BOOKS AND ARTS FEBRUARY 19, 2007
By Claire Tomalin
(Penguin Press, 486 pp., $35)
Thomas Hardy's life could have made a novel: a poor provincial boy rises to unthinkable eminence by dint of talent and sheer hardwork, overcoming every obstacle placed in his way. But people havestopped writing novels like that, and one of the reasons is Thomas Hardy. Hardy changed his life by changing the way novels werewritten, discarding their familiar patterns and their reflexive optimism. He is the father of some of English modernism's mostradical discoveries, and the grandfather, through Faulkner, of muchof what has mattered in global fiction since World War II. Andthen, well into his fifties and at the peak of his success, he gaveup writing fiction altogether, launching the most improbable majorcareer in English poetry. Divided between two genres, his careerwas also divided between two centuries, and fittingly so, since hiswork is everywhere marked by the transition from the Victorian tothe modern age—from faith to skepticism, from prudery to frankness, from belief in progress to despair before an indifferent universe. Indeed, his imaginative power and his iron clarity wereinstrumental in bringing that transition about. Hardy belonged tothe generation that grappled with the death of God before it had hardened into its own easy orthodoxy. The boy born into rural Dorset in the first years of Queen Victoria's reign is still in many ways more modern than we are.
Claire Tomalin's new biography gets in pretty much everything that matters about Hardy's story and does it with impressive economy,wit, and grace. Tomalin, the author of seven previous biographies,including lives of Jane Austen and Samuel Pepys, is building hereon the work of Michael Millgate, the dean of Hardy studies. Millgate's biography, recently republished in a revised edition,will remain the scholarly standard; but Tomalin does so much sowell precisely because she does not try to supplant Millgate, thus relieving herself of the obligation to be comprehensive. Millgate marches chronologically through the details of Hardy's life,whereas Tomalin permits herself to step back and appraise wholeperiods at once, giving a stronger sense of its larger movements.Her lifetime of work in the nineteenth century enables her to evoke conditions and contexts—what London smelled like, what itsliterary world felt like—with a swift hand. Her lifetime of writing biographies gives her the imaginative power to draw scenes colorfully and intuit motives convincingly. Details are cunningly chosen; important ancillary characters get mini-biographies oftheir own. Tomalin's style is simple, terse, and at times even grand, with flashes of humor and mordant wit. Her biography is poetry to Millgate's prose, but if Hardy's own poetry, as Pound said, was made possible by his prose, Tomalin's was made possible by Millgate's.
THE DOMINANT SOCIAL FACT of the world into which Hardy was born was class, and it remained in many ways the dominant social fact of his entire life. In the Dorset of 1840, the year of his birth, the traditional structure of rural society was still largely intact. In Tomalin's words, this remote and backward county remained a place where "those who owned the land and those who worked it were hardlythought of as belonging to the same species." Hardy's family was poor, but they were not indigent, a distinction of enormous importance both to them and to him—as was every one of the infinitesimal gradations of the English class system, to everyone. Not long before Hardy's birth, a local boy, hanged for merely witnessing an act of political vandalism, had to have weights hung from his half-starved body to force his neck to break. But Hardy's father was a self-employed builder—a step above the laborers, a step below the farmers, a whole Jacob's ladder below the gentry.
Still, if the class system in Dorset remained largely untouched by modernity, it had begun to relax just enough to allow Hardy's formidably strong-willed mother to dream of a better life for her bright, sensitive, bookish son. It was she who insisted that he get an education. By sixteen, he was apprentice to an architect in the nearby town of Dorchester—and finding himself the target of a sermon back home in which the local vicar preached against the presumption of members of the lower orders who aspired to join the professions. It was a slight that Hardy never forgot, and he went on to make novel after novel out of the drama of thwarted ambition.The opportunity for self-improvement made Hardy's life possible,but the resistance that he encountered gave it its texture. His career, his art, his consciousness— all are unthinkable outsidethe context of an entrenched class system that had begun to give ground, but only an inch at a time.
As with many self-made men, the amount of effort that went into Hardy's self- creation is enough to make one weep. He never intended to become an architect; architecture was just a way toearn a living until he could pursue his true passion, poetry. His plan was to go to university, find a living as a parson, and writein his hours of leisure, as many clergymen did. But he as yet had nothing like the education, nor his father anything like the money,that would have made university possible. So he kept swotting away on his own, as Jude Fawley was to do in his last novel: at his books by 5 a.m. to get in three hours of reading before heading offon the long daily walk to Dorchester, adding Greek to hiscontinuing study of Latin.
