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 hard work, overcoming every obstacle placed in his way. But people have stopped writing novels like that, and one of the reasons is Thomas Hardy. Hardy changed his life by changing the way novels were written, discarding their familiar patterns and their reflexive optimism. He is the father of some of English modernism’s most radical discoveries, and the grandfather, through Faulkner, of much of what has mattered in global fiction since World War II. And then, well into his fifties and at the peak of his success, he gave up writing fiction altogether, launching the most improbable major career in English poetry. Divided between two genres, his career was also divided between two centuries, and fittingly so, since his work is everywhere marked by the transition from the Victorian to the 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 were instrumental in bringing that transition about. Hardy belonged to the 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 here on 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 so well 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 its literary 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 hardly thought 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 outside the 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 to earn a living until he could pursue his true passion, poetry. His plan was to go to university, find a living as a parson, and write in 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 off on the long daily walk to Dorchester, adding Greek to his continuing study of Latin.
AT TWENTY-ONE, Hardy went up to London to advance his architectural career, and it was around this time that he began the incredible labor—with no training, no encouragement, and no guide—of willing himself 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 Pronouncing Dictionary (which says a lot about where he came from and how he felt about it), and a Rhyming Dictionary. He bought notebooks and filled them with vocabulary-building exercises, imitations,coinages, memoranda about specific literary effects, and pages and pages of quotations. He started jotting down notes about what he was seeing, reading, feeling, overhearing— ideas and images and phrases on which he would draw throughout his life. He also started writing poems such as this one, which gives a fair sample not only of his presumptive feelings at the time, but of the sardonic wit that 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 the time Hardy turned twenty-six he had given up on his dream of a university education followed by a lifetime of idle hours in the rectory—the recognition that probably precipitated the foregoing epigram. The next year he took ill, and when his old Dorchester boss wrote to offer him a job, he came back from London, after five years, with his tail between his legs. He had few prospects, little money, and virtually no connections in the literary world. But he did have one thing: the beginnings of a novel.
WHERE THAT NOVEL CAME from is the biggest mystery of Hardy’s literary career, beyond the fact that he was able to have one at all. 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 tell us when or why he decided to try his hand at fiction. One minute he is sweating over his verse and dabbling in literary journalism, the next he is launching himself into a novel whose 450-page first draft he would pour out in five months. The mystery is deepened by the fact that the novel was never published, and none of its manuscripts 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 thus named was to become Hardy’s archetypal plot, the theme he would pursue for the bulk of his novelistic career, and it uncovers all too nakedly the extent to which his personality had been shaped by class. In both his art and his life, the lady was for Hardy what the shiksa was to be for Philip Roth (or for Alexander Portnoy): the nexus of sexual and social desire, the ideal figure who would symbolize and certify the outsider’s acceptance. We also know from indirect evidence that the novel was a bitter satire against the upper classes, as if Hardy were unloading years of accumulated resentment toward the rejections and humiliations he had suffered.
Though the book was never published—mainly because it was so angry—it won Hardy just enough attention and encouragement to enable him to go on. Both Macmillan and Chapman & Hall turned it down, but Macmillan’s reader pronounced the young writer full of “stuff and promise,” and Chapman & Hall’s—it was George Meredith—encouraged him to try something with a “purely artistic purpose” and a stronger plot. Hardy’s response would set the pattern of his novelistic career. It is one of the many paradoxes that attend his life that Hardy, the most outspoken of English novelists, was the most malleable to the demands of the market place. Time and again he would acquiesce as editors insisted on bowdlerizing his sexual frankness or toning down his iconoclasm. He was willing to do so because his novels came out twice: first in serial form, only later as individual volumes. It was the magazine editors who saw to it that his novels contained nothing that could shock a young lady. In book form, Hardy would put back everything they 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 fiction as, above all, a way to make a living. His novels were by no means devoid of aesthetic or philosophical ambition, but unlike his contemporary Henry James, who disdained Hardy’s work (and who did not have to worry about making a living), Hardy treated novel-writing as a craft, not an art. He wrote quickly—his first nine books were published in the space of eleven years—and even his greatest novels, though great indeed, contain serious imperfections. At the outset of his career, with his aching need to succeed as a writer on any terms, he wrote whatever the editors wanted him to write, soaking up their suggestions as to how to appeal to the public’s taste for excitement. As late as his fourth novel—it was Far From the Madding Crowd—he was hastening to assure an editor that he wished “merely to be considered a good hand at a serial.” Earlier still, after the failure of The Poor Man and the Lady, his obeisance was even more urgent. The title of his first published work captures all too well both the commercial demands and the personal imperatives it was written to satisfy. It was called 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 an architectural clerk when, a few months shy of his thirtieth birthday, he was sent to the remote north coast of Cornwall to make drawings for a planned church restoration. The rector was a gouty old man who lived with his young wife and her younger sister. The latter was genteel, graceful, and bold, with pink cheeks and a wealth of dark gold curls. She was twenty-six, and her friends called her “the peony.” She could play the piano, paint watercolors, and sit a horse. She was the first lady to whom Hardy had ever spoken on equal terms, and the coast where she lived was wild and windswept. By the time he left, four days later, they were in love. Her name was Emma Gifford, and her father was a solicitor who had retired early to live off his mother’s money and get spectacularly drunk. The money was nearly gone, which is why Emma was sharing a rectory with a sister and an old man in the middle of nowhere. But a lady she certainly was.
