Reviews of Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy: The Time-
Torn Man (2006)
Contents (click on items to move through page)
BURIED IN THE LIFE Thomas Hardy and the limits of biographies.
Discussed in this essay:
Thomas Hardy, by Claire Tomalin. The Penguin Press. 486 pages. $35.
Thomas Hardy: The Guarded
Life, by Ralph Pite.
There is a paradox about biographies. We read them to savor the shape and texture of an individual life, yet few literary forms could be more predictable. Everyone has to be born, and almost everyone has to be educated, oppressed by parents, plagued by siblings, and launched into the world; they then enter upon social and sexual relationships of their own, produce children, and finally expire. The structure of biography is biology. For all its tribute to the individual spirit, it is our animal life that underpins it.
This paradox is compounded by another. We are interested in what Jane Austen had for breakfast because we are interested in her fiction; but what she had for breakfast throws exceedingly little light on the fiction. When Claire Tomalin tells us in her recent life of Thomas Hardy that the clergyman who took on his mother as a servant published a commentary on the Book of Enoch, it is hard not to feel that this is a little more information than we need. A good biographer works like a realist novelist, delicately touching on stray details to generate what Henry James called the air of reality, though what exactly all this is supposed to illuminate is rather more obvious in The Ambassadors than in volumes like these.
certainly isn't the writer's literary works. Both Claire Tomalin
and Ralph Pite are perceptive literary critics, yet
what they have to say about Hardy's novels and poems, for all its occasional
astuteness, is thin and impressionistic. If you are going to record, as Tomalin dutifully does, that Hardy's mother hailed from a
proposed the wise dictum that there are many things involved in the production
of a work of art other than the author. Shakespeare, as far as we know, was
never crazed and naked in a storm, but Lear has an authentic enough ring
to it even so. It is doubtful that the Bard ever ran into a group of witches
who numbered among their possessions the finger of a baby strangled at birth,
but the first scene of Macbeth manages to retain its uncanny power. Tomalin, by contrast, assumes that the bleakness of Hardy's
vision springs from his sensitive constitution, in which case there must have
been an extraordinary rash of sensitive constitutions in gloom-ridden fin-de-siècle
tend to stand back and discern patterns; biographers, engaged in the
blow-by-blow business of recording what happened just after noon on July 21,
1889, and then what took place two hours later, can only fitfully allow
themselves this luxury. It is as though the art gets buried in the life. Among
those general patterns are broad intellectual currents, but literary life-histories
tend to skimp on ideas, just as they do on historical context. Indeed, there is
a case to be made that biography is a rather philistine genre. If it is so
phenomenally successful in
that a genre may be somewhat overrated does not mean that it cannot give birth
to some resplendent pieces of work. Restoration tragedy is generally dull, but
there are some fine individual specimens. Eighteenth-century pastoral verse is
not the most exciting kind of poetic art on record, yet it threw up the
occasional masterpiece. The same goes for literary biography. The maestros of
the form Saint Augustine on himself, Boswell on Johnson, Fiona McCarthy on
Byron or William Morris-are able to create works with all the imaginative flair
and substance of major art. They evoke not just a single life but the climate
of a whole age. Richard Ellmann's life history of
Yeats is a vital record of the Irish Literary Revival, not merely an account of
the poet. Richard Holmes's record of Coleridge's blighted existence tells us
about Romanticism, not merely Coleridge's drug habit. No general history of the
edit and interpret the facts, but, unlike historical novelists, they cannot
alter them. Their room for creative maneuver is notably meager. They have to
spend an inordinate amount of time recounting facts about their subject that
have been sketched a hundred times before. It is carved in stone that Thomas
Hardy was born in Dorset in the west of
however, was a kind of internal émigré within the Establishment, a spiritual
fifth-columnist who was flattered to hobnob with a set of patricians he
sometimes secretly despised. His first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, was
turned down by publishers who deemed it dangerously socialist. Proud to be
invited to dinner by some
There is a
well-established myth surrounding this author, which runs something like this:
Hardy was a self-educated man who struggled his way up from the ranks of the
people and wrote gloomily fatalistic novels about how a timeless peasant
society was being undermined by urban forces. Not a word of this account is in
fact true, and Hardy commentators are largely to be judged by how effectively
they demolish it. To begin with, Hardy was not of the common people. He was the
son of a reasonably affluent builder, and, after attending a reputable high
school, he qualified as a professional architect. Far from being self-taught (a
term that for some traditional English critics simply means that he didn't go
Like so many major nineteenth-century novelists, Hardy sprang neither from the people nor the patricians but from the lower middle class. Most of his major characters are caught between clashing social worlds, and several of them perish in the struggle. It is those who aspire beyond their immediate environments, while being deprived of the resources available to escape them altogether, who are particularly vulnerable and exposed. This tension is most poignantly illustrated by the female characters: Hardy, though mildly liberal rather than radical in his views, had a special sensitivity to the plight of women. Again and again, he returns in his writings to the paradox of a woman who is superior to the men around her by virtue of social class though considered inferior to them on account of her gender. (Hardy also married above himself, though not exorbitantly so. As the English say, he liked a bit of posh.)
