The Magazine

Thomas of the Hardys

The poet-novelist of old England.

May 21, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 34 • By BARTON SWAIM
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Thomas Hardy

by Claire Tomalin

Penguin, 486 pp., $35

Thomas Hardy

The Guarded Life

by Ralph Pite

Yale, 522 pp., $35

Thomas Hardy's father taught him to play the violin. Father and son played in the little string ensemble of the Stinsford parish church in Bockhampton--an experience Hardy would later use to write his first little masterpiece, Under the Greenwood Tree. Claire Tomalin concludes her biography of Hardy by reminding us that "he was a fiddler's son, with music in his blood and bone, who danced to his father's playing before he learnt to write." There is indeed something of music in all of Hardy's works. Even his best novels remind us of operas, relying as they frequently do on emotional intensity and incredible coincidences. Hardy loved to dance, and perhaps for that reason he possessed a remarkable ability to capture the peculiar movements of the human body: His women almost walk off the page.

The crispness and efficiency of Hardy's poetry, too, remind us of music; nearly every poem has its own melody. Here, for instance, are the first two stanzas of "The Going," one of many poems Hardy wrote after the death of his ill-treated wife in 1912.

Why did you give no hint that night

That quickly after the morrow's dawn,

And calmly, as if indifferent quite,

You would close your term here, up and be gone,

Where I could not follow

With wing of swallow

To gain one glimpse of you ever anon!

Never to bid good-bye

Or lip me the softest call,

Or utter a wish for a word, while I

Saw morning harden upon the wall,

Unmoved, unknowing

That your great going

Had place that moment, and altered all.

There are no superfluous words, just as great music has no empty gestures.

Hardy was born in 1840, the son of Thomas Hardy Sr., a stonemason. Tom was thought to have died at birth, but an alert midwife noticed him moving. He was a weak and sickly child, but precocious; he learned to read early, and his parents found ways to pay for a solid education at an Anglican school in nearby Dorchester. He tried to learn Greek for a time, and thought he might go up to Oxford, but this wasn't practical and he apprenticed with an architect, John Hicks, in Dorchester.

He was a talented draftsman, and eventually moved to London to work in a bigger firm. His architectural career flourished in London, and so did his intellect. He went to museums and the opera; he heard John Stuart Mill give a speech on Reform. But for reasons of his own he moved back to Dorset and went to work again for Hicks. He began to write, and it was at some point in 1867-68 that he realized, as all great writers do, that he was meant to be a writer and nothing else.

He wrote a novel with the unpromising title The Poor Man and the Lady and submitted it to the venerable firm of Alexander Macmillan. It was a full-throated attack on the upper class, and was turned down. Hardy would not be deterred, and eventually persuaded a second-tier firm to publish an imperfect but competent novel, Desperate Remedies. A year later he got the critics' attention with Under the Greenwood Tree, and in 1874 Far from the Madding Crowd was serialized in the prestigious Cornhill Magazine. In these latter two books Hardy first created the rural, organic worlds that would make his novels famous. In Far from the Madding Crowd the natural world itself comes alive, almost as though it, too, were a character. The famous storm scene contains some of the most stunning evocations of nature in English ("The moon vanished not to reappear. It was the farewell of the ambassador previous to war").

In 1874, his career at the beginning of a long upward arc, Hardy married Emma Gifford. Her parents felt their class superior to that of a stonemason's son, and never reconciled themselves to the marriage. It must have stung Hardy deeply, for as a writer of fiction he would become progressively more hostile to English society. And that hostility would only intensify as English society welcomed him into its highest ranks.

Throughout the 1870s and '80s, Hardy published a great deal of fiction, much of it what the critics call "uneven." Several of his books flopped, and deserved to flop. But he could write superb books, too, and his career and reputation were well served by the fact that his five best works spanned three decades: Far from the Madding Crowd was published in 1874, The Return of the Native in 1878, The Mayor of Casterbridge in 1886, Tess of the d'Urbervilles in 1891, and Jude the Obscure in 1895.