Miserable Creatures

C.H. Sisson

  • The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy. Vol. IV: 1909-1913 edited by Richard Little Purdy and Michael Millgate
    Oxford, 337 pp, £21.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 19 812621 2
  • The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper. Vol. IV: 1792-1799 edited by James King and Charles Ryskamp
    Oxford, 498 pp, £48.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 19 812681 6
  • The Land and Literature of England: A Historical Account by Robert M. Adams
    Norton, 555 pp, £21.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 393 01704 4
  • The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy. Vol. II edited by Samuel Hynes
    Oxford, 543 pp, £35.00, June 1984, ISBN 0 19 812783 9

The fourth volume of the Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy opens with a recommendation for Mr Harry Pouncy, ‘Lecturer and Entertainer’, of Dorchester, apparently with a view to his extending his fascinations to a wider public. There follows a note to Desmond MacCarthy suggesting – surely with the firm touch of a provincial or a Victorian survivor – that it would be better if the New Quarterly were called instead the Quarterly Herald or Quarterly Clarion, ‘or some such’. The first of these letters occupies five lines of print, the second three. Hardy was not the man to give away copy unnecessarily. In January 1909, at the age of 68, he had his last novel, Jude the Obscure, 12 years behind him and his first volume of verse, Wessex Poems, no more than ten years. He had just finished The Dynasts and was preparing Time’s Laughing-Stocks for the press. He was not only a well-known novelist but an incipient Great Figure; in 1910 he was awarded the OM. He was a clubman and at this stage still took a flat in London for a few weeks at the right time of year; one has the impression that all this was to advance his career rather than for any pleasure such things might give him. At home in Dorchester he was as guarded as ever: ‘Although I can influence a London public to a slight extent by press letters, I can influence nobody down here.’ He even seems to take a certain satisfaction in telling people what he is not willing or able to do. He is a curmudgeonly old man and no mistake, and as a correspondent he acts on the best security principles, telling no one more than he or she needs to know for the business in hand. Such a habit of mind can hardly make the most gracious of letter-writers, and Hardy is not one of those whose communications one reads for their own sakes, as one does the letters of Madame de Sevigné, Madame du Deffand, Edward Fitzgerald – or indeed of William Cowper, the new edition of whose Letters and Prose Writings has just reached its fourth volume. Yet Hardy’s letters are admirable in their way, laconic and to the point, written with his eye on the spirit-level, as becomes the son of a small builder.

Even without what we know of Hardy’s bonfires and of the extraordinary lengths he went to to deceive posterity or at least to keep it at bay, the very style of his letters could be taken as an injunction to the reader to mind his own business as he, T.H., was certainly engaged all the time in minding his, with relentless attention. ‘Some boys have at last been caught by our servants stealing apples on these premises,’ he writes to the Superintendent of the Dorchester police. ‘I am reluctantly compelled to ask you to inquire into the matter, & at least caution the boys, or get the Mayor to caution them from the bench.’ There must have been smiles at police headquarters and they seem to have settled for a constable speaking to the boys. Domestic – more or less – notes include arrangements for little trips with Miss Dugdale, that friend of liberty Edward Clodd appropriately providing a meeting-place where ‘the air, material & spiritual, was wonderful.’ Emma gets vital messages from the Athenaeum: ‘I did not bring my ordinary walking great coat – only that long water-proof: so I have to walk about in it, having nothing else.’ Then, on 27 November 1912, to Charles Gifford: ‘You will be grieved and shocked to hear Emma died this morning shortly after nine o’clock.’ There follow, besides the usual replies to condolences, a glimpse or two of the squalor of domestic unhappiness: ‘I am getting through E.’s papers ... It was, of course, sheer hallucination in her, poor thing, and not wilfulness ... If once I get you here again’ – he is addressing Florence Dugdale – ‘won’t I clutch you tight?’ Six weeks later he told her, from Boscastle:

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