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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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.