Hardy had his eye not on "peasants" but on craftsmen, carriers, traders, bailiffs, shopkeepers, skilled rural workers, and women, like Tess Durbeyfield, who have received a decent education and are far from being idyllic milkmaids. The predicament of this declining rural class, marooned between laborer and landowner, spoke eloquently of wider social contradictions. It was the class to which Hardy himself belonged: in childhood he sometimes spoke the local dialect at home and sometimes standard English. What is striking about his prose is how it shifts from one idiom to another. It looks at farm laborers close up and then, pulling the camera away for a long shot, frames them impersonally from an Olympian distance. This is a writer who ranges from speaking of "the President of the Immortals" to describing a woman as having "squirrel-coloured" hair. Hardy was close enough to the common people to resent the patronizing stereotype of them as yokels and country bumpkins, though sufficiently remote to write about them at times in a "high," excessively self-conscious literary style. Tomalin sees the ambiguity very well. She is also right to point out that his output is highly uneven. The critic John Bayley has noted that Hardy often allows quite incongruous elements to lie together in his fictions, as though each were innocently unaware of the other's presence. He can swerve in the space of a paragraph from social realism to homespun philosophizing, from poetic cameo to dramatic action. He is not afraid of ideas, as most English novels are, and he does not go out of his way to make them sound natural and spontaneous. According to Tomalin, the eminent Victorian Leslie Stephen solemnly recorded after a visit to the writer that they spoke of "theologies decayed and defunct, the origin of things, the constitution of matter, the unreality of time and kindred subjects." And that, one suspects, was just over the soup.
Hardy afraid to suggest that tragedy can be found down country lanes as well as
in palaces, but he is also tempted to dredge up some rather creaky literary
devices in order to imbue his low-born protagonists with heroic status. The Return of the Native, for example, is full of rather portentous
imagery from ancient Greek tragedy, which clashes with the "low"
rural life of the novel. Such methods earned him the enormous condescension of
his social superiors. "The good little Thomas Hardy," wrote Henry
James, who also remarked with droll patronage that the sheep and the dogs were
the only convincing characters in Far from the Madding Crowd. Somerset
Maugham considered that Hardy had "a strange look of the soil," but
probably thought the same of anyone who lived more than twenty miles from the
not write about peasants, for the excellent reason that hardly any existed in
Nor is it true that Hardy was a fatalist, a charge he was quick to rebuff. (He described himself as an "evolutionary meliorist.") He was not, to be sure, much of a rib-tickling optimist either. He did not believe that the universe was spontaneously on our side; but this is known as realism, not pessimism. Those who come a cropper in his fiction tend to do so because they fail to adapt to circumstance or are trapped between aspiration and frustration, not because they are the victims of a malevolent universe. When Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure, seeing her children dead, cries out that we must submit to providence, Jude himself ripostes that the cause of the catastrophe is "man and senseless circumstance." Blaming fate is far too convenient an excuse for the society that hounds Jude to his lonely death.
Claire Tomalin makes the usual mistake of quoting the last clause of The Mayor of Casterbridge as evidence of its author's perennial pessimism, but the sentence in its entirety suggests just the opposite:
And in being forced to class herself among the fortunate she did not cease to wonder at the persistence of the unforeseen, when the one to whom such unbroken tranquillity had been accorded in the adult stage was she whose youth had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.
At every turn in his novels, Hardy is aiming to demonstrate how things could have fallen out differently. Indeed, it is those characters striking fatalistic postures who tend to come to grief. What seizes Hardy's imagination is not some iron determinism but the irony by which things fail to chime, the tragicomedy of missed opportunities and fatal incongruities. His is a Darwinist world of chance and contingency, not one of dire necessity. If Hardy was an atheist, it was because he did not think the universe added up to an integrated scheme any more than his own novels did. There was no grand narrative to the world, just a web of mini-narratives that randomly intersected. And this meant that some human damage was unavoidable.
Hardy's great novels are not resigned but tragic, a very different state of affairs. In fact, he is the first genuinely tragic novelist of English literature since the eighteenth-century Samuel Richardson, who wrote the astonishingly anti-patriarchal Clarissa. On the whole, the Victorians preferred their art to edify rather than to dispirit. An era badly rattled by everything from geological revelations of the unbiblical age of the universe to the threat of political revolution looked to its literature for consolation, not subversion. The function of art was to generate sweetness and light, not to breed truculence and disaffection. The later Dickens and George Eliot press disenchantment as far as they dare, but they are constrained even so to pull off a happy ending. Novels were supposed to end with marriage, the felicitous discovery of a long-lost, well-heeled relative, the worsting of the villains and the prospect of rosy-cheeked grandchildren, not with a young woman hanged by the state (Tess) and a man on his deathbed cursing the day he was born (Jude). If Hardy proved so offensive to his audience, it was not only his lack of religious faith that scandalized them ("the village atheist brooding and blaspheming over the village idiot," as G. K. Chesterton memorably phrased it), or even his sexual candor, but his refusal to offer anodyne comfort.
