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Return of the Master

What has Providence done to Mr Hardy,” wrote a reviewer of the Victorian writer’s novel Jude the Obscure (1895), “that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex and shake his fist at his Creator?” The reviewer was referring to the long and painful series of misfortunes that befall Jude, culminating in the moment when his eldest child is found to have hanged his younger brother and sister and himself. So harrowing is the scene that the reviewer’s cry for some explanation is understandable. But in her new biography of Hardy, Claire Tomalin declines to offer one. “Neither Hardy nor anyone else,” she tells us, “has explained where his black view of life came from.” Most of his time, after all, was spent working at his desk.

Tomalin does suggest that “part of the answer might be that he was writing at a time when Britain seemed to be permanently and bitterly divided into a nation of the rich and a nation of the poor.” Elsewhere she dwells on the author’s loss of Christian faith. While it is true, however, that Hardy’s novels contain scathing criticism of the English class system and that he himself had been on the receiving end of much snobbery and elitism, still, for many of his contemporaries, even from his own background, even agnostics, this was a period of progress and confidence.

Another question that remains largely unanswered is why Hardy stopped writing novels relatively early on. He was fifty-five when Jude was published. It was his fourteenth novel. He was at the height of his powers. Yet in the thirty-two years that remained to him he would never write another. Tomalin accepts Hardy’s claim that he always thought of himself as a poet and was now sufficiently wealthy to withdraw from fiction and concentrate on his verse. Yet a certain mystery remains. Was there some relation between the extreme pessimism of Jude and the decision to stop writing novels? Why was poetry more congenial to Hardy and what is the relation between the two sides of his work?

Hardy was born more dead than alive in the small village of Bockhamton, Dorset, South West England, on June 2, 1840, less than six months after his parents married. His father, a small-time builder, named the baby Thomas after both himself and his own father. His mother, a servant and cook, had had no desire to marry before this unwanted pregnancy, and would always warn her children against the move. Tomalin portrays an extended family where illegitimate births and poverty were commonplace.

Frail, not expected to survive, Hardy was kept at home till age eight, learning to read and play the fiddle from his parents. His mother would always refer to him as “her rather delicate ‘boy,’” while in his memoirs Hardy recalls that he did not want to grow “to be a man…but to remain as he was, in the same spot, and to know no more people than he already knew.”

The desire to be spared adult experience is repeated in Jude the Obscure: “If only he could prevent himself growing up!” Jude thinks. All Hardy’s major novels present us with a child, or childish adult, who is thrust too soon into the world. Orphans abound and even where parents are present the issue of protection is paramount. “All these young souls,” we hear of Tess and her six siblings in Tess of the D’Ubervilles (1891), “were…entirely dependent on the judgment of the two Durbeyfield adults.” In the event, Tess is sent off into service dressed in such a way that “might cause her to be estimated as a woman when she was not much more than a child.” The consequences are disastrous.

But what was so hard about growing up? Tomalin, who dwells long and usefully on the author’s childhood, recounts how, aged nine, Hardy fell in love with his schoolteacher. One night, longing to see her, he escaped from home to a harvest dance. There was a brief exciting encounter, after which, tired and afraid, he had to wait till three in the morning to be brought home and scolded. Like a scene in a Hardy novel, the anecdote presents a state of mind in which desire and fear battle painfully for the upper hand. Throughout his life, perhaps influenced, as Tomalin suggests, by his parents’ shotgun wedding, Hardy would be awed by the consequences of romantic and sexual experience. As a boy he hated to be touched. Years later he would visit the widowed teacher at her London home and even in his memoirs reflected that their love might have been “in the order of things” if only he had got back to her earlier.

In the order of things” for the adolescent Tom was a three-mile walk to a new school in Dorchester, the nearest town. He didn’t like going so far from home, but soon became a prize pupil. Deeming their son too delicate for building work, his parents seized on this intellectual success and had him articled to an architect, again in Dorchester. Tomalin astutely shows what a mixed blessing this was. Upwardly mobile, Hardy rose in his parents’ esteem. At the same time he became separated from the rest of the family and felt vulnerable in a world that was not his own. Apparently it was impossible to have a positive thing without a negative.