Hardy and Emma would go on to have one of the famously bad marriages of their time, but during the four years of their courtship she was invaluable to him, and they faced the world together. Both families were outraged at the idea of the match. For Hardy’s intensely clannish mother, who preferred that her children not marry at all (a dictate obeyed by the other three), an impoverished gentlewoman was the worst possible choice. For Emma’s parents, Hardy was literally unspeakable: they met him once and never talked to him again (which did not prevent some of their grandchildren from approaching him for help many years later). Emma stuck by him in part because she aspired to a literary life, to write herself and to be the wife of a writer, and it was her belief in his vocation and her willingness to make sacrifices (architecture would have provided a better living, at least at first, and made for a quicker marriage) that gave him the courage to go on while success still seemed so remote.
HARDY’S SECOND PUBLISHED novel, the lovely, idyllic Under the Greenwood Tree, should have set him on the course that led, only much later, to his greatest achievements. That it did not is part of the drama of the ambitious young provincial that played out inso much of Hardy’s life. The book introduces most of the elements that would come to characterize the Wessex novels: a rural setting, rustic characters, the use of regional dialect, and the depiction of local customs and beliefs. Most importantly, it frames the stories of its individual characters within the larger context of a close-knit village community, and then frames the community itself in the still larger context of nature. Yet though the book was Hardy’s first success, he resisted repeating it, establishing the tortuous course he would follow for his next seven novels.
When Hardy wrote about the rural life he knew so intimately, he produced his best and commercially most successful work, but he continued to insist on trying to prove that he could write about other things. He and Emma moved to London after their marriage,where he continued to make his way, contact by contact, into the capital’s literary world. He had returned to London, as he had come the first time, to escape the limitations of his provincial upbringing, not to be shackled to it by getting himself labeled asa “regional” writer. So Under the Greenwood Tree was followed by A Pair of Blue Eyes; Far From the Madding Crowd by The Hand of Ethelberta; and The Return of the Native by The Trumpet Major, A Laodicean, and Two on a Tower, a trio of mediocrities about, respectively, the Napoleonic War, a millionaire’s daughter, and an astronomer.
Hardy did not fully find his subject as a novelist until he had relocated himself in the territory of his youth. He and Emma left London after only a couple of years (to her permanent consternation, since the metropolitan social world was exactly what she wanted), but they continued to kick around among Dorset residences for nearly another decade, always keeping a wary distance from his mother. Finally Hardy purchased a plot of land scarcely two miles from the family cottage (where Hardys had lived for three generations) and designed and built the house he would call Max Gate. It is no accident that Max Gate rose during the very years Hardy wrote The Mayor of Casterbridge, the first novel of his artistic maturity. What Hardy had stumbled upon in his early successes and then run away from, he now returned to with a firmer if still complex sense of identity and a far grander artistic vision.
Although the term “Wessex,” taken from the name of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom and designed to evoke an immemorial past, had first appeared in Far From the Madding Crowd, it was only in The Mayor of Casterbridge that it became a fully formed geographical and historical idea. The Woodlanders, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure soon followed. Hardy reclaimed the world of his youth by re-imagining it as his own private aesthetic realm, compounded of memory, feeling, and scrupulous observation, one that in 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 to a culmination one of the major strains of nineteenth-century English fiction. Throughout the century, the English novel had differed from the French, the major continental tradition, by attending 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 as fully as any poet, the attention to nature, and also to the full spectrum of provincial communities, from laborers to landowners, becomes acute. To this tradition Hardy brought not only an even greater fullness of representation, especially with regard to the village as opposed to the town, but also his most important contribution: a tragic sense of the countryside’s gradual but inevitable disappearance.
Eliot registers many of the changes rural life had been experiencing under the impact of modernity’s mental and material incursions, but Hardy documents its complete destruction. The difference was partly a matter of timing. Eliot’s provincial novels, published between 1859 and 1872, concern events no later than about 1830. Hardy’s, published from 1872 to 1895, take us all the way up to 1886. He begins with Under the Greenwood Tree, where the rural community seems suspended still in pastoral timelessness; he ends with Jude the Obscure, where it no longer exists at all: its relics destroyed, 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 in the world’s most advanced industrial nation, they also gave the birth cry of the new fiction that would arise in the twentieth century on the periphery of the modern world. Hardy showed that the novel, an indelibly modern genre, could be used to memorialize the traditional cultures that modernity was destroying. It could do so not just by recording traditional life, but also by taking into its written form the whole range of oral ones by which traditional life had always recorded itself: legend, superstition, ballad, folk song, pageant, dialect. And by bringing modern writing into contact with traditional speech, modern thought with traditional belief, the novel also inevitably reveals—as in Hardy’s own often jarring philosophical asides and awkward jumps in linguistic register— the dilemma of the provincial (or colonial) artist or intellectual: caught between two worlds, trying to negotiate their commerce within both his society and his soul. These are the two main characteristics of the novel as it has arisen outside the West: the appropriation of traditional genres and the dramatization of the experience of contact with modernity. If Hardy became the model for Faulkner, Faulkner became the model for the literature of the developing world.
