“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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.