Thomas Hardy: A Biography
The Short Stories of Thomas Hardy
The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy: Volume 3, 1902-1908
Hardy at one time seemed the very spirit of subversion and pessimism, the author whose last novel, Jude the Obscure, was burned by a bishop—in despair “presumably”—as Hardy observed—“at not being able to burn me.” As late as 1905, when he went to receive an honorary degree at Aberdeen University, he was forcibly attacked in the Scottish press. To his friend Sir George Douglas be wrote that Swinburne had shown him a cutting which stated: “Swinburne planted, & Hardy watered, & Satan giveth the increase.” A year later he wrote to Millicent Fawcett, the women’s suffrage leader, stating his principles in terms that still sound an echo today.
I think the tendency of the woman’s vote will be to break up the present pernicious conventions in respect of manners, customs, religion, illegitimacy, the stereotyped household (that it must be the unit of society), the father of a woman’s child (that it is anybody’s business but the woman’s own…), sport (that so-called educated men should be encouraged to harass & kill for pleasure feeble creatures by mean stratagems), slaughter-houses …& other matters which I got into hot water for touching on many years age.
Hardy’s first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, was turned down for being, in a jejune way, too radical; forty years later his views seem almost those of a bien pensant, and his personality had begun to produce in literary circles a general respect and reverence, almost veneration. Siegfried Sassoon praised his calm and saintly personality; Charles Morgan wrote of the hidden fires that seemed to glow beneath his gentle homely exterior. Even Virginia Woolf was impressed by her meeting with him. That view held until roughly a decade ago, Hardy’s stock having continued to rise steadily in the meantime, when prolonged and elaborate biographical investigation at last began to bear fruit.
It has long been accepted that Hardy was somewhat close, self-protective: that he had written his own biography under the name of his second wife, giving a mildly romantic version of his origins and early life, and a respectably innocuous one of his domestic and social career as an increasingly famous man of letters. That was all very well, a deception in the interest of privacy and modesty that was positively endearing, and how charmingly innocent of the old man to suppose his simple stratagem could stand up to modern methods of investigation. It was blown at once, of course, but oddly enough that only increased a general sense of Hardy’s quaint kind of unworldly integrity.
Not for long, however. When Robert Gittings’s masterly two-volume biography appeared it presented a very different image of Hardy, and was at once accepted as definitive by critics who prefer to think the great not only have feet of clay but are constructed of that substance throughout.* The picture seemed all the more accurate because Gittings, a scholarly biographer who had taken immense pains, eschewed the wilder speculations about a dark and possibly incestuous secret in Hardy’s life, and dismissed the story that his cousin Tryphena Sparks may have secretly borne him a male child.
Such sins as these might be tolerated, even admired. The Hardy who emerges from Gittings’s narrative would not have been man enough for them. He is a mean man, of frigid purposes and slow reptile determinations, snobbish, selfish, uncompassionate and unfeeling, calculating in high society, obsequious to great ladies, nasty to servants, heartless to his wives. Gittings’s Hardy was also a voyeur who preferred a girl glimpsed on top of a motorbus to a real one living beside him at his Dorchester villa; even a sadist whose most memorable encounter was with a lady poisoner at a public hanging that he attended in his early teens. Very handsome and shapely she looked, all in black silk, turning slowly around and around in the rain. Hardy was particularly impressed by the way in which the cloth hood over her face grew wet, and the features showed through. The episode throws a rather different light on the epigraph from Shakespeare with which Hardy prefaced Tess: “Poor wounded name! my bosom, as a bed / Shall lodge thee.” Gittings also seemed to take au pied de la lettre the cruel remark which a no doubt much-tried Emma aimed at her husband on the occasion of the notorious Crippen trial in 1910. From Hardy’s appearance, she is alleged to have said, he might well be taken for the murderer.
To Gittings it did not seem to occur that Hardy might, so to speak, have enjoyed the joke. Might he not have taken a sardonic pleasure not only in the morbidity with which he was regularly taxed by earnest critics and public spokesmen but also in the knowledge that he was himself a man of very ordinary tastes, tastes of a kind that in respectable society people keep strictly to themselves. His poems were the outlet of his feelings, and indeed of his self-knowledge. The man who in his actions and in the impression he left on others comes to dominate the Gittings biography as the true Hardy could never have written those touching lines at the end of “After a Journey,” one of the poems that poured out of him after Emma’s sudden death in 1912, in which Hardy imagined himself returning to the wild Cornish coast where he had first met her.
Trust me, I mind not, though Life lours,
The bringing me here; nay, bring me here again! I am just the same as when
Our days were a joy, and our paths through flowers.