HARDY’S LAST NOVELS REPRESENT an enormous advance over his earlier ones in another respect: their uncompromising tragic vision. Beginning with The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy dispensed with the most hallowed convention in English fiction, the happy ending. He also became increasingly vocal in his rejection of Victorian sexual morality: the double standard that condemned single mothers but not their partners, the stigmatization of divorce that sentenced unhappy couples to a lifetime of misery. Hardy became unrelentingly frank about both life’s physicality and its difficulty, and his late novels were consistently denounced as immoral and pessimistic.Those were related charges in Victorian England, whose chief faith was a belief in progress, whether its agent be a benevolent deity or a benevolent humanity. Hardy believed in neither.
Like his contemporary Nietzsche, he rejected God in any form and read Darwin with attention. The universe, for Hardy, was not even malevolent, it was simply indifferent, and the emergence of a species aware of its own suffering was a kind of grim evolutionary accident. We could do a little to make things better for one another—he wouldn’t have railed against social injustice if he hadn’t believed that—but the structure of human existence would remain ineluctably tragic, the tragedy devoid of meaning. This is an abyss not easily stared into, and it is only in the quarter-century before World War I—Conrad is the other conspicuous example among English novelists—that we find figures who were able to do it. Already in the years after 1914 we see artists taking refuge in alternative systems of meaning: Yeats’s and Lawrence’s historical 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 mark the beginning of modernism in English fiction. Conrad inherited his intimations of cosmic darkness, Lawrence and Joyce his willingness to expose the sexual dimensions of human experience. But what was the beginning for others was the end for him, though not for the reasons usually assigned. Received literary history tells us that Hardy gave up writing novels out of disgust at the outraged reaction provoked by Jude the Obscure, which may be the darkest and angriest novel ever written. Either that or because, having writtensuch a novel, he had, aesthetically, no place left to go. But the reverse is true on both counts: Hardy had already decided to stop writing fiction, and he put everything he had long been feeling,including the class rage that hadn’t seen written form since The Poor 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 as England’s pre- eminent novelist, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles was a huge best-seller. With the passage of a new copyright law in the United States, Hardy knew he would be able to live off his royalties from then on. (A shrewd businessmen and frugal manager, he would leave an estate of nearly L100,000.) The plan he had launched twenty-eight years before had finally come to fruition. He could spend the rest of his life writing poetry.
HE WAS FIFTY-FIVE, AND HE could not have known that the rest of his life would last for thirty-three years. Since the Romantics, if not since Catullus, lyric poetry had been considered a young man’s art, requiring youth’s fervor and immediacy of response. Although Hardy had never ceased making notes for and occasionally drafts of poems, his poetic career essentially began in late middle age. Nothing comparable has happened before or since.
Hardy, who had been a delicate child, had somehow managed to preserve both the physical energy and the emotional urgency of youth, and would continue to do so until the end of his life. He would go on to publish more than a thousand lyric poems, including some of the twentieth century’s finest verse, in addition to a three-volume dramatic epic called The Dynasts. He was a master of diction and prosody, and his poetic output is remarkably diverse in both form and theme, comprising savage epigrams, charming nature studies, acutely felt topical verse, and typically unsparing meditations on human existence. Examples of the first include “Christmas: 1924,” which gives the tenor of his religious views and marks 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 the griefs of the Boer War, half a world away, by envisioning a simple soldier’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 his tragic vision into a few lines whose jagged rhythms jar us with the work 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 Hardy cared less for real women than for the ones he invented. She just failed to realize that she would become his greatest invention of all. Her death unleashed a flood of tenderness, grief, and guilt, and revived Hardy’s memory of their earliest days, even while it deepened his sense of the weight of the intervening time. He seems to have spent the year after her death in a kind of extended poetic trance, producing poem after poem in her memory, and about memory. In “The Phantom Horsewoman,” speaking of himself in the third person, he evokes a vision of the young woman he had courted on the Cornish 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 dictating poems on his deathbed. As the honors piled up, he retained an unpretentious manner and vivid interest in the things and people around him, traits attested to by the steady stream of visitors, famous and obscure, who made the pilgrimage to Max Gate. Rather gruesomely—if, in retrospect, aptly—his heart was buried in Dorset, the rest of his body in Poet’s Corner. He was the first novelist buried at the Abbey since Dickens, the first poet since Tennyson. He had outlasted the prejudices that had impeded him from becoming a writer, and the prejudices that had tried to censor him once he had become one. It was a result he had foretold in his elegy 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.