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.

Hardy had come from a poor family. He married up, and by the time he reached 40 he found himself at or near the top of London literary society. It can't be easy to keep oneself from excessive self-regard in such circumstances; anyhow, Hardy didn't, and nowhere is his behavior more unattractive than in his treatment of Emma. She had been well educated; she was bold and intelligent, and encouraged Hardy to abandon architecture for literature even before they were married, when the results might have been unfavorable for her. But her attitudes were naive, her conversation unimpressive to the sorts of people with whom Hardy wished to associate, and in time Hardy became embarrassed by her. In middle age he was still hankering after other women, none of whom were willing (unlike him) to break their marriage vows.

Although the Hardys' love endured for another two decades, it would die long before either of them did. In time Emma moved her bed to an attic room. Claire Tomalin begins her book at the moment of Emma's death, in her attic bed, when both Hardys were 72; for it was at this point that Thomas Hardy became a great poet. He had published poetry already, but something about the memory of his first wife, and the way she had slipped away without warning, drove Hardy to write some of the best poems in English--full of pain and tender regret, alive with sad, pulsating melodies. The most famous of these is "The Voice" (1912):

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.

Hardy must have known that he had always cared more about his work and reputation than about his childless wife. That is part of what makes the "Emma poems" so moving. But it's also what makes their author so difficult to like.

Hardy remarried. The much younger Florence Dugdale had insinuated herself into Hardy's life several years before Emma died. In a short time Florence, now married to an amiable and wealthy but much older and profoundly self-absorbed man, became as unhappy as the first Mrs. Hardy had been. All the poems about Emma were written and published in Florence's full view.

You might wonder whether we really need another biography of Hardy; there have been many, foremost among them that of the great Hardy scholar Michael Millgate. Ralph Pite's attention to Hardy's poetry and poetic methods deserves praise, but his book offers nothing genuinely new. Moreover, he commits the common biographer's error of assuming that his readers already know a great deal about his subject; rather than telling us what happened, who said what and when, he gets bogged down in his own multifaceted interpretations. Whereas Tomalin keeps up the pace of her narrative, it takes Pite almost 50 pages to get Hardy born. And I found it irritating that, while Pite draws heavily on Millgate's work, he only bothers to mention Millgate in order to disagree with him on some minor point or other.

Tomalin's is the better book. Yet both Tomalin and Pite leave virtually unexamined the one subject that would easily have justified another biography: Hardy's attitude--or rather attitudes, plural--to God. In his twenties Hardy was an evangelical; he argued about the merits of infant baptism with a friend at Hicks's architectural firm; he marked up his Bible; and was even part of a prayer group. He was a close friend of several generous and highly intelligent evangelicals, chiefly Horace Moule, son of the famous clergyman Henry Moule.

Hardy lost his faith at some point in the mid-1860s, living as a bachelor in London, and students have customarily treated the transition from belief to unbelief as though it were a simple matter of learning the truth, like a child's discovery that there is no tooth fairy. Hardy's work tends, for obvious reasons, to attract people who equate religious sentiments, and especially evangelical Christianity, with superstition and idiocy. Pite knows nothing about Victorian Christianity, referring at one point to evangelicalism as "a primitive form of Christianity--emotional in its appeal and intellectually repressive." Tomalin likewise assumes Hardy's imbecilic faith couldn't survive reading Mill's On Liberty, since Mill's attack on Christianity "was clearly reasoned and devastating."

On the subject of religion, Hardy's biographers have usually followed a predictable trajectory. They note his early evangelical faith, portray his loss of it as an inevitable turn of events, and then wonder why his novels' portrayal of traditional religion oscillates between hostility and sympathy, why he wrestles throughout his poetry with the God whom he had so decisively rejected, and why he attended church intermittently for much of his life. There's certainly more to all this than Pite's mushy psychologizing ("he wanted Christ's forgiveness--forgiveness in his case for abandoning faith in Christ") or Tomalin's facile use of the word "nostalgia" to explain all signs of Hardy's religious anxieties.

I'm no Hardy scholar, but it seems sufficiently plain that Hardy's attacks on the Christian church and the Christian God were meant, at least in part, to assuage the guilt he felt for abandoning Christianity in the 1860s. There's precious little in Hardy's notebooks and letters to suggest that he rejected Christianity for any specific reason; late in life he seems to have invented a story about hearing a clergyman castigate the working classes for aspiring to better themselves. One gets the feeling he didn't so much reject Christianity as simply drop it. He felt he simply couldn't remain a believer while also trying to impress the freethinking literary elite of London--an understandable decision, but not one likely to afford peace of mind. It's easy to suspect that's why Hardy's writing deals so frequently with regret over the loss of an earlier, truer self: "I seem to be false to myself," he says in "Wessex Heights," "my simple self that was / And is not now."

It's certainly true, in any case, that Hardy's strident antagonism toward the church--and by extension English society--strikes readers of his life as largely unaccountable. The Christian nation into which Hardy was born had not treated him shabbily; quite the opposite. His parents had been decent and loving. The people who had assisted Hardy most as a young man had been devoted and pious believers: Hicks, the architect; the Moule family; and above all the elderly clergyman and poet William Barnes, who had lent Hardy books and encouraged his intellectual curiosity.

Hardy didn't have to justify his loss of faith to anybody. But for some reason he felt he must, and he did it by pretending that the church had held him down. Thus, for instance, he ridiculed God as a coldhearted ignoramus in "God's Education," and made fools out of clergymen throughout much of his fiction. His enmity reached its height in Jude the Obscure, his last novel. Jude Fawley, clearly meant to represent some aspect of his creator, meets with cruelty and misfortune at every turn. Hardy was trying to suggest that he, too, had been thwarted and battered by Christian England--this from an author who enjoyed the company of nobility, the satisfactions of fame, and a massive income. The book has its power, of course, but its plot is as ridiculous as its message of despair is affected.

He was never the embattled atheist he sometimes pretended to be. Even as his fiction turned bleaker and, more frankly, irreligious, Hardy occasionally turned a sympathetic eye on the faith he had become notorious for scorning. Sometimes, as in "The Oxen," he says he wanted to believe; and sometimes it seems he did, as in "A Drizzling Easter Morning":

And he is risen? Well, be it so . . .

And still the pensive lands complain,

And dead men wait as long ago,

As if, much doubting, they would know

What they are ransomed from, before

They pass again their sheltering door.

Hardy died in 1928, in his 88th year, a great and celebrated writer. On Boxing Day 1927, a few days before he died, he asked his wife to read aloud Luke's account of the birth of Jesus. After she read it, he remarked that there was not a grain of evidence that the Gospel was true. Why he should have had the Bible read to him in the first place is a question Hardy's biographers have not yet answered.

Barton Swaim is writing a book on 19th-century Scottish literary critics.