AT TWENTY-ONE, Hardy went up to London to advance his architecturalcareer, and it was around this time that he began the incrediblelabor—with no training, no encouragement, and no guide—of willinghimself into existence as a poet. He worked from six to midnightevery evening. He bought copies of Milton, Thomson, and Coleridge,an Introduction to English Literature, a Standard PronouncingDictionary (which says a lot about where he came from and how hefelt about it), and a Rhyming Dictionary. He bought notebooks andfilled them with vocabulary-building exercises, imitations,coinages, memoranda about specific literary effects, and pages andpages of quotations. He started jotting down notes about what hewas seeing, reading, feeling, overhearing— ideas and images andphrases on which he would draw throughout his life. He also startedwriting poems such as this one, which gives a fair sample not onlyof his presumptive feelings at the time, but of the sardonic witthat would characterize much of his later verse:
A senseless school, where we must
Our lives that we may learn to live!
A dolt is he who memorizes
Lessons that leave no time for prizes.
What he was not doing was publishing any of those poems, and by thetime Hardy turned twenty-six he had given up on his dream of auniversity education followed by a lifetime of idle hours in therectory—the recognition that probably precipitated the foregoingepigram. The next year he took ill, and when his old Dorchesterboss wrote to offer him a job, he came back from London, after fiveyears, with his tail between his legs. He had few prospects, littlemoney, and virtually no connections in the literary world. But hedid have one thing: the beginnings of a novel.
WHERE THAT NOVEL CAME from is the biggest mystery of Hardy'sliterary career, beyond the fact that he was able to have one atall. Neither Millgate nor Tomalin is able to shed light on it,since the record of Hardy's life at the time is too scant to tellus when or why he decided to try his hand at fiction. One minute heis sweating over his verse and dabbling in literary journalism, thenext he is launching himself into a novel whose 450-page first drafthe would pour out in five months. The mystery is deepened by thefact that the novel was never published, and none of itsmanuscripts survive.
We do have a title, though, and it tells us quite a bit by itself.The book was called The Poor Man and the Lady. The situation thusnamed was to become Hardy's archetypal plot, the theme he wouldpursue for the bulk of his novelistic career, and it uncovers alltoo nakedly the extent to which his personality had been shaped byclass. In both his art and his life, the lady was for Hardy whatthe shiksa was to be for Philip Roth (or for Alexander Portnoy):the nexus of sexual and social desire, the ideal figure who wouldsymbolize and certify the outsider's acceptance. We also know fromindirect evidence that the novel was a bitter satire against theupper classes, as if Hardy were unloading years of accumulatedresentment toward the rejections and humiliations he had suffered.
Though the book was never published—mainly because it was soangry—it won Hardy just enough attention and encouragement toenable him to go on. Both Macmillan and Chapman & Hall turned itdown, but Macmillan's reader pronounced the young writer full of"stuff and promise," and Chapman & Hall's—it was GeorgeMeredith—encouraged him to try something with a "purely artisticpurpose" and a stronger plot. Hardy's response would set the patternof his novelistic career. It is one of the many paradoxes thatattend his life that Hardy, the most outspoken of Englishnovelists, was the most malleable to the demands of themarketplace. Time and again he would acquiesce as editors insistedon bowdlerizing his sexual frankness or toning down his iconoclasm.He was willing to do so because his novels came out twice: first inserial form, only later as individual volumes. It was the magazineeditors who saw to it that his novels contained nothing that couldshock a young lady. In book form, Hardy would put back everythingthey had taken out, and end up shocking not only the young lady,but her parents as well.
He put up with this laborious procedure because he regarded fictionas, above all, a way to make a living. His novels were by no meansdevoid of aesthetic or philosophical ambition, but unlike hiscontemporary Henry James, who disdained Hardy's work (and who didnot have to worry about making a living), Hardy treatednovel-writing as a craft, not an art. He wrote quickly— his firstnine books were published in the space of eleven years—and evenhis greatest novels, though great indeed, contain seriousimperfections. At the outset of his career, with his aching need tosucceed as a writer on any terms, he wrote whatever the editorswanted him to write, soaking up their suggestions as to how toappeal to the public's taste for excitement. As late as his fourthnovel—it was Far From the Madding Crowd—he was hastening to assurean editor that he wished "merely to be considered a good hand at aserial." Earlier still, after the failure of The Poor Man and theLady, his obeisance was even more urgent. The title of his firstpublished work captures all too well both the commercial demandsand the personal imperatives it was written to satisfy. It wascalled Desperate Remedies.