Obscure, a book that one English bishop threw indignantly into the fire,
takes a cool look at the three main ideological institutions of Victorian
England—education, sexuality, and religion—and concludes that they are almost
entirely worthless. This is a work that pushes literary realism to the very
brink, and one that would really have to break with such realism altogether to
be able to articulate the invisible forces that lie beneath. Hardy himself
commented that the hostile response to Jude cured him of fiction writing
altogether, turning him to poetry instead. But it is doubtful that a writer as
magnificent as I1ardy abandons his trade simply on account of bad reviews. He
had had, after all, plenty of them before. What really follows Jude the
Obscure is not Hardy's poetry but D. H. Lawrence's The Rainbow. It
How do Tomalin and rite square up to these issues? Pite is more perceptive than Tomalin
about Hardy's in-between status. Pite is also a touch
more preoccupied with ideas, in which Tomalin seems
largely uninterested. Both authors score rather low on the question of
fatalism, falling for the conventional wisdom. Although Tomalin
writes finely of how in reading the young Hardy's notebook "you can watch
Hardy accumulating words, entranced by their shapes, their sounds and richness,
stacking them up like a bee storing pollen," neither she nor rite has much
to say about the audacious way he mixes genres and seems blithely unconcerned
with that great fetish of literary art, unity. His works are deliberately loose
and capacious, and he has no objection to holding up the narrative for a while
to stage some self-conscious set piece. Tomalin is
right to see that the novels are full of quirky, arresting moments, some of
which are properly indifferent to realism. One thinks of Jude drunkenly
reciting the Nicene Creed in an
Tomalin's study has already collected its quota of admiring
reviews, and as biographies go, this one is erudite and finely written. Pite's style is less smooth, more edgy and vigorous, and
his study has received only scant attention. Pite, a
relatively unsung academic, is more ready on the whole to chance his arm,
whereas Tomalin, 'a doyenne of literary
Jonathan Bate, Times Literary Supplement
December 6, 2006
Claire Tomalin THOMAS HARDY: The time-torn man
512pp. Viking. £25. 0 670 91512 2
THOMAS HARDY: The guarded life
524pp. Picador. £25. 0 330 48186 X
To write the Life of Thomas Hardy is an epic undertaking. You have to disinter two complicated marriages, while wading through the interminable Dynasts and the no longer famous Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall. Epic must begin not stolidly ab ovo in the manner of traditional biography, but arrestingly in medias res. The first decision is therefore the choice of vignette for your prologue. Ralph Pite and Claire Tomalin begin as follows: “You have to leave your car in the car park and walk up the lane” and “In November of 1912 an ageing writer lost his wife”. Admirers of Tomalin’s work will have no difficulty in assigning these openings to their respective authors, not least because she is too elegant and economic a writer ever to use the word “car” twice in any sentence, let alone the all-important first one. Her best books are about marriages or quasi-marital relationships: Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, above all Dora Jordan and the future King William IV. Her prologue accordingly turns Emma, the first Mrs Hardy, into a version of the madwoman in the attic, sleeping alone on the top floor of Max Gate, reading and writing all day in a second attic room, having her breakfast and lunch brought up by her maid. The writerly decision to take the trouble to record the latter’s name (Dolly) is the authentic Tomalin touch.
Emma dies and the second paragraph begins with a bold claim: “This is the moment when Thomas Hardy became a great poet”. The remainder of the prologue is devoted to a highly sensitive account of the “Poems of 1912–13”, those extraordinary elegies of tender, guilty, evanescent remembrance in which Hardy recaptured his Cornish courtship of 1870. Tomalin is right: they are without question among the greatest poems of the twentieth century – and among the most influential, for they laid the ground for the reaction against high modernism, the achievement of Philip Larkin and the Elegies of Douglas Dunn. The trajectory from Victorian novelist to modern poet should be at the heart of a Hardy biography, so Tomalin’s desire to move between the marriages and the works is fully justified by the fact that the novel-writing took off just at the moment when Hardy met Emma, then came grinding to a halt as the marriage finally hit the rocks in the mid-1890s. Emma’s disapproval of the sexual frankness of the book that critics dubbed “Jude the Obscene” is often cited as another cause of the turn away from novels. Michael Millgate, however, who remains Hardy’s most authoritative biographer, reminds us that one reason Hardy could devote himself wholly to poetry from this time onward was that he could afford to, after the success of the first collected edition of his novels in 1895–6 and as a result of the shift to the payment of regular royalties on sales, as opposed to a lump sum on publication. Nor should we imagine that the twentieth-century Hardy lost all interest in his Victorian novels: he was an inveterate tinkerer with his work, a matter about which neither new biographer has much to say. Tomalin offers more on the formidable Max Gate dog named Wessex than the extensive revisions undertaken for the late Wessex Edition, while Pite carelessly refers to the 1895–6 Osgood, McIlvaine uniform edition as the “Wessex Edition” (its strapline was in fact “Wessex Novels” – “Wessex Edition” was the title of the Macmillan series that began to appear in 1912).