Aged twenty, Hardy received his first salary and rented a room in town, returning home at the weekends. Thus began a long habit of oscillation between separate worlds, and between independence and safety. In Dorchester he met the influential Moule family who directed his reading and gave him encouragement with his first attempts at writing. Back home he went with his father to play the fiddle at village festivals. Then in 1862 this cautious young man decided to be brave; he quit his job and set off to London.

One of Hardy’s finest novels is entitled The Return of the Native (1878), and the phrase might aptly be applied to many moments in his own life. For after five years in the capital, years in which he found a job with an architects’ firm, won two Architectural Association prizes, made friends, and courted girls, in 1867 he ‘fell ill,’ “felt…weak,” and abandoned everything to go home. In The Return of the Native, nothing is less convincing than the motives given by the handsome Clym for his return to his village after five successful years in the jewelry business in Paris. He claims to have grown tired of worldly ways, wishes to offer instruction to local children. But clearly the most important person in Clym’s life is his mother; his passionate bride Eustacia, who destroys his relationship with her, is portrayed in a most ambiguous light.

Aside from health, Hardy’s ostensible reason for leaving London was that his lowly origins made it impossible for him to start his own architect’s practice there. Whether this was true is hard to say. Sometimes one feels Tomalin is too ready to take at face value all Hardy’s criticisms of Victorian class discrimination. In any event, what saved the retreat to Dorset from feeling like complete failure was that he brought back four hundred pages of a novel in progress. Resuming work as an architect in Dorchester, he proceeded with the book at home. Mother’s protection in Bockhampton was thus combined with aspirations that would be fulfilled in the city.

It is usually said of The Poor Man and the Lady that it was rejected for publication; much is made of Hardy’s sufferings as an aspiring man from a poor background seeking acceptance in literary London. But as Tomalin tells the story, it is rather more complicated. Since the manuscript was destroyed we have little idea what was in it; Hardy described the novel as a “dramatic satire of…the vulgarity of the middle class, modern Christianity…and political and domestic morals in general, …the tendency of the writing being socialistic, not to say revolutionary.”

No doubt this was hard for London publishers to swallow, but one house, Chapman, said they would publish the book, if corrections were made and ÂŁ20 paid against losses. Chapman’s reader, however, the novelist George Meredith, warned Hardy that publication of such inflammatory material might compromise his future. Later, another publisher, Tinsley Brothers, offered publication if Hardy would guarantee them against losses. He declined, complaining he couldn’t afford it, though only a year later he would make a contract with Tinsley for his second work, Desperate Remedies (published in 1871), which involved handing over to them the very large sum of ÂŁ75.

Perhaps, then, rather then being rejected outright, Hardy had taken Meredith’s advice against publication. He would also describe The Poor Man and the Lady as telling “the life of an isolated student cast upon the billows of London with no protection but his brains.” Isolation and lack of protection are very often the key conditions with Hardy. It is interesting, for example, that a forthcoming biography by Ralph Pite is entitled Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life, * alluding to the near obsessive way the author protected his private life from inquiry, including his systematically destroying any document that might be detrimental to his reputation. Such a man was perhaps not eager, or not yet ready, to publish a novel that would unleash society’s disapproval. The affair suggests how ambiguous, in Hardy’s mature novels, is the relationship between social injustice and the misfortunes and defeats of his characters: snobbery and discrimination there may be, but these adversities can also offer an excuse to the child-adult to give up and go home.

Despite his background, Hardy published his first (determinedly harmless) novel at thirty-one and his second at thirty-two, at which point, with a contract signed for a third, this time serialized, novel he was able to dedicate himself entirely to writing. Even today such an achievement would be remarkable. London was not after all so hostile.

Meanwhile, Hardy’s last year in an architect’s office brought him to an even more momentous initiation than those of city living and publication. Sent to Cornwall to assess the condition of a church in the tiny hamlet of St. Juliot, he fell in love with Emma Gifford, avid reader, bold horsewoman, and sister-in-law of the incumbent clergyman. In a poem dated 1870, St. Juliot is renamed Lyonesse, a mythical land in Cornish legend:

When I set out for Lyonnesse

A hundred miles away

The rime was on the spray

And starlight lit my lonesomeness

When I set out for Lyonnesse

A hundred miles away

What would bechance at Lyonnesse

While I should sojourn there

No prophet durst declare

Nor did the wisest wizard guess

What would bechance at Lyonnesse

While I should sojourn there

When I came back from Lyonesse

  1. *

    Yale University Press, April 2007.

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