Hardy’s Misery

Samuel Hynes

  • The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy. Vol. 2 edited by Richard Purdy and Michael Millgate
    Oxford, 309 pp, £17.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 19 812619 0

The first volume of Hardy’s letters, published two years ago, covered the three decades from 1862, when at 22 he set off for London to work as an architect, to 1892, the year after the publication of Tess. The story that those earlier letters tell is mainly the story of a career: how Hardy cast off architecture and took up novel-writing; how by 1884 he had earned enough from his books to build himself a substantial house near Dorchester; how a few years later he could also afford a flat in London for the ‘season’; how in London he entered both the world of letters and the world of Society, lunched with Browning and dined with Matthew Arnold, and visited Lord This and Lady That and the Honourable Whatshisname. The Hardy that we have at the end of the volume is a prosperous, middle-aged English Man of Letters, someone who might have written the works of, say, Edmund Gosse, or Walter Besant.

But a career is not a life. There was another private story in those earlier years – of a failed marriage and an unhappy wife, of childlessness and estrangement and despair. That story scarcely enters the letters, because Hardy was determined to suppress it: he burned his personal letters and papers and those of his wife, and he even dictated his own biography, to be published after his death under his second wife’s name. In so doing, he not only eliminated everything from his life that was not career, he also shaped and interpreted the career that was left – he created his own image. It was as though he had said: the part of my life that I could control shall stand for the whole: the other, uncontrolled part I will erase. Better to exist for posterity as Gosse than as Jude.

The second volume of letters spans the eight years from 1893 to 1901. These were crucial years for Hardy, years during which he underwent a profound transformation. One can begin to describe that change in literary terms by saying that during these years Hardy brought his career as a novelist to an end, and henceforth wrote only verse: but the change was far more than simply a matter of turning from one literary career to another. Hardy dismantled the whole Man-of-Letters career that he had so laboriously constructed, and replaced it, not with another kind of literary career, but with a private poetic life. It wasn’t merely that he had decided to write poems for a while, but rather that a change had occured in his sense of himself, and of his life, that made private poems the only possible mode of utterance for him.

Hardy underwent this change at a time when his public career was at its peak. His letters of the early Nineties are stuffed with references to London social successes, and at the same time contracts were arriving, editors were pleading for contributions, and the books were selling in ever-increasing numbers (100,000 copies of Tess were sold in one cheap edition alone at the end of the decade). Hardy was rich, he was famous, he was lionised – that is the substance of these letters. And he was miserable – that is the subtext. It is only the subtext: Hardy was not a man to reveal his private feelings, or, if he did reveal them, to allow such revelations to survive. Still, there are signs, even in these reticent and business-like letters, of a strained and suffering man.

One source of his misery enters the letters of 3 June 1893, when Hardy addresses for the first time ‘My dear Mrs Henniker’. Florence Henniker was a fellow novelist, though a very minor one; she was also, and more important, a lady of high social position, daughter of an earl, sister of the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, and wife of an officer in the Coldstream Guards. And she was beautiful, in a haughty, long-necked way, if we can believe her photographs. Hardy and his wife first met her in Dublin in 1893 when they visited the Viceregal Lodge, where she was serving as hostess to her widowed brother, Lord Houghton; she was 37 then, and Hardy and his wife were both 52. Hardy later recalled the visit as a ‘romantic time’, though characteristically he did not say what had made it so.

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[*] Young Thomas Hardy and The Older Hardy, 368 pp., and 325 pp., £1.50 each, 26 June, 0 14 004667 4 and 0 14 005049 3.