To return to the beginning, and Professor Pite
parking his car at Higher Bockhampton, a National
Trust property which has recently advertised for a resident curator who must be
prepared to entertain visitors in the way that Hardy did at Max Gate, on an
almost daily basis after the First World War. Pite
starts here partly because he assumes that the majority of readers of a
biography published under a trade as opposed to an academic imprint will regard
Hardy as a “heritage” author, wrapped in the shroud of West Dorset tourism
(“Discover the heart of Hardy’s
Tomalin, meanwhile, follows in Hardy’s footsteps on the three-mile walk from Higher Bockhampton to his school in the centre of
Tomalin has a passing mention of the railway
all the places Henchard goes to during the
novel lie on the old coach road from
Tomalin is more interested in bicycles. One reason why her illustrations are superior to Pite’s is that they include a splendid photograph of the aged Hardy clutching “The Rover Cob”. Emma Hardy learnt to ride a bike at the age of fifty-five and persuaded her husband to join her. Being slightly lame, she found the bicycle served her as “a substitute horse, and she even talked about going for a canter”. She had costumes made to match the colour of her bikes, first a green one (“The Grasshopper”), then a blue. For Tomalin, the fragile marriage was at its best out on the dusty lanes, “because it is difficult to keep up a quarrel or a sulk as you pedal along country roads”. Hardy had a not unjustified reputation for grumpiness and parsimony, but he spent £20 on his “Rover Cob” and never regretted it. “I have almost forgotten that there is such a pursuit as literature”, he wrote to Grant Allen, “in the arduous study of – bicycling!” For Tomalin, the biking was a shared enthusiasm kept up well into the new century. It is her device for redeeming the painful latter years of Hardy’s first marriage. Pite takes a more jaundiced view, dwelling on the tour that the Hardys undertook in the summer of 1896, which offered them respite from the black critical reception accorded to Jude the Obscure. They headed for
Both biographers return to that first meeting several times, before bringing the wheel full circle with the elegiac “Poems of 1912–13”. In March 1870, Hardy, approaching his thirtieth birthday, was an aspiring author in private but an ecclesiastical architect by profession. He was commissioned to survey the decaying parish church of the tiny
Four and a half years later, they married. Hardy may have been a reluctant groom. The rest of the story provides Tomalin with the main thread of her narrative. Always childless, they gradually drifted apart. After twenty unsatisfactory years came the final straw: Hardy published the immoral and irreligious Jude the Obscure, deeply offending the sensibility of the pious Emma. They spent more and more time apart; he became interested in other women and she retreated to that attic. Immediately on her death, filled with remorse, he began writing the “Poems of 1912–13”, included as a discrete section within Satires of Circumstance, the volume of verse he published in 1914. The second half of the sequence was written during a return visit to
The essence of these elegies is the thought that for us humans the significance of a place comes not from geographical particulars but from personal associations and memories. “Why go to St Juliot?”, Hardy asks in the poem written just before he set off on the journey of return. Before getting on the train, he already knows that there is a deep sense in which the meaning of the place has been extinguished together with the life of the person who embodied it: “Does there even a place like Saint-Juliot exist? / Or a
“Every woman who makes a permanent impression on a man is usually recalled
to his mind’s eye as she appeared in one particular scene, which seems ordained
to be her special form of manifestation throughout the pages of his memory.” So
wrote Hardy, and he described a woman sitting by candlelight at the piano, her
hands in place on the keys, her lips parted as she sings a setting of a sad
love poem by Shelley. This must be his memory of one of those first evenings
with Emma. It comes, however, from a work of fiction rather than a memoir. It
occurs early in his third published novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes, which appeared
in monthly instalments in 1872–3. The commission for
serial publication (in Tinsleys’ Magazine) was his
breakthrough as a novelist. The story begins with the arrival of a young
architect at a remote rectory on the Cornish coast. He has been commissioned to
survey the parish church with a view to restoration. The Rector is in bed with
gout, so the visitor is met by a young woman. She stands in the pulpit while he
works in the church; they wander together on the cliffs; in the evenings she
plays the piano and sings; they fall in love. “Has the reader ever seen a
winsome girl in a pulpit?”, asks the narrator; “Perhaps not. Nor has the
writer; but he knows somebody who has and who can never forget that sight.” Ah
yes, that old trick: what would you say to a friend of mine who’s got this
little problem . . . . The direct authorial voice is clumsy there, the pretence
that the experience was not his own hardly credible. Hardy must have blushed to
read this passage when he revised the text of A Pair of Blue Eyes for the 1895
collected edition of his novels. In an act of good judgement,
he cut it. In the biography of Hardy written by his second wife – in reality a
ghosted autobiography – the connection between the opening sequence of A Pair
of Blue Eyes and the author’s first sight of Emma at St Juliot
was acknowledged: “the character and appearance of Elfride
have points in common with those of Mrs Hardy in
quite young womanhood”. But the autobiography also claims that the plot of the
novel had been conceived and written down long before the author met his Emma.
What Hardy had in mind when making that claim was his draft of a first novel,
The Poor Man and the Lady, written over two years before he went to
The autobiography also denied that the character of the young architect in A Pair of Blue Eyes, Stephen Smith, was a picture of the author’s own personality. Hardy maintained that he himself had a greater resemblance to the other member of the novel’s love triangle, Henry Knight, a
Her book has great charm and is effortlessly readable. Its most valuable contribution is to open up the poems for the benefit of the many readers who know only the novels. It does, however, lack the intellectual meat required by those with an appetite for a full understanding of Hardy’s achievement. In particular, there is a failure to grasp the extent to which, in the course of preparing The Return of the Native, Hardy undertook a programme of reading in philosophy and aesthetics, traceable in his Literary Notebooks, with which he sought to reach beyond the label of “rural novelist” (the biographer who remains most acute on developments of this kind is Robert Gittings). Pite’s book is spikier and less assured in tone, more nuanced as criticism than biography. It struggles to make Hardy nicer than he was, but offers rich insights into the relationship between the novels and the process of social change in late nineteenthcentury rural
Jonathan Bate is the author of John Clare: A biography,
2004. He is Professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature at the
By Tim Parks
by Claire Tomalin Penguin, 486 pp., $35.00
Tomalin does suggest that "part of the answer might be
that he was writing at a time when
Another question that remains largely unanswered is why Hardy stopped writing novels relatively early on. He was fifty-five when Jude was published. It was his fourteenth novel. He was at the height of his powers. Yet in the thirty-two years that remained to him he would never write another. Tomalin accepts Hardy's claim that he always thought of himself as a poet and was now sufficiently wealthy to withdraw from fiction and concentrate on his verse. Yet a certain mystery remains. Was there some relation between the extreme pessimism of Jude and the decision to stop writing novels? Why was poetry more congenial to Hardy and what is the relation between the two sides of his work?
