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.
Thus in “The Son’s Veto” it is the mother who is tender, open, and lovingly docile while her clerical son is a mean-minded tyrant who refuses to let her find happiness in marriage to a tradesman, since a connection with him would lower his own social status. These transposed contrasts reveal Hardy’s understanding of the lurking hardness in family situations, in individuals’ capacity for concealment, and the pathos of the needs they conceal: Ned Hipcroft in “The Fiddler of the Reels,” though manly in behavior and appearance, is not really interested in sex and acquiesces in his wife’s relation with the fiddler; but is passionately—even pitilessly—concerned to keep and to father the fiddler’s child Carry. In “On the Western Circuit,” one of Hardy’s best stories, the childless and neglected wife “falls in love” with the young barrister who has seduced her servant, on whose behalf she has written to him engaging love letters; but she secretly and almost unconsciously wishes to keep the servant girl for herself in a quasi-lesbian relation, and to mother her expected child. To add a specially Hardyan twist the barrister is in love with the letters, not with the woman who wrote them or the girl he has seduced. Most writers of good short stories, like Maupassant and Somerset Maugham, exhibit in them in a virtuoso way both the authors’ toughness and their worldly-wise understanding. Hardy conceals his under the guise of a homely tale.
Nonetheless the stories reveal with remarkable accuracy the two sides of Hardy’s nature, so closely bound up not only with his parents but with social class. The close exclusive kinship of his mother’s family, the Hands, and the Hardys, was a function of the Dorset peasant class from which they sprang, despite all Hardy’s later attempts to represent his father as a professional builder and his family as the offshoot of an ancient stock which had come down in the world. It is surprising that these tales have not been more quarried by biographers, or inquirers into the Hardy enigma who might employ a Freudian approach, for they would reveal much of personal significance. Kristin Brady has written a workmanlike study of the stories and she has some good insights, particularly about A Group of Noble Dames, but neither she nor Hardy’s latest and most authoritative biographer of all, Michael Millgate, draws attention to the starkness and simplicity with which the two sides of Hardy’s nature come together in the tales.
In one of his poems, “The Convergence of the Twain,” the liner Titanic and the iceberg that sank her are imagined as growing up together, though far distant from each other, until the moment of their fatal match and marriage. It is a homely but sinister conceit of the kind in which Hardy was fond of indulging. Other poems suggest that he saw the convergence of himself and Emma, from their two remote rural backgrounds, in the same light; and it may well be that he was also aware of a personal image of the cold, dominant will in him coming into its unique relation in his life and art with his warm, receptive, and wondering side.
There is no doubt that Michael Millgate has in his own way projected a more convincing “convergence” than any previous biographer, and has produced what will surely be the definitive life. It is easy to read, continuously interesting, and crammed with facts—some curious and new—mild, peaceable, and understanding in tone. Whatever Hardy himself might have thought of those who dug on his grave he would no doubt be fair-minded enough to view it, and the picture of himself which it gives, with a grudging lack of resentment.
Millgate effectively pulls together the mean and stark little Thomas with the great writer Hardy. One of the ways he does this is quietly to emphasize Hardy’s remarkable sense of duty and fidelity, his unswerving loyalty to two incompatibles: his own close-knit family and the two wives who represented his own elected separation from it. His implacable and indomitable mother Jemima would have liked to decree that her four children would live celibate, in two pairs. She actually made this known to them: her younger son Henry, who followed his father in the building trade, and her two daughters, who became schoolteachers, in fact never married and lived more or less in each others’ pockets all their lives.
The death of Hardy senior in 1892 offers a good illustration of the kind of thing that went on. His tranquilly reflective good nature had acted as a sort of buffer; wife and mother were now in direct confrontation, and Jemima expected her son to be in constant attendance. A first-class row broke out, with Hardy’s sisters being virtually forbidden the entry at Max Gate—of course the mother had never come there—and this prohibition continued until Emma’s death. Hardy stoically retained his relation with both sides and saw nothing incongruous in burying his first wife beside her old enemy and rival. They were all of the one family, and whatever had happened in life there was to be no division between them in death.
