Providence and Mr. Hardy
Thomas Hardy’s Personal Writings
The Architectural Notebook of Thomas Hardy
“What has Providence done to Mr. Hardy.” demanded Edmund Gosse, “that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex and shake his fist at his creator?” Lois Deacon and Terry Coleman purport to give the answer: Providence had cheated Hardy of a youthful love, his cousin Tryphena Sparks, and he spent the rest of a very long life mourning his loss and writing novels and poems in which she figures (secretly, of course). It is the kind of answer that weakly romantic minds adore. Emily Dickinson must be provided with obscure lovers to “explain” her poetry, and last year there appeared a dotty book on Edwin Arlington Robinson demonstrating that his poems are mainly about a hopeless love for his sister-in-law. What is still more astonishing is that such books seem to be taken seriously: Providence and Mr. Hardy was well reviewed in a number of English journals.
In 1960 Lois Deacon met a lady, Mrs. Bromell, then eighty years old, who claimed that her mother. Tryphena Sparks, had been Hardy’s secret fiancée for five years. In 1965, when Mrs. Bromell was eighty-six and, the authors concede, “beginning to fail.” she further recollected that Tryphena had secretly borne an illegitimate son by Hardy. The authors do not claim for the poor little boy, whom they identify with “Father Time” in Jude the Obscure, quite the authenticity they do for the romance between his mother and Hardy. As they remark in a sentence that deserves immortality of a kind: “Hardy’s marriages were childless, but he was probably not altogether without issue.”
Deacon and Coleman further argue that Tryphena was really Hardy’s niece, and to do this—nothing daunts them—they have to posit two illegitimate births. And then, to make things as complicated as the plot of a minor Hardy novel, they also speculate that the death, perhaps suicide, of Hardy’s closest friend, Horace Moule, was precipitated by a dispute between the two men over the irresistible Tryphena.
It happens that in none of Hardy’s writings, including the biography signed by his second wife but largely dictated by himself, nor in any of the recollections left by his friends, is there the slightest trace of Tryphena. To some people, of course, the very absence of evidence will seem all the more entrancing a reason for believing the whole story as it teeters on a foundation of “perhaps,” “probably,” “it would seem,” and the heaviest of rhetorical questions.
I SUPPOSE that one of Hardy’s biographers will now have to check out the whole story: but the point to be stressed, for it applies to a whole school of literary biographers, is that it doesn’t matter a damn, it is utterly trivial. If Hardy had a secret lover, bless them both; if there was a child, bless the child too. What business is it of ours? In which possible way does it affect our responses to his novels and poems? Why this obsessive need, visible among far more respectable biographers, to go poking into private affairs upon which time has cast its merciful blankness? If people have nothing better to do, they ought to go swimming.
In any case, it is an intellectual absurdity to suppose that the melancholy running through Hardy’s work needs special justification. All through Western literature, as Edmund Gosse must or should have known, there is a deep current of despair and misanthropy, for which the experience of mankind would seem to provide a sufficient warrant. What does constitute a problem is that in accepting the secular determinism of Huxley, Mill, and Spencer, and while regarding it as a kind of intellectual liberation, Hardy should have responded not with their combative energy and hope but with his own low-keyed melancholy.
Part of the answer is that the advanced skepticism of nineteenth-century philosophers could be joined with—and serve to reinforce—the country fatalism buried in Dorset beneath the surface of Christianity, which for Hardy constituted a folk heritage. A more fundamental explanation is that Hardy’s turn to skepticism, which occurred after a conventional rural upbringing, shook the very foundations of his being, not as a sudden catastrophe that might with time settle into rest but as a constant shudder of disturbance. The truth he had found and could not, as a man of probity, retreat from, struck him as bleak; the struggle to liberate himself intellectually left him with a life-long increment of sadness.
