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 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.