by Martin Seymour-Smith.
Bloomsbury, 886 pp., £25, February 1994, 0 7475 1037 7
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In the midst of writing his biography of Philip Larkin, Andrew Motion was contacted by a spiritualist who claimed to have been speaking to Larkin in the Beyond; later Larkin sent a posthumous word of approval for the book. Could the cosmic wires have been crossed and could the spiritualist have been talking to Martin Seymour-Smith? For this massive biography of Hardy – or ‘Tom’, as Seymour-Smith chummily calls him – has the vehemence of divine revelation and the fervour of personal mission. ‘I wrote Hardy,’ the author explains in a remarkable press release, because ‘never has such an indisputable giant ... been so consistently maligned and abused for so long by the literary critics.’ The intention of his biography, according to the book-jacket, is ‘to restore Hardy to his rightful place as the greatest and most versatile English author after Shakespeare’.

In this crusade to return Hardy to his throne, Seymour-Smith does not grapple, as we might have expected, with the literary competition – with Dickens, Eliot or Lawrence – but rather with the alleged critical assassins: Carl Weber (‘a boorish vulgarian’), Robert Gittings (‘unscrupulous’), Richard Purdy (‘incapable of psychological insight into sexual matters’) and Michael Millgate (‘prim’), the devoted Hardy scholars who have given us studies of the work, an edition of the letters and several biographies. In an argument never explicitly stated in the book itself, but proclaimed in the press release and summarised on the jacket, these men – academics all – are said to have created a popular myth of Hardy as ‘a mean, snobbish, impotent pessimist who had little understanding of women, and who suffered from a feeble intellect’.

Seymour-Smith is out to defend Hardy against his own hyperbolic account of what others have said about him, but since he rejects such tedious items of the academic apparatus as footnotes, he acts as prosecutor, witness, jury and judge, playing all the parts in the trial like an energetic actor in the stage production of Nicholas Nickleby. Hardy’s unfortunate critics are berated head-on, sideways and round the bend, not only for their interpretations of the life, but also for such failings as their ‘relative ignorance of astronomy’, inexperience of kidney stones and lack of interest in animals. They are denounced in the third person and harangued in the second: ‘If you are too prosaic to be awed by the immensity of the universe and the comparative puniness of human beings, you cannot appreciate the writing of someone who is.’ They are awarded the odd patronising point for getting something right, and then collectively damned as ‘those who wish not to explain Hardy, but to deduct moral points from him’.

Seymour-Smith believes that he owes it to Hardy, ‘so loved by the reading public’, to insist on his morality and normality, as if these were the necessary characteristics of a great artist and the proper way to explain him. Did Hardy have troubles with his overbearing mum? Not a bit. Did he have an interest in homosexuality? Absolutely not. Was he fascinated by sexual violence? For shame! Did he neglect and betray his first wife Emma? ‘Despite the bitter differences which developed between them, they never ceased to love each other.’ Did he batten on the youth of his second wife Florence, and make her old before her time? In fact, it was her hysteria, perversity, and constant whingeing that cast a shadow over his final years. Was he weird about cats, mean with the servants, defensive about his class background? No way. Countrified? Au contraire. Impotent? A terrible slur on a virile Englishman, who claimed to be functional until his 84th year.

On the other hand, there are sexual secrets Seymour-Smith alone knows about Hardy and his wives. He speculates that Emma had a very early menopause or maybe a very late one. He surmises that before becoming Hardy’s secretary, Florence made a practice of masturbating her previous employer, Thornley Stoker, to whose invalid wife she served as companion. ‘Florence most certainly was the sort of woman who would prefer this to intercourse,’ and she ‘had undoubtedly been instructed in this by her mother’. He looks at a photograph of Hardy and Florence and suspects from the expression on their faces that they had just had sex, of some kind, and whenever Hardy is out of sorts, he is pretty sure that a woman is refusing him sexual favours. He is certain, too, that Hardy would never have thought of marrying Florence unless she had nagged him into it.

Does Hardy need a champion, and is Martin Seymour-Smith, ‘born in the same year that Hardy died’, the man? Certainly Seymour-Smith gets a lot of mileage out of his niggling, pumped-up disputes with Hardy’s other biographers. And for all I know, he may even be right in some of them; we can never really be sure what went on inside Max Gate. Hardy was notoriously self-protective, destroying Emma’s diaries, ghosting his own biography, keeping his heart out of his letters. Seymour-Smith’s insistence on Hardy’s intellectual capabilities, while it overstates the contrary view, is also a step in the right direction. But he cannot be right that ‘the literary establishment – with only a few exceptions – has been persistently mean’ about Hardy’s achievements. Despite Seymour-Smith’s misleadingly truncated bibliography there are few writers so admired and respected, few bodies of work so attentively read.