Hardy was born more dead
than alive in the small
Frail, not expected to survive, Hardy was kept at home till age eight, learning to read and play the fiddle from his parents. His mother would always refer to him as "her rather delicate 'boy,'" while in his memoirs Hardy recalls that he did not want to grow "to be a man...but to remain as he was, in the same spot, and to know no more people than he already knew."
The desire to be spared adult experience is repeated in Jude the Obscure: "If only he could prevent himself growing up!" Jude thinks. All Hardy's major novels present us with a child, or childish adult, who is thrust too soon into the world. Orphans abound and even where parents are present the issue of protection is paramount. "All these young souls," we hear of Tess and her six siblings in Tess of the D'Ubervil!es (1891), "were...entirely dependent on the judgment of the two Durbeyfield adults." In the event, Tess is sent off into service dressed in such a way that "might cause her to be estimated as a woman when she was not much more than a child." The consequences are disastrous.
But what was so hard about
growing up? Tomalin, who dwells long and usefully on
the author's childhood, recounts how, aged nine, Hardy fell in love with his
schoolteacher. One night, longing to see her, he escaped from home to a harvest
dance. There was a brief exciting encounter, after which, tired and afraid, he
had to wait till three in the morning to be brought home and scolded. Like a
scene in a Hardy novel, the anecdote presents a state of mind in which desire
and fear battle painfully for the upper hand. Throughout his life, perhaps influenced,
as Tomalin suggests, by his parents' shotgun wedding,
Hardy would be awed by the consequences of romantic and sexual experience. As a
boy he hated to be touched. Years later he would visit the widowed teacher at
"In the order of
things" for the adolescent Tom was a three-mile walk to a new school in
Aged twenty, Hardy received
his first salary and rented a room in town, returning home at the weekends.
Thus began a long habit of oscillation between separate worlds, and between
independence and safety. In
One of Hardy's finest
novels is entitled The Return of the Native (1878), and the phrase might
aptly be applied to many moments in his own life. For after five years in the
capital, years in which he found a job with an architects' firm, won two Architectural
Association prizes, made friends, and courted girls, in 1867 he 'fell ill,'
"felt...weak," and abandoned everything to go home. In The Return
of the Native, nothing is less convincing than the motives given by the
handsome Clym for his return to his village after
five successful years in the jewelry business in
Aside from health, Hardy's
ostensible reason for leaving
It is usually said of The
Poor Man and the Lady that it was rejected for publication; much is made of
Hardy's sufferings as an aspiring man from a poor background seeking acceptance
No doubt this was hard for
Perhaps, then, rather then
being rejected outright, Hardy had taken Meredith's advice against publication.
He would also describe The Poor Man and the Lady as telling "the
life of an isolated student cast upon the billows of
Despite his background,
Hardy published his first (determinedly harmless) novel at thirty-one and his
second at thirty-two, at which point, with a contract signed for a third, this
time serialized, novel he was able to dedicate himself entirely to writing.
Even today such an achievement would be remarkable.
Meanwhile, Hardy's last
year in an architect's office brought him to an even more momentous initiation
than those of city living and publication. Sent to
When I set out for Lyonnesse
A hundred miles away
The rime was on the spray
And starlight lit my lonesomeness
When I set out for Lyonnesse
A hundred miles away
What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there
No prophet durst declare
Nor did the wisest wizard guess
What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there
When I came back from Lyonesse
With magic in my eyes
All marked with mute surmise
My radiance rare and fathomless
When I came back from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes!
Typical of Hardy is the presentation of a before and after, with, elided from the middle, an experience that transforms absolutely, but cannot be spoken. Here the transformation is positive; more often, and particularly where sexual rather than romantic experience is involved, it will be negative. After the beautiful young Tess has been deflowered by the rake into whose service her parents so carelessly sent her, we hear: "An immeasurable chasm was to divide our heroine's personality thereafter from [her] previous self…."
In love, Hardy did not hurry to marriage. His mother was against it. Emma was middle class, and such a union would complete her son's move away from his family. She was also penniless. Emma's father was against her marrying downward. So there was good reason for delaying and enjoying four years of romantic correspondence. Again and again in Hardy's novels, which are above all stories of attempted partnerships, one partner will prefer "perpetual betrothal" to consummation. Sexual experience, when it comes, will be all-determining, fatal even. Or will it? It is on this question that all Hardy's fiction turns.
In Far from the Madding
Crowd (1874), Hardy's fourth novel and first major success, comedy
prevails. Written while Emma was still at a safe distance in
Having married in
1874, Hardy began to move Emma back and forth from
In 1880, however, in
Designed by Hardy
himself, Max Gate, as the house was called, was small, unimaginative, and
surrounded by a protective belt of trees which he would never allow anyone to
prune. Guests complained that it was suffocating. Once installed, Tom and Emma
promptly rented accommodation in
a man's feelings too often take a new course Eastern ideas of
matrimony secretly pervade his thoughts, and he wearies of the most
perfect, and suitable wife chosen in his earlier life.
