By Claire Tomalin
Penguin Press. 486 pp. $35
In the summer of 1926, Thomas Hardy was visited at his house in Dorset by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, she being "the daughter of his old editor Leslie Stephen." Hardy, Claire Tomalin reports in this new biography, had read nothing of hers, although she had published several novels, most recently Mrs. Dalloway. Neither of the Woolfs was offended by this. Instead, both came away charmed by "his freedom, ease and vitality," Virginia wrote in her diary, and a year and a half later, not long after Hardy's death, Leonard published a tribute to him and his work, which he summarized as "in the full English tradition, solid works built about a story, in which, on the face of it, character, humour, description of scenery, criticism of life, philosophy, all have their place, but to which they are accessory," a body of work that added up to "a great novel and a great work of art." As to the man himself:
"This impression of simplicity and of something which is almost the opposite of simplicity was the strongest impression which I got from Hardy personally. At first sight, and when he began to talk to you, you might have thought that he was merely one of many men born in English villages. But he is one of the few people who have left upon me the personal impression of greatness. I saw him . . . in the house which he had built for himself at Dorchester, and which, with its sombre growth of trees, seemed to have been created by him as if it were one of his poems translated into brick, furniture and vegetation. He talked about his poems, and London as he had known it in his youth, and about his dog 'Wessex', all with great charm and extraordinary simplicity. He was a human being, not 'the great man.' "
It is one of the many strengths of Claire Tomalin's biography that she conveys in full Hardy's simple humanity. Obviously he was not a simple man as the term is ordinarily used -- indeed, the days of his long life were filled with complexity -- but he retained to the end an almost childlike fascination with and love for the quotidian world, which no doubt goes a long way toward explaining why, eight decades after his death, his work remains beloved and widely read. His novels and poems fall in and out of literary fashion, but they never fall out of print. He was not an unduly graceful prose stylist, and he tended to throw more into a novel than it could sustain, but, as Tomalin writes, his work is "full of curious and arresting perceptions, sublime moments, wilful and tragic men and women who impose themselves by their originality and their vivid human presence."
Hardy's life story has been written many times -- by Michael Millgate and Ralph Pite most recently -- and Hardy himself wrote a two-volume autobiography in collaboration with his second wife, Florence, which was published after his death. Tomalin brings to the task the skills of an experienced and accomplished biographer -- among her previous subjects are Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen and Samuel Pepys -- and the confidence of a deeply informed literary critic. Her prose is fluid, and she can see her subject's strengths and weaknesses clearly but sympathetically.
Whenever a biographer decides to take on a person whose life has been written many times, invariably and perhaps inevitably an attempt is made to separate oneself from the crowd. Tomalin's attempt to do this -- so at least I interpret it -- is to emphasize Hardy's poetry. She begins with the death of his first wife, Emma, in 1912. She had been ill for some time, and the life had gone out of their marriage years before, but Tomalin argues that her death was "the moment when Thomas Hardy became a great poet." He was "filled with sorrow and remorse for their estrangement" and "began at once to revisit their early love in his mind with an intensity that expressed itself in a series of poems." Tomalin writes:
"In these poems about Emma he is rediscovering repressed sorrow and forgotten love. He is like an archaeologist uncovering objects that have not been seen for many decades, bringing them out into the light, examining them, some small pieces, some curious bones and broken bits, and some shining treasures. There is a rising excitement in the writing as of someone making discoveries. He has found the most perfect subject he has ever had, and he has the skills to work on it."
This is a biographical judgment that rings true but a literary judgment with which I must respectfully take issue. To me, Hardy's "most perfect subject" was Wessex, the fictionalized Dorset that is the setting for virtually all of his fiction, most notably his five greatest novels, Far From the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. Hardy's poetry, though full of lovely moments, has never resonated with me the way these novels do, so the weight Tomalin accords it strikes me as excessive.
But this is a literary judgment. Though there are objective ways to measure literary accomplishment, they fall far short of the scientific and ultimately are subjective. What matters most about Tomalin's biography is the care with which she traces all of Hardy's writing to its roots in his own life. Her study reminds us that though a knowledge of a writer's life is unnecessary to an appreciation of his or her work, that knowledge can help us understand that work and its sources.
Hardy was born in Dorset in 1840 to a husband and wife of modest means. His father was a builder, kind and patient with a frail boy; his mother was "strong-minded and intelligent" and encouraged him to rise above his class at a time when class lines in England were rigidly drawn and almost impossible to cross. As a youth, he was deeply stung in church (a place he disliked) when the minister denounced people who were ambitious to rise in station, and this resentment stayed with him long after he had done precisely that. It is a persistent theme in his writing, the novels especially; other important themes include the ways of life of ordinary people, the injustices to which they regularly are subjected, the natural beauty with which they are surrounded, the country roads along which they walk: "The road became a theatre for action in his imagination and walking a central activity in his writing, used dramatically and to establish or underline character." By the 1870s, with the publication of The Return of the Native, he brought all this together. Henry James called the novel "second rate," but he was wrong:
"He was wrong because Hardy had found a true voice, sometimes awkward but tuned into experiences and feelings outside the range of Henry James. It is a voice that speaks to readers in many countries and to which successive generations have responded. With this voice Hardy established the territory in which he worked best in fiction, in which rural landscape is drawn with a naturalist's eye and country people are shown playing out their lives 'between custom and education, between work and ideas, between love of place and experience of change'. From now on all his best novels . . . were built on this foundation."
Those novels made him rich beyond anything he could have imagined and famous around the world. Though he never entered the aristocracy, he was on close terms with many members of it, who scurried to be in his company as the aura of his éclat grew ever brighter and wider. He was well aware, though, of how quickly and cruelly the upper classes could strike against their ostensible inferiors. In 1870, when he began courting Emma Gifford, her parents rejected him out of hand and refused to be present when they finally married four years later. In its early years, the marriage was reasonably happy, but husband and wife gradually drew apart; she enjoyed the fruits of his wealth and fame but thought she should get greater credit for her contributions to his work than she was given (or deserved), and he was so preoccupied with his work that he was frequently inattentive and distant. By the time of her death, he was in love with the much younger Florence Dugdale, though, as Tomalin says, he felt the loss of Emma deeply, which Florence (understandably) came to resent.
What Hardy lived for was his work. "From very early he began to make life into art, by seeing the special quality of natural occurrences and by dramatizing and embellishing them," but though he clearly had a calling to write he also went about it with supreme professionalism. He usually published serially and "suffered from bowdlerizing editors throughout his writing career," but he "understood the business side of writing, the importance of serialization, and how to deal with the American market, and the Australian, as well as British publishers and magazine editors."
He was not too proud to write for the market and accede to its demands, though when he prepared serials for book publication he put back material editors had removed and edited to suit his own standards rather than theirs. Among the many useful things his life and work tell us is that professionalism is not the enemy of art, but its agent and handmaiden. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.