Thomas Hardy: A Biography
by Michael Millgate
Random House, 637 pp., $25.00
The Short Stories of Thomas Hardy
by Kristin Brady
St. Martin’s, 235 pp., $22.50
The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy: Volume 3, 1902-1908
edited by Richard Little Purdy, edited by Michael Millgate
Oxford University Press, 367 pp., $45.00
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 …