In short, Hardy had adultery in mind. It was an exciting and anxious period, during which he produced two of the finest novels in the English language, Tess and Jude.
Returning pregnant to her family after her catastrophic period in service, Tess gives birth to a baby that promptly dies. Vowing never to marry, she goes as a milkmaid to a farm far enough away for her shame not to be known. Here she meets the perfect man, Angel Clare, trainee gentleman farmer. The scene is set for Hardy's characteristically tantalizing mix of desire and trepidation. To raise the tension, both characters and their possible but difficult union are made enormously attractive. Here is Tess after an afternoon nap, viewed by Clare:
She had not heard him enter, and hardly realized his presence there. She
was yawning, and he saw the red interior of her mouth as if it had been
a snake's. She had stretched one arm so high above her coiled-up cable
of hair that he could see its satin delicacy above the sunburn; her face
was flushed with sleep, and her eyelids hung heavy over their pupils.
The brimfulness of her nature breathed from her …. With an oddly
compounded look of gladness, shyness, and surprise, she exclaimed—
"O Mr Clare! How you frightened me…."
Hardy wished, he said, to "demolish the doll of English fiction," to present woman's real sexuality. He is rightly given credit for doing so. But there was no question of a campaign for female emancipation. What mattered was the freedom to evoke the lure and terror of sexual experience. Who but Hardy would have compared the inside of a girl's mouth to a snake's? Not only threatening in her beauty, the woman is also frightened herself. Here, somewhat earlier, is the couple's first conversation alone:
"What makes you draw off in that way, Tess?" said he. "Are you afraid?"
"Oh no, sir...not of outdoor things; especially just now when the apple-
blooth is falling, and everything so green."
"But you have your indoor fears—eh?"
"I couldn't quite say."
"The milk turning sour?"
"Life in general?"
"Ah—so am I, very often. This hobble of being alive is rather serious,
don't you think so?"
Two "tremulous lives" move toward consummation. Will Tess be forgiven her early calamity? Will Angel overcome class divisions to marry her? In short, is life a tragedy, or a comedy? In the bustle of the farmhouse amusing stories of infidelity are staple fare. Farcically, three other milkmaids are also swooning over Angel Clare. Perhaps life is not so serious. Yet when Angel kisses Tess and she responds with "unreflecting inevitableness" we are told that "the pivot of the universe [changed] for their two natures."
Tess finds the courage to write a letter to Clare about her old trouble. She puts it under his door but there is a carpet on the other side, beneath which the note is invisible. Hardy is accused of introducing too many coincidences into his work. Tomalin seems to agree with the accusations. But coincidences have the effect of confusing the issue of responsibility, begging the question of fatality. They also give us the impression that a chance meeting or a mislaid letter can be quite as devastating to an individual life as any class discrimination or moral hypocrisy. There are simply so many things to be scared of.
Her secret untold, the couple marry. At last they are alone. No one can interfere. The lovemaking toward which a hundred and more sensuous pages have been leading is imminent. Clare chooses this moment to confess to an old sin of "eight-and-forty hours' dissipation with a stranger." Tess instantly forgives him and responds with her own history. Angel instantly rejects her. There will be no sex.
The scene is an extraordinary one. Suddenly, both lovers' fears are entirely confirmed. For Angel, Tess is a different person; the decision to marry a girl from the lower classes has proved a terrible error: "I repeat, the woman I have been loving is not you." With "terror...upon her white face," Tess feels all the weight of Victorian morals and class prejudice crash down upon her. Meantime, the reader cannot help feeling that both partners were rather too ready to see the "terrifying bliss" of sexual love thwarted. Sooner than expected, "having nothing more to fear," Tess falls asleep. Two days later, of her own accord, she returns home.
The novel bitterly divided its Victorian public. "Dinner parties had to be rearranged," Tomalin tells us, "to take account of the warring opinions." Was Tess, as the book's subtitle provocatively claimed, "A Pure Woman" or, as many suspected, a "little harlot"? Victorians were used to thinking of sexual behavior in
moral terms, good or evil. But Hardy had other polarities in mind. His characters are bold or afraid, generous or mean, strong or weak. He insists on Tess's innocence. To make matters worse, Victorian justice is nevertheless done; Tess dies on the gallows after murdering the man who first deflowered her and who now returns to ruin her life again. But this is so extreme as to be a travesty of justice, a horror story. Poring over the conundrum, Victorians were invited to suspect that the moral rhetoric in which they smothered sexual mores was a pathetic cover for deep underlying phobia. This was far more disquieting than a story that was merely scurrilous.
While Tomalin is excellent at stressing the radical nature of Hardy's attack on this aspect of Victorian society, she tends to pass over its peculiar nature and hence is left a little perplexed by the distance between the rebellious position Hardy takes in his novels and the strict conformity of his life. Discussing the fact that his midlife flirtations never led to very much, she tells us about the reluctance of the ladies to get between the sheets but never questions Hardy's own ardor. Here are the closing lines from a poem about being ensconced, during a rainstorm, "snug and warm" in a stationary hansom cab with a possible mistress:
Then the downpour ceased...
...and out she sprang to her door:
I should have kissed her if the rain
Had lasted a minute more.
As so frequently in the novels, an external event offers an excuse for inaction. The famous author would never become an adulterer. The obstacle was not morality.