Millgate is very good at slipping through the walls of family silence, without actually summoning them to fall down as his predecessor Gittings had done. If Hardy’s stories reveal in many cases a transmutation into art of the two sides of his nature, his novels use his sense of his own life in a different way. Millgate remarks of The Return of the Native that in it Hardy seems to try out another version of what might have gone wrong for him. A return to his native heath and a disastrous marriage leave Clym as the archetypal defeated and impotent intellectual, eventually reduced to a purely passive state and tolerated by society as a sort of quietistic and broken-down lay preacher.
There may be an element of wish fulfillment here, as in the background of so many great novels, for the real Hardy was constantly aggrieved and resentful at the attitude of publishers and public toward events and attitudes in his fiction. Emma particularly detested The Hand of Ethelberta, in which Hardy tries himself out as the daughter of a London butler who has succeeded in society as a kind of actress and poet-improvisatore and frequently finds herself at dinner tables where she is waited on by her own father. Like all really good plotting imaginations Hardy’s was decidedly epicene: before the final, rather mechanical chapters he informs Ethelberta with a good deal of original and erotic life of his own; and in Tess the process is carried almost to its logical conclusion, Hardy being both the deer and the hunter, the persecuted girl and her pursuers.
The correspondence, which Millgate is editing in a meticulously produced series of seven volumes in collaboration with that other doyen of Hardy studies, Richard Purdy, tends in the third volume to bear out the general temperateness of his approach to the skeletons in the Hardy cupboard. Between 1902 and 1908 Emma’s relations with her husband have usually been taken to be at their lowest ebb. She had detested Jude the Obscure; even more perhaps she had detested The Well-Beloved, whose pages bore ample evidence of Hardy’s views on the impossibility of marriage and the hopeless pursuit of romance. She complained of Hardy to visitors, sometimes asserting that she was a writer too, almost in the same class as her husband: she had sacrificed her life to him and he had never given her thanks or encouragement. She wrote bitterly about this in her diary, which her husband read after her death. She retreated to two upper attics in Max Gate and led a hermitlike existence. It was even rumored that she was certifiable, and Hardy wrote a poem with the epigraph: “I saw the form and shadow of madness seeking a home.”
But this gloomy picture was not the whole truth or even in a sense the half of it. That old affections and intimacies continued unabated, and that they were by no means wholly perfunctory is shown by Hardy’s letters to her during this period. They take for granted a life in common, passing on tidbits of news, giving a blow-by-blow account of visitors to Max Gate, if Emma was away, and of social life in London if she had remained in the country. Hardy remained a pertinacious attender of grand social occasions, but his letters show him doing this, as often as not, to give pleasure to relatives or dependents like his niece by marriage Lilian Gifford. He reports to Emma:
I ate no dinner yesterday, & although I had to undergo the fatigue of taking Lilian to the Academy Crush, I felt no worse. It was such a novelty & a delight to her that I was so glad I took the trouble; she never saw anything at all like it before, poor child, & though I felt past it all, I enjoyed it in an indirect way through her eyes.
The important thing about that letter is that it is as true in feeling as is “After a Journey,” the poem about revisiting the dead Emma. Hardy’s observations are always in their way as “true” as those of the characters in Shakespeare, and his life has all the richly intermingled aspects of muted comedy and tragedy that one finds in the plays. Hence perhaps the kind of interest we take in it. Hardy, like an aging Othello, is reporting to a Desdemona who had once lovingly urged him “to feed on nourishing dishes” and to keep warm. In the same spirit he had been, while his family was alive, in the position of a Hamlet obliged by deep and atavistic loyalties to keep in with his father’s ghost as well as with his mother and his uncle Claudius.
A sharing of the commonplace and the pleasure of others is an elementary connubial satisfaction the Hardys never seem to have forgone, even in these years. More unexpectedly they shared their literary experiences.
