Inside most collections of letters is another ghostly volume we are unable to read, for it contains all those letters that have been lost or destroyed. Hence a scholarly enterprise such as the Purdy/Millgate edition, now complete, of Hardy’s letters, handsomely produced and impeccably edited though it is – or perhaps precisely because it has such a finished and monumental look – can inadvertently create a false impression. ‘Collected letters’ means, after all, ‘surviving letters’, and even though so much is here one is bound to wonder what is missing. Consider the case of Hardy’s mother. Jemima Hardy died in her famous son’s 64th year, and it is surely inconceivable that he did not write to her from time to time during the years he spent in London, or that she did not preserve at least some of his letters. Yet all that turns up in these seven volumes is a single three-line postcard. Probably the famous Max Gate bonfires consumed the rest. These collected letters constitute, therefore, a text quite different from that of a novel or an autobiography, even though they may offer some of the same satisfactions. They are less a Greek urn than a heap of shards.
All we know of Hardy, moreover, leads us to suspect that, as with Jane Austen and others, some of the letters we should most like to read are missing. In the final volume, for instance, the most frequent recipient of his surviving letters is his publisher. Sir Frederick Macmillan, the letters to him deal mainly with matters of business and are not very informative about that ‘amazing old man’ (to use the phrase that Hardy applied to Verdi), the author of such very late poems as ‘He never expected much’. What they do show is that Hardy never lost the habit, formed early, of keeping a watchful eye on the small print of his dealings as a professional writer. Within a few weeks of his death he writes to Macmillan about a proposed American reprint of one of his short stories, now 44 years old. When it came to questions of copyright, permissions and royalties, he was a man who used to notice such things.
All we know of Hardy, furthermore, does not raise high hopes of epistolary firework displays or soul-barings. A letter is a very special kind of text, usually intended for an audience of one, written ‘to the moment’ (in Richardson’s phrase), often part of a sustained long-distance dialogue, and at its best usually involving some element of performance, confession, manifesto, or other form of self-declaration. The best correspondents have both a hunger for experience and the itch to communicate it: one remembers Byron, attending in Rome the beheading of three robbers, sitting near the front with his opera-glass trained on the spectacle, and insisting in the letter written hot on the heels of the event that one should ‘see everything, once’. This wasn’t Hardy’s style: he was not only reserved, but had – very unpromisingly for a letter-writer, and very oddly in a writer of any kind – a natural tendency towards quietism and silence. In 1920, after a career lasting half a century, the Grand Old Man of English Letters writes to Alfred Noyes: ‘ “What a fool one must have been to write for such a public!” is the inevitable reflection at the end of one’s life.’
But there is, necessarily, more to Hardy than this, and he was always torn between the impulse to concealment (and even dissimulation) and the impulse to self-exposure. He can alternately repel the reader, as he might have warned a trespasser out of the grounds of Max Gate, and shock or embarrass by the candour of his disclosures: how extraordinary, for instance, was the decision to publish the ‘Poems of 1912-13’. The autobiography does both. It also retreats into the third person so as to present personal reminiscences in the guise of an official, marmoreal life and letters.
To read the letters is to encounter a personality that seems compounded of Mr Pooter and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. On the first page of Volume Six, in a letter to Sydney Cockerell, Hardy appears in the role of the Old Buffer: ‘I have kept all right so far this winter, but won’t brag.’ Three days later, in a note thanking John Middleton Murry for a presentation copy of one of his books, comes a sudden flash of intimacy almost painful in its nakedness: ‘I feel a sad sense of shortcoming at your good opinion of my writings & myself. I fear you do not know what a feeble person I really am, & how I have been weighted in the race – a race that was not worth running on my own account, though I am not sorry I have run it for one or two others.’ It was not that Murry was a much closer friend than Cockerell: it is as if Hardy catches candour like a cold, sneezing it at whoever stands in the way.