BY THE TIME HE SOLD IT, something equally momentous had happened:the poor man had met his lady. Hardy was still working as anarchitectural clerk when, a few months shy of his thirtiethbirthday, he was sent to the remote north coast of Cornwall to makedrawings for a planned church restoration. The rector was a goutyold man who lived with his young wife and her younger sister. Thelatter was genteel, graceful, and bold, with pink cheeks and awealth of dark gold curls. She was twenty-six, and her friendscalled her "the peony." She could play the piano, paintwatercolors, and sit a horse. She was the first lady to whom Hardyhad ever spoken on equal terms, and the coast where she lived waswild and windswept. By the time he left, four days later, they werein love. Her name was Emma Gifford, and her father was a solicitorwho had retired early to live off his mother's money and getspectacularly drunk. The money was nearly gone, which is why Emmawas sharing a rectory with a sister and an old man in the middle ofnowhere. But a lady she certainly was.
Hardy and Emma would go on to have one of the famously bad marriagesof their time, but during the four years of their courtship she wasinvaluable to him, and they faced the world together. Both familieswere outraged at the idea of the match. For Hardy's intenselyclannish mother, who preferred that her children not marry at all(a dictate obeyed by the other three), an impoverished gentlewomanwas the worst possible choice. For Emma's parents, Hardy wasliterally unspeakable: they met him once and never talked to himagain (which did not prevent some of their grandchildren fromapproaching him for help many years later). Emma stuck by him inpart because she aspired to a literary life, to write herself andto be the wife of a writer, and it was her belief in his vocationand her willingness to make sacrifices (architecture would haveprovided a better living, at least at first, and made for a quickermarriage) that gave him the courage to go on while success stillseemed so remote.
HARDY'S SECOND PUBLISHED novel, the lovely, idyllic Under theGreenwood Tree, should have set him on the course that led, onlymuch later, to his greatest achievements. That it did not is partof the drama of the ambitious young provincial that played out inso much of Hardy's life. The book introduces most of the elementsthat would come to characterize the Wessex novels: a rural setting,rustic characters, the use of regional dialect, and the depictionof local customs and beliefs. Most importantly, it frames thestories of its individual characters within the larger context of aclose-knit village community, and then frames the community itselfin the still larger context of nature. Yet though the book wasHardy's first success, he resisted repeating it, establishing thetortuous course he would follow for his next seven novels.
When Hardy wrote about the rural life he knew so intimately, heproduced his best and commercially most successful work, but hecontinued to insist on trying to prove that he could write aboutother things. He and Emma moved to London after their marriage,where he continued to make his way, contact by contact, into thecapital's literary world. He had returned to London, as he had comethe first time, to escape the limitations of his provincialupbringing, not to be shackled to it by getting himself labeled asa "regional" writer. So Under the Greenwood Tree was followed by APair of Blue Eyes; Far From the Madding Crowd by The Hand ofEthelberta; and The Return of the Native by The Trumpet Major, ALaodicean, and Two on a Tower, a trio of mediocrities about,respectively, the Napoleonic War, a millionaire's daughter, and anastronomer.
Hardy did not fully find his subject as a novelist until he hadrelocated himself in the territory of his youth. He and Emma leftLondon after only a couple of years (to her permanentconsternation, since the metropolitan social world was exactly whatshe wanted), but they continued to kick around among Dorsetresidences for nearly another decade, always keeping a warydistance from his mother. Finally Hardy purchased a plot of landscarcely two miles from the family cottage (where Hardys had livedfor three generations) and designed and built the house he wouldcall Max Gate. It is no accident that Max Gate rose during the veryyears Hardy wrote The Mayor of Casterbridge, the first novel of hisartistic maturity. What Hardy had stumbled upon in his earlysuccesses and then run away from, he now returned to with a firmerif still complex sense of identity and a far grander artisticvision.
Although the term "Wessex," taken from the name of an Anglo-Saxonkingdom and designed to evoke an immemorial past, had firstappeared in Far From the Madding Crowd, it was only in The Mayor ofCasterbridge that it became a fully formed geographical andhistorical idea. The Woodlanders, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, andJude the Obscure soon followed. Hardy reclaimed the world of hisyouth by re-imagining it as his own private aesthetic realm,compounded of memory, feeling, and scrupulous observation, one thatin his last four novels he would govern with potent, if troubled,artistic authority.