I have been reading H. James’s “Wings of the Dove”—the first of his that I have looked into for years & years. I read it with a fair amount of care—as much as one would wish to expend on any novel, certainly, seeing what there is to read besides novels—& so did Em; but we have been arguing ever since about what happened to the people, & find we have wholly conflicting opinions thereon. At the same time James is almost the only living novelist I can read, & taken in small doses I like him exceedingly, being as he is a real man of letters.
Much emerges from that, besides Hardy’s views on the novel and on “the man of letters.” He thought the latter a superior concept to the novelist tout court, and no doubt preferred to count himself as one. On James he conferred the same dignity, for Hardy would not have agreed with or even understood James’s sense of the novelist’s high calling.
That letter is to Florence Henniker, daughter of that earlier “man of letters,” Monckton Milnes, and wife of a distinguished but philistine British officer. Hardy had met her in Dublin in 1893 and been smitten at once, though she seems to have kindly but firmly demarcated the lines and progress of their relationship, possibly to his secret relief. The letters to her during this period have a slightly resigned philosophical air, as if he were gently reproaching her for her prudence while at the same time tacitly endorsing it. To “Em” Hardy made no secret of this relation.
There are four short letters to Florence Dugdale, the quiet little secretary with literary aspirations whom Hardy was to marry in 1914, two years after the death of his first wife. At this stage he encouraged her attempts to write but gave up doing so after they got married. He wrote after their first meeting: “I do not think you stayed at all too long, & hope you will come again some other time.”
The strength of Millgate’s biography lies not so much in its scholarship, which the reader can take for granted, as in its balance and its natural sympathy with the subject. Almost everything that is likely to be known about Hardy is now known, but Millgate has made nonetheless one important discovery which will be of considerable interest to devotees. Hardy met Eliza Nicholls, whose father was a coast guard at Kimmeridge in Dorset, sometime in 1862 when he was working as an architect’s assistant, and they seem to have been more or less formally engaged from 1863 to 1867. (They kept it quiet, but Millgate has turned up more or less conclusive evidence.) A serious and deeply religious young woman, Eliza seems to have been of considerable support to the youthful Hardy, but her seriousness and her religion may eventually have caused them to drift apart. Though probably more deeply attached to him than he to her, she was no doubt shocked by his growing agnosticism and the freethinking intellectuals whose tuition he sought, like his great friend and mentor Horace Moule, who was to commit suicide in 1873.
Eliza would no doubt have been no more successful as a wife for Hardy than her sister Jane Nicholls (with whom he seems to have flirted), or Tryphena Sparks, or Louisa Harding (“To Louisa in the Lane”), all of whose pretty features look out from the excellent photographs in Millgate’s volume. Hardy was no Don Juan, and it is unlikely he had intimate relations with any of them, though Millgate rather surprisingly speculates that Emma may eventually have “caught” her evasive suitor by pretending to be pregnant, the same device that Arabella uses in Jude. Sexually Emma was probably more like Sue Bridehead than Arabella, though this in itself need not have seriously thrown the relationship off balance: Hardy was clearly more attracted to girls glimpsed twirling a sunshade than to girls in bed. Any that came there could not forever have nestled in his imagination and been commemorated in his poems. Yet that “I am just the same as when…” is never insincere, even on the occasion he told Edmund Gosse that the young Helen Paterson, his “best illustrator” who had done the pictures for Far From the Madding Crowd, was the woman he should have married “but for a stupid blunder of God Almighty.” Wisely, no doubt, she married the fifty-year-old poet William Allingham in the same year in which Hardy began to take an interest in her.
Had we mused a little space At that critical date in the May–
One life had been ours, one place,
Perhaps, till our long cold clay–
Perhaps. But one enduring fascination of Hardy’s life to its readers, as to readers of the novels themselves, lies in the way his imagination fuses the literal and the humdrum with the might-have-been, with what his great admirer the poet Philip Larkin called
the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses….
Life is never really suited to our imaginations of it, as Hardy continually found, and is continuously reminding us.
October 7, 1982
Young Thomas Hardy (Atantic/Little Brown, 1975); Thomas Hardy’s Later Years (Atlantic/Little Brown, 1978). ↩