As this example suggests, Hardy’s confidences can be made in the most unlikely contexts. They also seem to have been a lifelong habit, not merely manifestations of an old man’s retrospective disillusion. In 1887 he began a letter to Edmund Gosse, ‘I shall be very pleased indeed to hand on the subscription to the Barnes memorial’; continued a few lines later, ‘As to despondency I have known the very depths of it – you would be quite shocked if I were to tell you how many weeks & months in bygone years I have gone to bed wishing never to see daylight again’; then started a new paragraph briskly, ‘Devonshire in September is lovely.’ Twenty years later, writing to Gosse about the recently-published Father and Son, he adds at the end, much as one might remark that the dahlias are coming along nicely, that he has been ‘mentally travelling in regions of inspissated gloom’. In 1909, a letter to Florence Henniker about vivisection suddenly turns a corner: ‘very much depressed with London, &, alas, with life generally – which I should not be particularly sorry to take my leave of’. The effect is akin to that so often experienced in reading Hardy’s poems, where an utterly unpredictable word or phrase produces a gasp or a frisson: in ‘Nobody Comes’ a car ‘whangs along’; in ‘The Old Gown’ a girl ‘pomped along the street’. Uninhibited by notions of decorum or consistency of tone, Hardy in poem or letter has the child’s knack of coming out with an unsettling remark in a totally unself-conscious way. (In a letter of 1920 he insists ‘I have no philosophy – merely ... a confused heap of impressions, like those of a bewildered child at a conjuring show.’) Yet he can be annoyed when others go in for truth-telling with himself as the subject: when a journalist in the Daily News describes his mood as one of ‘despair’, he complains that such a characterisation is ‘rather ridiculous & showed an apparent lack of humour in the writer’. At the same time his strategy of protest is typically oblique: he ‘should never have thought any more about it if it had not happened that acquaintances & friends of mine are protesting against this estimate as preposterous & an utter misrepresentation of character’. This is, in miniature, the technique of the autobiography, where the first person singular is replaced by ‘Mr Hardy’.
These two volumes conclude a series that began with the publication of Volume One ten years ago, and admiration of the high editorial standards is blended with amazement at the speed with which the project has reached completion. Like their predecessors, they offer some intriguing biographical vignettes. In the substantial section of additional letters included in the final volume, which also contains an excellent general index to the seven volumes, is a reference to his attending a suffragettes’ meeting in 1906: he does not say whether the lady who declared, ‘We have committed the crime of being born woman,’ was aware that the author of Tess was in the audience.
In the late letters – Volume Seven prints those of Hardy’s last two years – there are some vivid glimpses of the distant past. He recalls lunching at Bertolini’s ‘before Swinburne knew the place’, and (the unmistakable Hardy trademark) is back to the 17th century in two more hops: ‘In my time the floors were of stone, sanded, & the front of squared ashlar, just as in Dr Burney’s day, &, no doubt, Sir Isaac Newton’s.’ Most memorably recreated is the 70-year-old scene of Martha Brown’s execution, witnessed by Hardy as a boy of 16 and still a scrupulously exact, faintly erotic moving picture: ‘I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, & how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back.’
It has to be said that most of the letters are not up to this level, and many are dreadfully dull. But one reads on, waiting for the next surprise, which is likely to come when least expected. Unforgettable, in Volume One, is his message of condolence to Henry Rider Haggard on the death of his ten-year-old son: ‘to be candid, I think the death of a child is never really to be regretted, when one reflects on what he has escaped.’ Such a view does not prevent the joke he makes in congratulating another correspondent on the birth of a son from being a rather sad one: ‘My children, alas, are all in octavo.’ More engaging is the (again characteristically Hardyan) habit of describing a scene from an unexpected angle. He once said that if he were a painter he would like to paint a room as seen by a mouse from its corner, and in 1898, going to Gladstone’s lying in state in Westminster Hall, he observes the ‘plain oak coffin’ and records an overheard remark: ‘Two carpenters in front of me said “a rough job – ¾ panels, & l½ framing”.’ It is hard to think of any other writer who would have foregrounded the workmen in quite that way.
When, in 1920, the Oxford University Dramatic Society produced The Dynasts, Hardy wrote to the stage-manager, Charles Morgan, asking that, instead of being seated in the audience, he be placed ‘in some obscure box or (failing that) behind in the wings, from which I can come out at any time without notice’. The desiderated situation resembles that of the sharp-eyed, voyeuristic and invisible narrators of Hardy’s fictions, and in a rather different sense ‘coming out without notice’ is what the letters offer in their best moments. There are letters (like Keats’s) that belong to literature, and letters (like Eliot’s) that cannot sustain such a claim but which we are nevertheless glad to have for the piercing sense they can from time to time give of the man that suffers. Hardy’s belong to the second category. There is perhaps not one in the entire collection that calls out to be included in an Oxford Book of Unforgettable Letters, but their combination of the banal and the shocking is an aspect of Hardy that any biographer or critic will have to come to terms with.
Still, it ought not to be forgotten that a ‘collected letters’, even in seven volumes, is likely to be very different from a ‘complete letters’, if the latter phrase were to be taken to mean, as it never does, every letter written. Reading through them is like wandering amid a ruin and peering into such nooks and crannies as time, chance and calculated destruction have spared. An obvious manifestation of this is the very uneven coverage of different phases of Hardy’s life: the first volume contains the letters of 52 years, the last volume those of just two, and if we open the middle volume of the set exactly in the middle Hardy has already reached his 72nd year. From the year 1870, in which Hardy met Emma Lavinia Gifford and finished his first published novel, only one letter survives. We can only guess at what has vanished, but it was probably more revealing than what has survived.
