, Dorchester, and his growing intimacy with his last muse, Gertrude Bugler, while his sickly wife Florence, fearful of betrayal, watches the infatuation unfold.

A theatre group had been set up by Hardy in 1924 and a handful of Dorset actors performed his work and rehearsed in his home, Max Gate.

It was here that he became infatuated with Gertrude, who he had personally chosen to play the role of Tess in one of his greatest works, Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

This enchanting novel weaves its magic around the historic facts. Remarkably the last surviving member of the group of Hardy’s players died at the age of 105 in the autumn of 2011. Norrie Woodhall, president of the New Hardy Players, who played Liza-Lu in Tess of the d’Urbervilles was Gertrude Bugler’s sister.

It was their mother who is believed to have inspired the original novel published in 1891.

Hardy is said to have seen her milking a cow and was struck by her dark beauty – Gertrude had inherited her mother’s beauty.

While the play was a great success Hardy never permitted it to be staged in London.