In so doing, he engendered not only Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County,but also the dominant thrust of postwar fiction. And he brought toa culmination one of the major strains of nineteenth-centuryEnglish fiction. Throughout the century, the English novel haddiffered from the French, the major continental tradition, byattending as much to provincial life as to life in the metropolis.England had Dickens, Thackeray, and Gaskell, but it also had Austen,the Brontes, and George Eliot. In Eliot, who absorbed Wordsworth asfully as any poet, the attention to nature, and also to the fullspectrum of provincial communities, from laborers to landowners,becomes acute. To this tradition Hardy brought not only an evengreater fullness of representation, especially with regard to thevillage as opposed to the town, but also his most importantcontribution: a tragic sense of the countryside's gradual butinevitable disappearance.
Eliot registers many of the changes rural life had been experiencingunder the impact of modernity's mental and material incursions, butHardy documents its complete destruction. The difference was partlya matter of timing. Eliot's provincial novels, published between1859 and 1872, concern events no later than about 1830. Hardy's,published from 1872 to 1895, take us all the way up to 1886. Hebegins with Under the Greenwood Tree, where the rural communityseems suspended still in pastoral timelessness; he ends with Judethe Obscure, where it no longer exists at all: its relicsdestroyed, its kindness cold, its wisdom null, its legends a rumor,its denizens scattered to a world of railroads and bewilderment.
If Hardy's novels sounded the death knell of the rural community inthe world's most advanced industrial nation, they also gave thebirth cry of the new fiction that would arise in the twentiethcentury on the periphery of the modern world. Hardy showed that thenovel, an indelibly modern genre, could be used to memorialize thetraditional cultures that modernity was destroying. It could do sonot just by recording traditional life, but also by taking into itswritten form the whole range of oral ones by which traditional lifehad always recorded itself: legend, superstition, ballad, folksong,pageant, dialect. And by bringing modern writing into contact withtraditional speech, modern thought with traditional belief, thenovel also inevitably reveals—as in Hardy's own often jarringphilosophical asides and awkward jumps in linguistic register— thedilemma of the provincial (or colonial) artist or intellectual:caught between two worlds, trying to negotiate their commercewithin both his society and his soul. These are the two maincharacteristics of the novel as it has arisen outside the West: theappropriation of traditional genres and the dramatization of theexperience of contact with modernity. If Hardy became the model forFaulkner, Faulkner became the model for the literature of thedeveloping world.
HARDY'S LAST NOVELS REPRESENT an enormous advance over his earlierones in another respect: their uncompromising tragic vision.Beginning with The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy dispensed with themost hallowed convention in English fiction, the happy ending. Healso became increasingly vocal in his rejection of Victorian sexualmorality: the double standard that condemned single mothers but nottheir partners, the stigmatization of divorce that sentencedunhappy couples to a lifetime of misery. Hardy became unrelentinglyfrank about both life's physicality and its difficulty, and hislate novels were consistently denounced as immoral and pessimistic.Those were related charges in Victorian England, whose chief faithwas a belief in progress, whether its agent be a benevolent deityor a benevolent humanity. Hardy believed in neither.
Like his contemporary Nietzsche, he rejected God in any form andread Darwin with attention. The universe, for Hardy, was not evenmalevolent, it was simply indifferent, and the emergence of aspecies aware of its own suffering was a kind of grim evolutionaryaccident. We could do a little to make things better for oneanother—he wouldn't have railed against social injustice if hehadn't believed that—but the structure of human existence wouldremain ineluctably tragic, the tragedy devoid of meaning. This isan abyss not easily stared into, and it is only in thequarter-century before World War I—Conrad is the other conspicuousexample among English novelists—that we find figures who were ableto do it. Already in the years after 1914 we see artists takingrefuge in alternative systems of meaning: Yeats's and Lawrence'shistorical mysticisms, Joyce's and Woolf's resurrection myths, T.S.Eliot's turn back to orthodoxy.
With their frankness and their pessimism, Hardy's late novels markthe beginning of modernism in English fiction. Conrad inherited hisintimations of cosmic darkness, Lawrence and Joyce his willingnessto expose the sexual dimensions of human experience. But what wasthe beginning for others was the end for him, though not for thereasons usually assigned. Received literary history tells us thatHardy gave up writing novels out of disgust at the outragedreaction provoked by Jude the Obscure, which may be the darkest andangriest novel ever written. Either that or because, having writtensuch a novel, he had, aesthetically, no place left to go. But thereverse is true on both counts: Hardy had already decided to stopwriting fiction, and he put everything he had long been feeling,including the class rage that hadn't seen written form since ThePoor Man and the Lady, into what he knew would be his last novel.
The real reason he decided to give up fiction was rather different:it had made him rich. The Woodlanders had secured his reputation asEngland's pre- eminent novelist, and Tess of the D'Urbervilles wasa huge best-seller. With the passage of a new copyright law in theUnited States, Hardy knew he would be able to live off hisroyalties from then on. (A shrewd businessmen and frugal manager,he would leave an estate of nearly L100,000.) The plan he hadlaunched twenty-eight years before had finally come to fruition. Hecould spend the rest of his life writing poetry.