This extreme unevenness of coverage is not at all unusual: in R.W. Chapman’s edition of Johnson’s letters, for instance, there are more letters from Johnson’s last year than from his first fifty years put together. The exception that proves the rule is Dickens, who became so famous so young that people carefully preserved the wonder-boy’s missives: as a result, the majestic Pilgrim Edition, in progress now for nearly a quarter of a century, is only half-way through his creative life. The letters of a writer like Hardy or Johnson, in which the chronological centre of gravity comes very late, are liable to tell us least about what we should most like to know. The special feature of Hardy’s case, however, is that the creative life itself is so long and unflagging. These late letters are the letters of a very old man who was also a practising poet: the final poems were dictated from his deathbed, and if he did not quite realise his ambition to be the first English poet to publish a volume on his 88th birthday it wasn’t for want of trying (in the event Winter Words, containing over a hundred poems, appeared posthumously).
The Hardyan blend of stamina, abundance and variety is Dennis Taylor’s starting-point in Hardy’s Metres and Victorian Prosody: not only was his career ‘longer than that of any other Victorian poet, indeed any English poet’, but ‘he wrote poems in more metrical forms than any other major English poet, indeed perhaps than any other poet.’ Although he survived to read Lawrence’s poems and to correspond with Pound, he never touched free verse, nor did he have much time for blank verse: stanzaic forms were his lifelong addiction, and Taylor’s long metrical appendix usefully catalogues the extraordinary variety of his practice. His conception of verse seems to have been musical, or more precisely song-like, though hymn-like would often be even nearer the mark – his ear was haunted by Victorian hymnody. There is point as well as pleasant paradoxical wit in the old unbeliever’s description of himself as ‘churchy’, and Larkin’s bicycling churchgoer, randy for antique, could be Hardy himself. Tate and Brady’s New Version of the Psalms of David and Keble’s The Christian Year (Hardy bought his copies of both of these in 1861), together with Hymns Ancient and Modern, the original version of which appeared in 1860-1, furnished him with models, and their influence long outlasted his faith. Not every reader of ‘I look into my glass’ is aware that it employs ‘Short’ Hymnal Stanza, or Resolved Poulter’s Measure, or that ‘The Impercipient’, in lamenting his exclusion from Christian fellowship, gains an extra dimension of wistfulness from its use of Extended ‘Common’ Hymnal Metre.
Taylor’s book is written in the spirit of Eliot’s dictum that one or two new facts about literature are worth a deal of exegesis. John Goode’s very different book belongs to the ‘Rereading Literature’ series, and the general editor warns us in his preface, lest the weak-stomached have any cause for complaint, that we are about to encounter a ‘dark bitter Hardy’ and ‘the full, astonishing force of Hardy’s radicalism’ in respect of ‘gender as well as class’. These views of Hardy might have come as less of a surprise to some of his contemporaries than Terry Eagleton seems to think, and as it turns out Goode’s book is conservative in its scope and structure. The presumed needs of the readership, in turn dictated by the imperatives of examination syllabuses, may have been responsible for the discussion’s being largely confined to the half-dozen most widely taught novels, but the time has come (and not all that recently) when it is important as well as possible to see Hardy whole, and it seems an anomaly to limit the Hardy volume in a series of this kind to a handful of texts – almost as if the Milton volume had confined its brief to an analysis of the political pamphlets.
As it is, the book, while learned and passionate, has some of the inevitable limitations of the cultural tour: we are encouraged to look long and hard at the great monuments but abetted in ignoring what lies behind and between and around them. A good part of the essence of Hardy is not just that he could produce Tess and Jude while complaining bitterly (and reasonably) about the restrictions of the medium, but that he could take time off between the two to write The Well-Beloved, a strange and haunting and utterly different kind of novel that Goode does not even mention. As Michael Irwin points out in his analysis of the ten-line poem ‘Waiting Both’ – in the latest issue of the Thomas Hardy Journal – whereas poets usually address objects (such as Grecian urns) that cannot answer back, Hardy effects ‘a bold, almost cheeky, reversal of normal poetic practice’ in having the star interrogate the poet. By ‘cheeky’ Irwin means something less glum but not less central than Goode’s ‘offensive’. It is a kind of cheek – its opposite might be convention or decorum – that permits Hardy to take on in a poem any subject from the cosmic to the banal, or even no subject at all (‘Nobody comes’ is a memorable poem about nothing happening), and to do so in a language from which no word is excluded. It may also be a kind of cheek that is responsible for the sudden flashes of self-revelation in the normally tight-lipped letters. One awaits the study that sets out to define the Hardyan quiddity by ranging at need over the novels (all 14 of them, not just the famous five or six), the thousand-odd poems, the short stories (now collected in a volume useful for keeping the door open but uncomfortable to hold in the hands), the collected letters, and much else, as if it all constituted one enormous volume that was sixty years in the making. There might be worse titles than Hardy’s Cheek.