Ghosts

Hugh Haughton

  • The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy by Thomas Hardy, edited by Michael Millgate
    Macmillan, 604 pp, £30.00, April 1985, ISBN 0 333 29441 6
  • The Literary Notebooks of Thomas Hardy: Vols I and II edited by Lennart Björk
    Macmillan, 428 pp, £35.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 333 36777 4
  • Emma Hardy’s Diaries edited by Richard Taylor
    Mid-Northumberland Arts Group/Carcanet, 216 pp, £14.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 904790 21 5
  • The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy. Vol. V: 1914-1919 edited by Richard Little Purdy and Michael Millgate
    Oxford, 357 pp, £22.50, May 1985, ISBN 0 19 812622 0
  • The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy: Vol. III edited by Samuel Hynes
    Oxford, 390 pp, £32.50, June 1985, ISBN 0 19 812784 7
  • Annals of the Labouring Poor: Social Change and Agrarian England 1660-1900 by K.D.M. Snell
    Cambridge, 464 pp, £30.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 521 24548 6
  • Thomas Hardy edited by Samuel Hynes
    Oxford, 547 pp, £12.95, June 1984, ISBN 0 19 254177 3

In a letter of May 1919 Hardy told his friend Sir George Douglas he hadn’t been doing much, ‘mainly destroying old papers’. ‘How they raise ghosts,’ he added. He was still at it in September when he complained of the ‘dismal work’ of destroying papers that were of ‘absolutely no use for any purpose God or man’s’. Such remarks must sound particularly dismal to Hardy’s modern editors and biographers. They could certainly find a use for his papers. Hardy’s marvellous late harvest of lyric poetry is riddled with ghosts like those he mentions here, and many, like ‘The Photograph’ with its vivid account of a woman’s portrait burnt in a ‘casual clearance of life’s arrears’, must have been by-products of the literary bonfires at Max Gate. For all that, the ghosts of the papers are bound to haunt the scholars.

What Hardy didn’t tell Sir George (or anyone else for that matter) was that he had decided to pre-empt posterity and become his own editor and biographer. He was ‘ghosting’ his own life, to appear posthumously under his wife’s name. The destruction of his private papers was part and parcel of a plot to construct his public biography in such a way that it would have first-hand documentary authority without first-person responsibility – the exponent of candour in fiction was not one to practise it strenuously in his own life or Life – and without leaving any inconvenient evidence around which would counteract the official portrait he wished to be remembered by. The elaborately maintained fiction of its authorship was a particularly brilliant way of clearing his life’s arrears.

All the same, the editors have had plenty of work to do, and soon every scrap of paper that survived the purges at Max Gate will have been through the mill. Michael Millgate calls his new edition of the biography ‘The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy by Thomas Hardy’. Since he has stripped it of the thin marital disguise of his wife’s name and cleared it of Florence’s editorial emendations carried out after Hardy’s death, he feels able to present it as ‘an entirely Hardyan text – an autobiography in short’. But it’s not an autobiography, nor was meant to be. The book itself declares that Hardy had not ‘sufficient admiration for himself’ to write his memoirs, while Florence told Sydney Cockerell he would probably burn all his notes (i.e. the text) if it were ever referred to as an ‘autobiography’. I don’t think the third-person disguise was simply camouflage: it corresponded to a need in Hardy the writer as well as in Hardy the man protecting his privacy. It is written as if by his wife, a view from the outside, call it Hardy’s Not I, and should really be presented by the convoluted title: The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy by Florence Hardy by Thomas Hardy, edited by Michael Millgate. The secret surrounding the authorship of the Life was not only a device to shield the secrets of Hardy’s life (though it helped); it corresponded to something inherent in his vision of life and attitude to narrative. His novels don’t make significant use of first-person narration, however close his apparent identification with his characters. The Life, even in this new version which represents Hardy’s final text as far as that is possible, insists upon an unbridgeable formal distance from its subject (i.e. Hardy). ‘They all appear to have been fugitive,’ it asserts of his early infatuations with girls (Hardy presumably knew whether this was a true or false appearance); of a Venetian lady it says, ‘it is not known whether the Italian Contessa in A Group of Noble Dames was suggested by her’ (it must have been known by Hardy); and apropos his mood in 1870 it plays the detective: ‘a minute fact seems to suggest that Hardy was far from being in bright spirits,’ – a reference to his marking Hamlet’s words, ‘Thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart, Horatio.’ At one point Florence cut down the meaninglessly mysterious phrase ‘it is believed that he viewed’ from a dull account of some occasion at the Sheldonian and replaced it with ‘he viewed’, obviously exasperated at his parade of unknowing. There’s a fair degree of Nabokovian mystification about, as Hardy plays around behind the dead mask of the prose he thinks suitable for his wife, not too far removed from what he calls his ‘wilful purpose’ in the early novels ‘to mystify the reader as to their locality, origin and authorship’. His novels from first to last, for all their queer impersonal intimacy with the life of their characters, are usually written from outside. Even where, in the Life, he describes his mother’s walk, he falls back on the device of someone else’s view of it: ‘strangers approaching her from behind imagined themselves, even when she was nearly 70, about to overtake quite a young woman.’ The genre of the Official Life, on the model of Colvin’s Life of Keats, enabled him to use a combination of documentary (via quotation from letters, notebooks and so on), novelistic surmise, and projection into the viewpoint of a third person. The Life is a monumentally extended version of the device of the summary poem ‘Afterwards’ which conjures up a neighbour’s impromptu epitaph on him: ‘He was a man who used to notice such things.’

