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Return of the Master

With magic in my eyes

All marked with mute surmise

My radiance rare and fathomless

When I came back from Lyonnesse

With magic in my eyes!

Typical of Hardy is the presentation of a before and after, with, elided from the middle, an experience that transforms absolutely, but cannot be spoken. Here the transformation is positive; more often, and particularly where sexual rather than romantic experience is involved, it will be negative. After the beautiful young Tess has been deflowered by the rake into whose service her parents so carelessly sent her, we hear: “An immeasurable chasm was to divide our heroine’s personality thereafter from [her] previous self….”

In love, Hardy did not hurry to marriage. His mother was against it. Emma was middle class, and such a union would complete her son’s move away from his family. She was also penniless. Emma’s father was against her marrying downward. So there was good reason for delaying and enjoying four years of romantic correspondence. Again and again in Hardy’s novels, which are above all stories of attempted partnerships, one partner will prefer “perpetual betrothal” to consummation. Sexual experience, when it comes, will be all-determining, fatal even. Or will it? It is on this question that all Hardy’s fiction turns.

In Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), Hardy’s fourth novel and first major success, comedy prevails. Written while Emma was still at a safe distance in Cornwall, the novel reads like an extended betrothal. The independent shepherd Gabriel Oak proposes to the orphan girl Bathsheba. Bold and beautiful, she rejects him, but not outright. He loses his flock in an accident. She inherits a farm from an uncle where he finds salaried work. Socially above him now, she unwisely attracts the attention of the proud local landowner Boldwood, who bullies her toward marriage. Courageous in running her farm, Bathsheba is a child when it comes to romance. Before she can succumb to Boldwood, the disreputable Sergeant Troy seduces her with a dazzling display of swordsmanship that involves having his blade flash all around her body as she stands frightened and adoring. Desire and fear are fused. She marries him. But the mistake is not allowed to be fatal. Exposed as a rake, Troy is murdered by Boldwood. With both pretenders out of the way, Gabriel, who has done everything to protect Bathsheba, claims his prize. His loyal friendship is worth more than violent passion.

Having married in 1874, Hardy began to move Emma back and forth from London, where his career was flourishing, to Dorset, where his family was. Seven moves in eight years. The family the couple desired for themselves did not arrive. Allowed to help with his writing during betrothal, the childless Emma was now frozen out. She did not mix well in London, which she preferred, or at all in Dorset, which he preferred. One of the attractive aspects of Tomalin’s biography is how she so evidently wishes that the marriage had been happier than it was, that Hardy had treated Emma better than he did, that Emma herself had had more resources. She loves to stress the few times when things went well. The result is that the overall disappointment is, if anything, underlined.

In 1880, however, in London now, Hardy managed to revive the relationship by falling ill, confining himself to his bed, and allowing Emma to run his life for a few months. The recurring illness, vaguely described as a bladder inflammation, did not prevent the author from meeting his demanding publishing deadlines. On his recovery, Emma felt sufficiently reassured about her part in the marriage to agree to the building of a permanent home, near Dorchester.

Designed by Hardy himself, Max Gate, as the house was called, was small, unimaginative, and surrounded by a protective belt of trees which he would never allow anyone to prune. Guests complained that it was suffocating. Once installed, Tom and Emma promptly rented accommodation in London for the summer season. So the back-and-forth resumed. Hardy was approaching that age in which, as Emma would say,

a man’s feelings too often take a new course…. Eastern ideas of matrimony secretly pervade his thoughts, and he wearies of the most perfect, and suitable wife chosen in his earlier life.

In short, Hardy had adultery in mind. It was an exciting and anxious period, during which he produced two of the finest novels in the English language, Tess and Jude.

Returning pregnant to her family after her catastrophic period in service, Tess gives birth to a baby that promptly dies. Vowing never to marry, she goes as a milkmaid to a farm far enough away for her shame not to be known. Here she meets the perfect man, Angel Clare, trainee gentleman farmer. The scene is set for Hardy’s characteristically tantalizing mix of desire and trepidation. To raise the tension, both characters and their possible but difficult union are made enormously attractive. Here is Tess after an afternoon nap, viewed by Clare:

She had not heard him enter, and hardly realized his presence there. She was yawning, and he saw the red interior of her mouth as if it had been a snake’s. She had stretched one arm so high above her coiled-up cable of hair that he could see its satin delicacy above the sunburn; her face was flushed with sleep, and her eyelids hung heavy over their pupils. The brimfulness of her nature breathed from her…. With an oddly compounded look of gladness, shyness, and surprise, she exclaimed—“O Mr Clare! How you frightened me….”