“Just the same”—not worse, not better, the habitual self as when Emma used to “muse and eye me” in the days of courtship at Beeny Cliff. Hardy’s passionate pronouncement has the marvelous honesty of art, the assertion of the self as its own kind of self-knowledge, as in Shakespeare’s sonnet.
No, I am that I am, and they that level
At my offences reckon up their own….
In both cases the art that so triumphantly blows away secretiveness could only have been produced by a secretive man.
And that paradox is particularly marked in Hardy’s case. Gittings quoted Edward Clodd’s comment, probably based on something said to him by the second Mrs. Hardy, that Hardy was “a great writer but not a great man.” But that is not so much deadly as affectionate: one does not want one’s friends to be “great men,” and Clodd, a banker by trade, had clearly become very attached to Hardy, attached in the same quasi-maternal way that the second Mrs. Hardy herself was. They teased each other, Clodd sending Hardy a cutting from a local paper about a Thomas Hardy who had just been sent to trial for stunning one of his relatives with a bust of Gladstone. The touchy, vain, and morbidly sensitive author manifested in the Gittings biography would hardly have put up with this sort of thing from the hearty and rather philistine Clodd, any more than he could have written the lines at the end of “After a Journey” about the neglected wife whom her often almost equally neglected successor used dryly to refer to as “the late espoused saint.”
Apart from its scholarship and its lively narrative style, Gittings’s biography was salutary in that it compelled Hardy lovers to confront (if they had not already privately done so) the contrast between the calculating egotist of Max Gate and the wistfully, vulnerably, and totally sincere poet and novelist. Sincerity, as Aldous Huxley observed, is mainly a matter of talent, but temperament comes into it too. Hardy the poet just does not know how to be bogus: his forthcomingness always rings true. To illustrate this it would not be unfair to quote in apposition to “After a Journey” the last stanza of Richard Aldington’s poem “After Two Years,” praised by Herbert Read (whose very phrase is an unwitting kiss of death) as “one of the most perfect lyrics in the English language.”
She is as gold
Lovely and far more cold.
Do thou pray with me,
For if I win grace
To kiss twice her face God has done well to me.
Aldington may well have been a nicer man than Hardy, a more passionate lover, a more devoted husband, but all one can say of such a poem is that one does not believe a word of it. The gambits and devices of intimacy (“Do thou pray”), of modesty and understatement (“God has done well”) would not deceive a child. The poem appears false throughout, and its technical accomplishment merely compounds the falsity. It strikes one as not even intended to be believed in, while every line of Hardy’s poetry compels belief, not excluding that line—“I never cared for life, life cared for me”—to which W.H. Auden took such violent exception on just these grounds. “Never cared for life?—Well, really, Mr. Hardy!” But yes, Hardy the poet never did care for life in this sense, however much he may have cared for moments of living, moments that have been “great things, great things to me.” The general life has to be put up with, by making “limited opportunities endurable.” However apparently disingenuous, Hardy’s art can never lie in the teeth of its own technique.
It is none the less true that Hardy was in some sense a split personality, a divided man, and that this takes the form to which we have been accustomed by modern studies and analyses of the Victorian mind and personality. Gittings was doing to Hardy, though with a much greater authority of research, what Lytton Strachey had done many years before to the eminent Victorians, Arnold and Cardinal Manning and General Gordon. The division there was that those men of power and charisma were something else inside, or so it was claimed, something which subverted and contradicted the Victorian ideal of the great man. That would not do in Hardy’s case, for he had never made the implicit claims of Arnold or Tennyson, or set up a corresponding façade to theirs. But Gittings was able to suggest that Hardy was not even in reality “up to” the measure of his own negativism and pessimism and the great scenes of tragedy and disillusionment he had created in the novels.
In fact, the true division was perhaps a very simple one, with nothing Victorian about it. Like D.H. Lawrence, Hardy was exceptionally close to parents of markedly different temperament. Lawrence possessed all his mother’s fierce repressive puritanism, as well as his father’s zest for living. Hardy’s father had a passive, contemplative nature, his mother a canny initiative and an iron will. Their eldest son inherited both tendencies, in all the measure of a genius. And as Lawrence’s stories reveal more directly than his novels the two biological sides of his nature, Hardy’s too have the same tendency. They encapsulate in miniature, and in an elemental way not found in his poems or novels, both the bleak, close determination of his being, and its tender, vulnerable passivity. The characters in the best of the stories tend, significantly, to represent one side or the other, misfortune resulting from collision between the two.
Young Thomas Hardy (Atantic/Little Brown, 1975); Thomas Hardy's Later Years (Atlantic/Little Brown, 1978).↩
Young Thomas Hardy (Atantic/Little Brown, 1975); Thomas Hardy’s Later Years (Atlantic/Little Brown, 1978).↩