While Hardy's lush
lingering over budding womanhood has always been a problem for critics, when
the same treatment was given to the English countryside he could only be
applauded. Indeed, for many Hardy's representation of landscape and country
life, his creation, through a series of novels, of an imaginative world he
Far from the Madding Crowd begins with a shepherd tending his flock on Norcombe Hill,
...a featureless convexity of chalk and soil—an ordinary specimen of
those smoothly outlined protuberances of the globe which may remain
undisturbed on some great day of confusion when far grander heights
and dizzy granite precipices topple down.
This is Hardy's deepest
attraction to his
In The Return of the Native all action takes place on wild heathland. In the chapter entitled "The Figure against the Sky," a woman is seen standing on an ancient barrow that commands the dark landscape beneath. "Her extraordinary fixity, her conspicuous loneliness, her heedlessness of night, betokened among other things an utter absence of fear."
Passionate Eustacia is looking for her lover. This bold detachment from both landscape and community is a position of maximum vulnerability, and glamour. How magnificent and very unwise of her not to be afraid. By the end of the novel, Eustacia's torment is such that, far from wishing to stand out, she seeks relief by sinking into the landscape, drowning herself in the weir.
Fortunately, it is possible in Hardy's view to alleviate suffering through partial rather than final merging with the natural world. Alone in a wood at night, for example, "the plight of being alive becomes attenuated to its least possible dimensions." So in happier moments Tess's "flexuous and stealthy figure became an integral part of the scene."
This yearning for absorption into nature is as much Hardy's as his characters'. How he relishes describing people ankle deep in leaves, covered with seed spores and cobwebs, surrounded by buzzing insects, butterflies on their breath, grasshoppers tumbling over their feet, dew on their hair, wind in their faces, rabbits at their feet, rain on their lips. What a pleasure for pen and personality to fuse themselves in vital, impersonal landscape. What a pity such restful retreats from adult life cannot last, or not until, as Tess reassures herself at one point, we will all at last be "grassed down and forgotten."
A powerful death wish drives Hardy's writing. Tomalin is uneasy with it, scrupulously documenting its manifestations but playing down its import. The fascinating tension that thus develops between biographer and subject makes it clear that Hardy is as challenging today as he was for the Victorians, albeit in different ways. The following note written in 1888 is quoted by Tomalin as an example merely of a "fanciful" idea:
If there is any way of getting a melancholy satisfaction out of life it lies
in dying, so to speak, before one is out of the flesh; by which I mean
putting on the manners of ghosts . Hence even when I enter into a
room to pay a simple morning call I have unconsciously the habit of
regarding the scene as if I were a spectre not solid enough to influence
The desire to remain a child and be spared life and the desire to be a ghost and beyond life are closely linked. In between, terrible in its intensity, is adulthood. One could usefully think of Hardy the storyteller as a ghost within his own fiction, accompanying his fearful child-adults through the initiations that will lead them to wish they were dead and indeed to die, if not through suicide, at least without much resistance.
If Hardy hoped, however, that a writer, like a ghost, was not "solid enough to influence [his] environment," he should have remembered George Meredith's warning of years before. In the Victorian Age a novel could cause a stir and if Tess had charmed as much as it shocked, Jude only shocked. "Jude the Obscene," "a shameful nightmare," critics wrote.
Renouncing the reassuring descriptions of country life, the pleasing chorus of village rustics, with Jude Hardy arrives at the core of his defeatist vision. A poor orphan trying to hide from life in scholarship has a rude awakening when seduced by a raw country girl. Married and separated in a matter of pages, he falls in love with a refined cousin, Sue, a girl so terrified by sex that when she marries a much older man to escape Jude, she denies him consummation, returns to Jude in the hope that he will be willing to live with her without sex, then gives herself to him only when she fears that physical need will drive him back to his wife.
This is not easy material in any age. Coincidences and misfortunes abound. When the child got from Jude's wife kills the children got from Sue and then himself, it is the death of hope tout court, the proof that all attempts to achieve happiness will end in disaster. It is better not to try. To provoke his Victorian readers further, Hardy again offered an ending mockingly in line with their moral convictions: appalled by the death of her illegitimate children, Sue gets religion and returns to her husband while Jude is seduced by his wife and returns to her shortly before his death. The shape of Victorian justice is thus again in place, as a nightmare.
Sensitive to reviews, Hardy was shaken by the storm over Jude and the consequences for his writing were profound. His novels had always been structured as melodramatic explorations of his own dilemmas, and the characters, as he said himself, "express mainly the author"; now, with his emotional life, as Tomalin shows, absolutely stalled, with his wife declaring publicly that she loathed Jude, it must have been clear that any further work of fiction would be disturbing to write and uncomfortable to publish. As a poet, on the other hand, he might more easily play the cryptic and inconsequential ghost; it was a medium that spared him too much narrative, too much contact with those great sufferers, his characters.
Tomalin accepts Hardy's insistence that he concentrated on poetry because it required fewer compromises than fiction; with this acceptance goes the implication that his poetry is superior to his prose. But there is nothing that Hardy put in his poems that he did not put far more strongly in a novel, nor is there much sign of compromise in Jude. By comparison, the long and tedious patriotic poem The Dynasts (1904) is a dull appeal for public approval. Meantime, Hardy's many short lyrics, beautifully wry, their deep pessimism traveling under a passport of charm, were carefully pitched so as not to inflame public debate.
1889 Tom and Emma were sleeping in
separate beds. She had begun to write furious attacks on him in her diary.
