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 …