Hardy wished, he said, to “demolish the doll of English fiction,” to present woman’s real sexuality. He is rightly given credit for doing so. But there was no question of a campaign for female emancipation. What mattered was the freedom to evoke the lure and terror of sexual experience. Who but Hardy would have compared the inside of a girl’s mouth to a snake’s? Not only threatening in her beauty, the woman is also frightened herself. Here, somewhat earlier, is the couple’s first conversation alone:

What makes you draw off in that way, Tess?” said he. “Are you afraid?”

Oh no, sir…not of outdoor things; especially just now when the apple-blooth is falling, and everything so green.”

But you have your indoor fears—eh?”

Well—yes, sir.”

What of?”

I couldn’t quite say.”

The milk turning sour?”


Life in general?”

Yes, sir.”

Ah—so am I, very often. This hobble of being alive is rather serious, don’t you think so?”

Two “tremulous lives” move toward consummation. Will Tess be forgiven her early calamity? Will Angel overcome class divisions to marry her? In short, is life a tragedy, or a comedy? In the bustle of the farmhouse amusing stories of infidelity are staple fare. Farcically, three other milkmaids are also swooning over Angel Clare. Perhaps life is not so serious. Yet when Angel kisses Tess and she responds with “unreflecting inevitableness” we are told that “the pivot of the universe [changed] for their two natures.”

Tess finds the courage to write a letter to Clare about her old trouble. She puts it under his door but there is a carpet on the other side, beneath which the note is invisible. Hardy is accused of introducing too many coincidences into his work. Tomalin seems to agree with the accusations. But coincidences have the effect of confusing the issue of responsibility, begging the question of fatality. They also give us the impression that a chance meeting or a mislaid letter can be quite as devastating to an individual life as any class discrimination or moral hypocrisy. There are simply so many things to be scared of.

Her secret untold, the couple marry. At last they are alone. No one can interfere. The lovemaking toward which a hundred and more sensuous pages have been leading is imminent. Clare chooses this moment to confess to an old sin of “eight-and-forty hours’ dissipation with a stranger.” Tess instantly forgives him and responds with her own history. Angel instantly rejects her. There will be no sex.

The scene is an extraordinary one. Suddenly, both lovers’ fears are entirely confirmed. For Angel, Tess is a different person; the decision to marry a girl from the lower classes has proved a terrible error: “I repeat, the woman I have been loving is not you.” With “terror…upon her white face,” Tess feels all the weight of Victorian morals and class prejudice crash down upon her. Meantime, the reader cannot help feeling that both partners were rather too ready to see the “terrifying bliss” of sexual love thwarted. Sooner than expected, “having nothing more to fear,” Tess falls asleep. Two days later, of her own accord, she returns home.

The novel bitterly divided its Victorian public. “Dinner parties had to be rearranged,” Tomalin tells us, “to take account of the warring opinions.” Was Tess, as the book’s subtitle provocatively claimed, “A Pure Woman” or, as many suspected, a “little harlot”? Victorians were used to thinking of sexual behavior in moral terms, good or evil. But Hardy had other polarities in mind. His characters are bold or afraid, generous or mean, strong or weak. He insists on Tess’s innocence. To make matters worse, Victorian justice is nevertheless done; Tess dies on the gallows after murdering the man who first deflowered her and who now returns to ruin her life again. But this is so extreme as to be a travesty of justice, a horror story. Poring over the conundrum, Victorians were invited to suspect that the moral rhetoric in which they smothered sexual mores was a pathetic cover for deep underlying phobia. This was far more disquieting than a story that was merely scurrilous.

While Tomalin is excellent at stressing the radical nature of Hardy’s attack on this aspect of Victorian society, she tends to pass over its peculiar nature and hence is left a little perplexed by the distance between the rebellious position Hardy takes in his novels and the strict conformity of his life. Discussing the fact that his midlife flirtations never led to very much, she tells us about the reluctance of the ladies to get between the sheets but never questions Hardy’s own ardor. Here are the closing lines from a poem about being ensconced, during a rainstorm, “snug and warm” in a stationary hansom cab with a possible mistress:

Then the downpour ceased…

…and out she sprang to her door:

I should have kissed her if the rain

Had lasted a minute more.