The Life quotes a diary entry of 1888 which says: ‘Be rather curious than anxious about your own career; for whatever results may accrue to its intellectual and social value, it will make little difference to your personal well-being. A naturalist’s interest in the hatching of a queer egg or germ is the utmost introspective consideration you should allow yourself.’ Hardy, as the diary entries and the thousand pages of poems shows, was indeed a queer egg. Perhaps only a queer egg would see himself in that light. Yet for him the main interest of the Life was his ‘intellectual and social value’ as an author: the ‘egg’, the ‘germ’, is almost incidental, though glimpsed by flashes in the quotations from the burnt notebooks. So the book tells us little about Hardy’s well-being or how ill all was about his heart, but a lot about the progress of his ‘career’ as a Victorian Man of Letters. Like the early Hand of Ethelberta, it’s a story of remarkable social and literary success, but Hardy, like his ambitious and unhappy heroine, plays a role in the Life that obscures his real social and family background, like Ethelberta’s among the labouring classes of Dorset. It is not only his private life that Hardy keeps under wraps – we hear next to nothing of his unhappy marriage with Emma, for example, or his recurrent infatuations with pretty literary women, or the effect of his mentor Horace Moule’s suicide at Queen’s College, Cambridge; there’s no mention of his mother’s early life as one of seven children brought up on parish relief or of her time as a maidservant, of his uncle being a farm-labourer, or the blighted life of the intelligent, radical cobbler John Antell who married into the family. Instead, Hardy exaggerates the scale of the Rockhampton cottage where he was born, his father’s status in the social scale (he attributes his comparative lack of success in the building business to his being by nature ‘the furthest removed from a tradesman’ that could be imagined) and the family’s grander connections with the ‘Dorsetshire Hardy’s’, in honour of whom Hardy had considered changing his name to Thomas le Hardy. Hardy didn’t change his name mercifully, but he does tailor the facts to suit the respectable genteel image he wanted to promote and cuts out the names of many of his early family and friends, just as he reportedly ‘cut’ the Hands, Sparkses and Antells when he and Emma cycled past them through Puddletown. The Life, that is, quietly disowns the past that his Work made his own – the life of the rural poor of Dorset, the struggles of educated and upwardly mobile men and women estranged from the community they are born into, the local landscape – just as it ignores the marital unhappiness and sexual restlessness that Hardy shared with his main characters. Though none of his novels is strictly autobiographical in the manner of Joyce’s Portrait or Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, they reveal, with far greater intensity than the Life does, the profound tensions and cruel dynamism underlying Hardy’s struggle for literary and social success.

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