To judge the value of Seymour-Smith’s approach to the life, we need to look at the way it illuminates the work. And in every genre, it seems to me, he fails to give critical back-up to his partisan zeal. He repeatedly asserts the pre-eminence of Hardy’s poetic gifts, but when it comes to the poems, he is eccentric or speechless. Of ‘The Convergence of the Twain’, he maintains not just that it is also a poem about marriage, but specifically that the Titanic stands for the vanity of woman, the iceberg for ‘the icy indifference of the male when he is not sexually aroused’. Yet in this reading, however tendentious, there is at least an attempt at interpretation, which can’t be said of his efforts on behalf of Hardy’s poems about his cats. Hardy had many cats, with names like Kitsey, Peachblossom, even Kiddleywinken-poops-Trot, and they had a fatal tendency to wander onto the railway line behind Max Gate. Hardy buried them in the garden with little headstones he could show his guests and often wrote them elegies. Even the devoted Florence became impatient with Hardy’s self-pitying melancholy over their demise, and when, in ‘Among the Roman Gravemounds’, he wrote the line ‘That little white cat was his only friend,’ she found it ‘too much even for my sweet temper’.

Yet in ‘Last Words to a Dumb Friend’, written when Snowdove ‘met his death’ (as Seymour-Smith grandiloquently puts it) on the railway line in 1904, Hardy transcends sentiment. Beginning with lines of deceptive simplicity (‘Pet was never mourned as you/Purrer of the spotless hue’), its second half shifts to an idiosyncratic meditation on death:

Strange it is this speechless thing,
Subject to our mastering.
Subject for his life and food
To our gift, and time, and mood;
Timid pensioner of us Powers,
His existence ruled by ours,
Should – by crossing at a breath
Into safe and shielded death,
By the merely taking hence
Of his insignificance –
Loom as largened to the sense,
Shape, as part, above man’s will,
Of the Imperturbable.

As a prisoner, flight debarred,
Exercising in a yard,
Still retain I, troubled, shaken,
Mean estate, by him forsaken;
And this home, which scarcely took
Impress from his little look,
By his faring to the Dim
Grows all eloquent of him.

Many things might be praised in this poem: its technical mastery; the distinctiveness of its diction and use of abstractions; the unexpected reversal which has the owner becoming a prisoner in his ‘mean estate’; the mystery that dying confers even on the speechless and insignificant; the characteristically Hardyesque tone about the human condition. And what does Seymour-Smith say? That ‘it is so perfectly about a cat and our common ways of regarding cats that one wonders whether it really is so minor.’ In the end, he concludes, ‘there is really nothing that a critic can say about it.’

Seymour-Smith has a good deal to say about ‘An Imaginative Woman’, which he calls ‘one of the few unequivocal masterpieces of comi-tragedy among his short stories’, but his interest in it is almost purely biographical. Written in 1893, the story is among Hardy’s most interesting discussions of female erotic fantasy and the impediments to its fulfilment in conventional marriage. Ella Marchmill is married to a small-arms manufacturer from the Midlands, and is the mother of three children. At a holiday in Solentsea, the Marchmills are given the room formerly occupied by Robert Trewe, a poet whose work Ella, who writes poems herself, has long admired. In the room, she fantasises over Trewe’s photograph and the scraps of verse he has scrawled on the wall next to the bed. Back home, she initiates a correspondence under her pseudonym ‘John Ivy’, but the two never meet. Trewe kills himself, leaving a note in which he speaks of his yearning for the elusive woman of the dreams, the ‘imaginary woman’. Ella, too, pines away, and dies bearing the child she has conceived at Solentsea. Some years later, her husband finds a lock of Trewe’s hair, which she had begged from the landlady, and concludes that he has been betrayed; the child even resembles the dead poet.