It is not hard to see why. For someone raised in the comforts of Christianity, the conviction that the cause of things is “neither moral nor immoral, out unmoral” can lead to a state of cosmic desolation. Taught to lean on God’s benevolence, or at least to count on His attentiveness, a man like Hardy might well feel that the rule of impersonal law is more terrifying than if (to use his phrase) a “vengeful god” were intent upon spiting humanity—and then, almost imperceptibly, the belief in impersonal law would become indistinguishable from a feeling that the “vengeful god” was doing his worst. Hardy meant to depict the universe according to a mechanistic determinism; but so strong was the resistance toward the new theories created by his heritage of Christian feeling that he fell back at times upon a kind of gnosticism, a view of life as predetermined by bad intentions without any discernible force or figure actively intending, or at least a view of life as predetermined by bad luck.
Hardy felt that as men came to realize how paltry their place was in the scheme of things, they would regard consciousness itself as a burden, with the result that more and more educated persons would sink into torpor and weariness, the mind trapped in its own motions. Now this style of reflection, even if its concern has shifted from the cosmos to the self, is familiar enough in our time; we have found new vocabularies for it, but have not moved so very far from its motivating assumptions. For a man like Hardy, who tended to assimilate his personal experience into categories of philosophic reflection and resignation, all this was a quite sufficient ground for the melancholy coloring he gave his work. He lived on for sixty-odd years after the alleged romance with Tryphena, and there is really no reason to suppose that a youthful love affair—from which, so far as I can see, literary men seem to recover with reasonable alacrity—could have left him forever its victim.
THOMAS HARDY’S PERSONAL WRITINGS, the kind of harmless volume our university presses issue too often, brings together the Prefaces Hardy wrote for his novels, as well as the miscellaneous essays written for various occasions. The Prefaces are already available in the novels themselves, almost all of which are in print, and the miscellaneous essays, with two notable exceptions, are of very slight interest.
When R.P. Blackmur collected Henry James’s Prefaces, he was performing a genuine service, since they constitute a significant body of literary criticism which might even be read apart from the novels. Hardy, though shrewd in his literary judgments, was mostly defensive and reticent when he came to write his Prefaces; they matter little apart from the books they precede. There is, however, one literary essay, “The Profitable Reading of Fiction,” which remains valuable as evidence that despite the conservatism of Hardy’s taste he nevertheless was able to anticipate many of the premises and notions of twentieth-century criticism.
The other distinguished essay is “The Dorsetshire Labourer,” published in 1883. If it were in my power, I would require every sociologist in the country to read this essay. Here, in lucid and vibrant prose, and quite without a trace of jargon, is a piece of imaginative sociology of the first order, in which Hardy describes the changing life of the English agricultural laborers. It is exact, ironic, and sympathetic all at once, a little masterpiece.
Still, the six dollars which Professor Orel’s volume costs seems excessive for two essays, especially since they can both be found in a paperback selection of Hardy’s writings edited by this reviewer and priced at 95 cents.
BEFORE BECOMING a novelist Hardy had been trained as an architect, and as a young man he worked as both, hoping he could give full time to literature but fearful he might have to fall back on architecture for his bread. His novels are packed with architectural imagery and references, sometimes to an annoying excess, and several of his protagonists work at building and church-restoration. All of which really matters, because Hardy’s architectural experience gave him a strong sense of how important work can be in a man’s life, something not many other nineteenth-century English writers grasped. The sense of craft as it can shape and sustain a man’s life figures repeatedly in Hardy’s fiction, providing a ballast of strength when he yields to his dubious plots and metaphysical pretensions. In Conrad the “job sense” is an idea, the last bulwark against nihilism; in Hardy it is apprehended as an integral part of experience.
The historical society of Dorset, in honor of its most distinguished writer, has now published Hardy’s architectural notebook in facsimile form. I cannot judge the intrinsic merit of these drawings, but can testify that the scholarship encasing it is modest, precise, and without flim-flam. The drawings begin with Hardy as a budding craftsman and end in 1920, when at the age of eighty he drew the Stinsford church, called Mellstock in his lovely pastoral Under the Greenwood Tree. There are also charming nature sketches—lichen, mosses, fungi, birds, animals—equivalents in ink to one of Hardy’s most pleasing sides as a writer. This is a book to make one appreciate the virtues of “old-fashioned scholarship,” so sensible and disciplined by comparison with the make-work of Professor Orel and the effusions of Deacon and Coleman.