Hardy continued his sterile flirtations and never missed attending a funeral.
In the mid-1890s they took up bicycling together. It offered a circumscribed
adventure, a tolerable togetherness. In 1905 the twenty-six-year-old Florence Dugdale appeared on the exhausted scene, flattered both
partners, and soon became part of their lives. When Emma died in 1912,
Hardy had always shied away
from conflict. He never made political statements and avoided personal
arguments. Yet his writing had always caused offense. The natives of
The formula was simple: the aging widower is allowed a glimpse of his wife as she was when he first met her long ago. So we have the moment of first love and, simultaneously, the sad relief of afterward, with nothing in between but a poignant forty-year gap. Here is "The Voice":
Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me
But as at first, when our day was fair.
Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!
Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?
Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.
Real ghost and would-be
ghost dissolve together into mist and verse.
Any biographer of Hardy faces the problem that he lived long after there was anything to report. Still, his death in 1928 affords Tomalin an excellent anecdote. Hardy's wish was to be buried in the local churchyard at Stinsford: home. His literary friends wanted him at Westminster Abbey: town. In life he had been able to go back and forth between the two, but for a corpse this was impossible. The problem was solved with a gruesome bit of surgery: his heart was buried at Stinsford and his body cremated and interred in the Abbey. The decision about which part should go where was definitely right, but it was a compromise that left everyone dissatisfied.
It has been suggested in
these pages in recent years, for example by John Updike and J.M. Coetzee, that
we have little need of literary biography, that practically everything an
author had to tell us is already present in his work. Well, reason not the
need. Claire Tomalin's biography, admirable particularly
in filling in the separate settings of Dorset and
In her new biography of Thomas Hardy, Claire Tomalin suggests that "reading Jude is like being hit
in the face over and over again" (254). These remarks, while evoking the
novel's harrowing bleakness, also capture the fraught and stinging experience
of reading one of Tomalin's more prolix precursors.
Martin Seymour-Smith's wildly eccentric Hardy (1994), for example, dedicated
much of its immense length to contesting, with blunt fury, Michael Millgate's definitive authority. The index to
Seymour-Smith's truculent tome lists about eighty references to Millgate, while Hardy's first wife Emma garners only
sixty-eight and second wife
Tomalin begins her book, which was released in the US in 2007 as Thomas Hardy, by focusing on Poems of 1912–13, describing the death of Emma Hardy as "the moment when Thomas Hardy became a great poet" (xvii). This is an arresting but reductive view of how felt sensation is transmuted into poetic expression, and it is worth recalling that Hardy had already composed some exceptional poems such as "I Look into My Glass" (1898) and "In Tenebris" (1902). Tomalin contends that "the contradictions always present in Hardy, between the vulnerable, doomstruck man and the serene [End Page 543] inhabitant of the natural world" may actually have been better conveyed through the imaginative patterns of his verse. The extended series of questioning, penitential elegies for Emma are, to Tomalin "one of the finest and strangest celebrations of the dead in English poetry," and she observes of their author: "The more risks he takes the less he falters" (xx). Perhaps Tomalin herself could have taken more risks with her subject. She psychologizes Hardy's dour disenchantment as an anguished reaction to personal trauma, but surely it is a cast of his writerly sensibility? Tomalin tends to reproduce the stereotype of a monolithically "pessimistic" author grimly dissecting the injustices of a world from which God has already absconded and which must now make the bitter adjustments enforced by modernity. This construction of Hardy—paralyzed by an intractable sense of deprivation—is the authorized version promoted through university lectures.
What I find in Hardy's status as a cultural embalmer, and in
his obsessive fixation upon the dead, is rather different: a bizarre but
compelling quality of wit. Tomalin says little about
why Hardy's sometimes playful irregularities of tone and narrative tactic are
so oddly enabled and stimulated by the fossil fragments of a lost yesterday.
Hardy's perverse playfulness releases a creative gusto in sharp contrast to the
unrelieved starkness of Tomalin's perception: her
portrait of the "doomstruck" man consumed
by the craft of writing, remorselessly draining vigour
and brio out of the living, and turning his house at Max Gate, near
Tomalin's years of experience as a biographer have taught her the skills of summarising a novel in a few pages, appending measured and mature judgements in a paragraph or two. But Tomalin's brisk summarising often misrepresents the sophisticated scepticism imbuing the fictions produced at the end of Hardy's novel-writing career. This is especially true of The Well-Beloved (1892; 1897), whose flaunting of its own idiosyncrasies puckishly subverts our generic and sentimental expectations. The novel deserves (and receives in Keith Wilson's collection) more sustained and subtle scrutiny than is offered in Tomalin's cursory evaluation.
Tomalin is persuasive, however, when delineating the cultural context of Hardy's slow rise into the bourgeoisie and then toward the upper echelons of authorship. Tomalin projects Hardy as a complex case study in late-Victorian literary sociology. She vividly narrates Hardy's modest victories over the petty repressions of class and his determined defiance when confronted by editorial alarm at his mordantly egalitarian beliefs. She also clarifies the deep dislocations that lay behind his success. The Hardy who is still misperceived as a cloyingly sentimental rustic pastoralist comprehended the capital well enough to call himself a Londoner; he was a family man who remained childless and managed to seem both loyal and oblivious to Emma. After spending a lifetime disparaging the established values and facile pretensions of Victorian England, he ended up as one of the establishment's favourite writers, while never feeling truly embraced as a "gentleman."