Seymour-Smith analyses the story at some length as Hardy’s coded message to Florence Henniker, with whom he had been conducting a romance: ‘He caricatures himself as Trewe, and he satirises the state of emotion he has been in (and to a certain extent still is in) over Mrs Henniker; he also manages to see her in a new and more prosaic light.’ There are indeed biographical elements in the text, but they have little to do with its power. The poet and the lady are satirised, but Hardy also endorses their spiritual affinity; they are doomed lovers who achieve an uncanny union through the shadows of words. In a crucial scene, Ella lies in bed reading the phrases and couplets Trewe has left on the wall, ‘the least of them so intense, so sweet, so palpitating, that it seemed as if his very breath, warm and loving, fanned her cheeks from those walls’. He becomes her phantom lover as well as her male muse. Trewe’s suicide note, in which he explains his dream of a woman ‘unrevealed, unmet, unwon’, echoes the Shelleyan theme of the unattainable mate to which Hardy returned in The Well-Beloved.

Hardy’s manuscript revision of the story (the sort of academic material with which Seymour-Smith cannot be bothered) shows his fascination with the scene of ‘conception’, and the way he modified his original bawdy version to meet Victorian standards. During the 1890s, Hardy had to come to terms with his childless marriage. ‘My children, alas, are all in octavo,’ he wrote to one correspondent. ‘An Imaginative Woman’ embodies his own fantasy of literary procreation. In his comments on the published story, he stressed the medical verisimilitude of the dénouement. The resemblance between Ella’s child and the unknown poet, he wrote in 1896, was ‘a physical possibility that may attach to women of imaginative temperament, and that is well supported by the experience of medical men and other observers of such manifestations’. Despite the implication that the artist is a supreme egoist, his own well-beloved, Hardy also suggests that the male poetic imagination is a virile force, with the capacity to engender its like – just as his own octavo ‘children’ survive him in the cadences of English poetry and fiction.

Seymour-Smith has enormous regard for even the least of Hardy’s novels, but approaches them primarily via his biography and philosophy. He praises The Mayor of Casterbridge (1866) as ‘the first major poetic novel in English since Wuthering Heights’, and calls Henchard a tragic and mythic figure – which is not exactly news. But here, as elsewhere, he holds back from discussing Hardy’s understanding of the homosocial and homoerotic. Odd, because he repeatedly draws our attention to Hardy’s knowledge of lesbianism (notably in his novel Desperate Remedies), and his friendships with closeted homosexual men like Edmund Gosse. The biographical question about Hardy and homosexuality rests on his youthful relationship with Horace Moule, poet, essayist, reviewer and literary man about town, with whom, Michael Millgate says, his friendship was ‘of far greater emotional and intellectual importance ... than any other male relationship throughout his life’. The high promise of Moule’s youth was never realised. His tutoring jobs were interrupted by bouts with depression, alcohol and opium; at one point he had a mysterious breakdown and disappeared, to show up later in Paris. Gradually, too, Millgate maintains, his homosexuality interfered with his ability to get jobs teaching young men. Hardy saw Moule for the last time in June 1873; in September Moule committed suicide in his Cambridge rooms. Hardy’s grief was intense. He marked Shakespeare’s Sonnet 32 and Tennyson’s In Memoriam, texts Eve Sedgwick has called two ‘floating decimals in male homosexual discourse’. Some years later, Hardy wrote a poem to Moule’s memory, ‘Standing by the Mantelpiece: H.M.M. 1873’, a dramatic monologue in which Moule speaks as if on the threshold of death to someone who has rejected him:

Since you agreed, unurged and full-advised,
And let warmth grow without discouragement,
Why do you bear you now as if surprised,
When what has come was clearly consequent?

Millgate reads this very persuasively as an account of Moule’s sexual proposition to Hardy, and Hardy’s shocked response. Seymour-Smith seems to take the question of Moule’s homosexuality as a slur on Hardy’s manhood, and vehemently denies it. Yet if Moule did come out to Hardy – and we can only speculate on the facts of the situation – the poem manifests an extraordinary sophistication and empathy on Hardy’s part. It is precisely this sort of searching, unjudgmental effort to understand human feeling that makes Hardy a great writer, and that Seymour-Smith should be proud to claim on his behalf. Such perceptive empathy is also displayed in the portrait of Michael Henchard, and especially in Henchard’s infatuation with Donald Farfrae, a love so blatantly homoerotic that only social pressure and prejudice have blinded critics to it. Indeed, my own efforts to argue around it in a Seventies essay on the novel now demand correction.

Seymour-Smith wants us to see Hardy both as the Cerne Abbas giant of English literature, and, like his woodlander Giles Winterbourne, as a ‘good man who did good things’. But in making Hardy ‘good’, in fighting off any mention of his obsessions, superstitions and dark fantasies, he has sadly diminished him.

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