As so frequently in the novels, an external event offers an excuse for inaction. The famous author would never become an adulterer. The obstacle was not morality.

While Hardy’s lush lingering over budding womanhood has always been a problem for critics, when the same treatment was given to the English countryside he could only be applauded. Indeed, for many Hardy’s representation of landscape and country life, his creation, through a series of novels, of an imaginative world he calls Wessex (roughly corresponding to Dorsetshire), remains his greatest achievement. Certainly the rich evocation of fields, flowers, and farming life offers a welcome counterpoint to the disappointments of his characters. Yet Hardy’s treatment of landscape and peasant community is more than a backdrop or compensation.

Far from the Madding Crowd begins with a shepherd tending his flock on Norcombe Hill,

…a featureless convexity of chalk and soil—an ordinary specimen of those smoothly outlined protuberances of the globe which may remain undisturbed on some great day of confusion when far grander heights and dizzy granite precipices topple down.

This is Hardy’s deepest attraction to his Dorset landscape: low in profile, it lies beyond destruction, outside time. Through lavish description of it Hardy hoped perhaps to accrue these qualities of quiet resilience to himself.

In The Return of the Native all action takes place on wild heathland. In the chapter entitled “The Figure against the Sky,” a woman is seen standing on an ancient barrow that commands the dark landscape beneath. “Her extraordinary fixity, her conspicuous loneliness, her heedlessness of night, betokened among other things an utter absence of fear.”

Passionate Eustacia is looking for her lover. This bold detachment from both landscape and community is a position of maximum vulnerability, and glamour. How magnificent and very unwise of her not to be afraid. By the end of the novel, Eustacia’s torment is such that, far from wishing to stand out, she seeks relief by sinking into the landscape, drowning herself in the weir.

Fortunately, it is possible in Hardy’s view to alleviate suffering through partial rather than final merging with the natural world. Alone in a wood at night, for example, “the plight of being alive becomes attenuated to its least possible dimensions.” So in happier moments Tess’s “flexuous and stealthy figure became an integral part of the scene.”

This yearning for absorption into nature is as much Hardy’s as his characters’. How he relishes describing people ankle deep in leaves, covered with seed spores and cobwebs, surrounded by buzzing insects, butterflies on their breath, grasshoppers tumbling over their feet, dew on their hair, wind in their faces, rabbits at their feet, rain on their lips. What a pleasure for pen and personality to fuse themselves in vital, impersonal landscape. What a pity such restful retreats from adult life cannot last, or not until, as Tess reassures herself at one point, we will all at last be “grassed down and forgotten.”

A powerful death wish drives Hardy’s writing. Tomalin is uneasy with it, scrupulously documenting its manifestations but playing down its import. The fascinating tension that thus develops between biographer and subject makes it clear that Hardy is as challenging today as he was for the Victorians, albeit in different ways. The following note written in 1888 is quoted by Tomalin as an example merely of a “fanciful” idea:

If there is any way of getting a melancholy satisfaction out of life it lies in dying, so to speak, before one is out of the flesh; by which I mean putting on the manners of ghosts…. Hence even when I enter into a room to pay a simple morning call I have unconsciously the habit of regarding the scene as if I were a spectre not solid enough to influence my environment.

The desire to remain a child and be spared life and the desire to be a ghost and beyond life are closely linked. In between, terrible in its intensity, is adulthood. One could usefully think of Hardy the storyteller as a ghost within his own fiction, accompanying his fearful child-adults through the initiations that will lead them to wish they were dead and indeed to die, if not through suicide, at least without much resistance.

If Hardy hoped, however, that a writer, like a ghost, was not “solid enough to influence [his] environment,” he should have remembered George Meredith’s warning of years before. In the Victorian Age a novel could cause a stir and if Tess had charmed as much as it shocked, Jude only shocked. “Jude the Obscene,” “a shameful nightmare,” critics wrote.

Renouncing the reassuring descriptions of country life, the pleasing chorus of village rustics, with Jude Hardy arrives at the core of his defeatist vision. A poor orphan trying to hide from life in scholarship has a rude awakening when seduced by a raw country girl. Married and separated in a matter of pages, he falls in love with a refined cousin, Sue, a girl so terrified by sex that when she marries a much older man to escape Jude, she denies him consummation, returns to Jude in the hope that he will be willing to live with her without sex, then gives herself to him only when she fears that physical need will drive him back to his wife.