HE WAS FIFTY-FIVE, AND HE could not have known that the rest of hislife would last for thirty-three years. Since the Romantics, if notsince Catullus, lyric poetry had been considered a young man's art,requiring youth's fervor and immediacy of response. Although Hardyhad never ceased making notes for and occasionally drafts of poems,his poetic career essentially began in late middle age. Nothingcomparable has happened before or since.
Hardy, who had been a delicate child, had somehow managed topreserve both the physical energy and the emotional urgency ofyouth, and would continue to do so until the end of his life. Hewould go on to publish more than a thousand lyric poems, includingsome of the twentieth century's finest verse, in addition to athree-volume dramatic epic called The Dynasts. He was a master ofdiction and prosody, and his poetic output is remarkably diverse inboth form and theme, comprising savage epigrams, charming naturestudies, acutely felt topical verse, and typically unsparingmeditations on human existence. Examples of the first include"Christmas: 1924," which gives the tenor of his religious views andmarks the limits of his social meliorism:
"Peace upon earth!" was said.
We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We've got as far as poison-gas.
The simplicity and sweet music of his nature poetry are evident in"Weathers":
This is the weather the cuckoo likes,
And so do I;
When showers betumble the chestnut
And nestlings fly:
And the little brown nightingale bills
And they sit outside at "The
And maids come forth sprig-muslin
And citizens dream of the south and
And so do I.
In "Drummer Hodge," one of his best-known poems, Hardy registers thegriefs of the Boer War, half a world away, by envisioning a simplesoldier's alien grave:
They throw in Drummer Hodge,
Uncoffined—just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the veldt around;
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound.
The rhythm is processional but unsentimental; the diction ("throwin," "breaks") persistently startling. In "During Wind and Rain,"widely considered among his finest poems, Hardy compresses histragic vision into a few lines whose jagged rhythms jar us with thework of time:
They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them—aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the
BUT HARDY PRODUCED HIS greatest verse in response to Emma's death.The couple's relationship seems to have cooled even before their wedding, and the subsequent decades only deepened theirestrangement. Emma was a vain and foolish woman who consideredherself superior to her husband by birth and only slightly hisinferior in literary talent. (In fact, she had no literary talentat all.) For his part, Hardy did to his wife what writers typicallydo, sacrificing marital intimacy to a single-minded devotion to hisart. The couple was childless, and Hardy directed his emotionselsewhere. He had always had a broad sentimental streak in hispersonal life, falling in love with acquaintances and evenpassersby at the drop of a hat (or glance). As his fame grew, hisopportunities to flirt with well-born beauties multiplied, thoughnone of his passions, most of which were one-sided and franklypathetic, was ever consummated.
As Tomalin notes, Emma was acute when she complained that Hardycared less for real women than for the ones he invented. She justfailed to realize that she would become his greatest invention ofall. Her death unleashed a flood of tenderness, grief, and guilt,and revived Hardy's memory of their earliest days, even while itdeepened his sense of the weight of the intervening time. He seemsto have spent the year after her death in a kind of extended poetictrance, producing poem after poem in her memory, and about memory.In "The Phantom Horsewoman," speaking of himself in the thirdperson, he evokes a vision of the young woman he had courted on theCornish coast:
A ghost-girl-rider. And though,
He withers daily,
Time touches her not,
But she still rides gaily
In his rapt thought
On that shagged and shaly
And as when first eyed
Draws rein and sings to the swing
of the tide.
The lines, as Tomalin notes, cast a spell against time, and on theirreader.
Hardy remained productive until the day he died; he was dictatingpoems on his deathbed. As the honors piled up, he retained anunpretentious manner and vivid interest in the things and peoplearound him, traits attested to by the steady stream of visitors,famous and obscure, who made the pilgrimage to Max Gate. Rathergruesomely—if, in retrospect, aptly—his heart was buried inDorset, the rest of his body in Poet's Corner. He was the firstnovelist buried at the Abbey since Dickens, the first poet sinceTennyson. He had outlasted the prejudices that had impeded him frombecoming a writer, and the prejudices that had tried to censor himonce he had become one. It was a result he had foretold in hiselegy on Swinburne:
I still can hear the brabble and
At those thy tunes, O still one,
now passed through
That fitful fire of tongues then
Their power is spent like spindrift
on this shore;
Thine swells yet more and
This article appeared in the February 19-26, 2007 issue of the magazine.