This is not easy material in any age. Coincidences and misfortunes abound. When the child got from Jude’s wife kills the children got from Sue and then himself, it is the death of hope tout court, the proof that all attempts to achieve happiness will end in disaster. It is better not to try. To provoke his Victorian readers further, Hardy again offered an ending mockingly in line with their moral convictions: appalled by the death of her illegitimate children, Sue gets religion and returns to her husband while Jude is seduced by his wife and returns to her shortly before his death. The shape of Victorian justice is thus again in place, as a nightmare.

Sensitive to reviews, Hardy was shaken by the storm over Jude and the consequences for his writing were profound. His novels had always been structured as melodramatic explorations of his own dilemmas, and the characters, as he said himself, “express mainly the author”; now, with his emotional life, as Tomalin shows, absolutely stalled, with his wife declaring publicly that she loathed Jude, it must have been clear that any further work of fiction would be disturbing to write and uncomfortable to publish. As a poet, on the other hand, he might more easily play the cryptic and inconsequential ghost; it was a medium that spared him too much narrative, too much contact with those great sufferers, his characters.

Tomalin accepts Hardy’s insistence that he concentrated on poetry because it required fewer compromises than fiction; with this acceptance goes the implication that his poetry is superior to his prose. But there is nothing that Hardy put in his poems that he did not put far more strongly in a novel, nor is there much sign of compromise in Jude. By comparison, the long and tedious patriotic poem The Dynasts (1904) is a dull appeal for public approval. Meantime, Hardy’s many short lyrics, beautifully wry, their deep pessimism traveling under a passport of charm, were carefully pitched so as not to inflame public debate.

By 1889 Tom and Emma were sleeping in separate beds. She had begun to write furious attacks on him in her diary. Hardy continued his sterile flirtations and never missed attending a funeral. In the mid-1890s they took up bicycling together. It offered a circumscribed adventure, a tolerable togetherness. In 1905 the twenty-six-year-old Florence Dugdale appeared on the exhausted scene, flattered both partners, and soon became part of their lives. When Emma died in 1912, Florence was well placed to kick out the relatives, take over the author’s life, and eventually marry him.

Hardy had always shied away from conflict. He never made political statements and avoided personal arguments. Yet his writing had always caused offense. The natives of Dorset felt they had been portrayed as simpletons. Emma complained he had betrayed their marriage and the Church, friends protested at his coarse presentation of sexuality. Now, no sooner was he married again than he offended his second wife with a handful of poems about the first. They are, as Tomalin maintains, among the finest he wrote.

The formula was simple: the aging widower is allowed a glimpse of his wife as she was when he first met her long ago. So we have the moment of first love and, simultaneously, the sad relief of afterward, with nothing in between but a poignant forty-year gap. Here is “The Voice”:

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,

Saying that now you are not as you were

When you had changed from the one who was all to me

But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,

Standing as when I drew near to the town

Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,

Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness

Travelling across the wet mead to me here,

You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,

Heard no more again far or near?

Thus I; faltering forward,

Leaves around me falling,

Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,

And the woman calling.

Real ghost and would-be ghost dissolve together into mist and verse. Florence was furious. Once again Hardy had taken revenge on those whose protection he needed. Once again he could protest it was only art, spectral, inconsequential. What reality could one ever ascribe to such a beautiful word as “wistlessness”?

Any biographer of Hardy faces the problem that he lived long after there was anything to report. Still, his death in 1928 affords Tomalin an excellent anecdote. Hardy’s wish was to be buried in the local churchyard at Stinsford: home. His literary friends wanted him at Westminster Abbey: town. In life he had been able to go back and forth between the two, but for a corpse this was impossible. The problem was solved with a gruesome bit of surgery: his heart was buried at Stinsford and his body cremated and interred in the Abbey. The decision about which part should go where was definitely right, but it was a compromise that left everyone dissatisfied.

It has been suggested in these pages in recent years, for example by John Updike and J.M. Coetzee, that we have little need of literary biography, that practically everything an author had to tell us is already present in his work. Well, reason not the need. Claire Tomalin’s biography, admirable particularly in filling in the separate settings of Dorset and London, allows the curious reader to muse for many hours on the relationship between life and fiction, between poetry and the novel. One returns to Thomas Hardy with renewed pleasure and surprise.


Doom and Thomas Hardy April 12, 2007

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