What is this? ‘Two miles behind it a jet of white steam was travelling from the left to the right of the picture.’ It is a train, viewed across a valley, in Jude the Obscure (1895), and it is the only sentence offered there about this train. Flaubert is always described as the great cinematic novelist, the great novelist of detail, and indeed Flaubert has his own described train-steam too – similarly seen, in L’Education sentimentale, across fields, but ‘stretched out in a horizontal line, like a gigantic ostrich feather whose tip kept blowing away’. But where Flaubert turns his train-steam into writing, flourishing his fine literary simile, Hardy, flirting with the pictorially gnomic, seems to want to resist that conversion; Hardy would like to preserve the visuality of the detail.
Hardy was supremely a man ‘who used to notice such things’ as he describes himself in his poem ‘Afterwards’. Most of his readers thrill to the precision with which he captures the world: the ‘scarlet handful of fire’ in the grate of Gabriel Oak’s hut in Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), or Bathsheba, in the same book, watching her horses drinking, ‘the water dribbling from their lips in silver threads’. In The Return of the Native (1878), the opening of a door during a rainstorm, at night, is described like this: ‘Thomasin … began to discern through the rain a faint blotted radiance, which presently assumed the oblong form of an open door’.
But Hardy is at his best when he both sees and feels, when he uses his almost eerie tactility, an animistic ability to enter other things and animals and humans and live their lives. In his literary notebook, he copied out sentences from G.K. Chesterton’s book about Robert Browning, published in 1903. Chesterton had written about ‘the terrible importance of detail’ that apparently possessed Browning in an almost demonic way:
Any room that he was sitting in glared at him with innumerable eyes & mouths gaping with a story … If he looked at a porcelain vase, or an old hat, a cabbage, or a puppy at play, each began to be bewitched … the vase to send up a smoke of thoughts & shapes; the hat to produce souls as a conjuror’s hat produces rabbits.
Hardy comments: ‘this is true of all poets – not especially of Browning,’ and double-underlines his last four words. The Hardy also possessed by ‘the terrible importance of detail’ is the writer who is not embarrassed to write the scene in which the yearning Jude Fawley lifts his face to the winds, calculates how fast they have travelled from desirable Christminster, speaks to them, ‘You … were in Christminster,’ and then hears the bells of that city, which seem to call ‘We are happy here!’ This is the poet who likens the silence and speed of a hawk flying at twilight to ‘an eyelid’s soundless blink’, who writes a poem to his father’s violin and sees ‘Ten worm-wounds in your neck’, who imagines himself a sundial in ‘The Sundial on a Wet Day’ (‘I drip, drip here/In Atlantic rain’), and who uses a felled log to remember his dead sister in ‘Logs on the Hearth’:
The fire advances along the log
Of the tree we felled,
Which bloomed and bore striped apples by
Till its last hour of bearing knelled.
Proust accused Flaubert of not creating even one great metaphor, which is palpably unfair, but Hardy’s work has scores of them, a flowing stipend of brilliance. Yet while one is always aware of Flaubert aesthetically shaping his details, squeezing out the chilly gel of their chosenness, Hardy seems to treat simile and metaphor as a mode of quick warmth, a way to bring an alternative life onto the page, without too much thinking about it. Of course, much thought has gone into this impression of less thought: Ezra Pound commented on Hardy’s way of keeping his mind on his subject-matter, and ‘how little he cared about manner, which does not in the least mean that he did not care about it or had not a definite aim’.
So frosty grass rustles ‘like paper-shavings’ underfoot in The Woodlanders (1887), and in the same novel stinging rain is described like this: ‘The morning had been windy, and little showers had sowed themselves like grain against the walls and window-panes of the Hintock cottages.’ Yes, we think, hard stabs of rain could be just like grain; but the second metaphor, ‘sowed’, is extraordinary, and goes beyond what most of us could imagine, since like most original metaphor it forces together incompatible media, and is, technically, mixed (you can sow grain but not water). Again, in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), Angel and Tess journey on a cart, with the ‘clucking of the milk in the tall cans behind them’: it might seem here as if the writer is going to the wrong part of the farmyard for his likeness, until we try to hear the slopping cluck of milk against a hard pail. Has anyone described the way light changes during the morning better than Hardy does, in his poem ‘The Going’: ‘while I/Saw morning harden upon the wall.’ One can see, with the help of these lines, the light becoming more solid, more densely itself; and of course our mornings harden in a different way, too: our days tend to begin loose with possibility, and then harden around us as the lost hours progress and we feel their unfreedom accrete.
Henry James was snooty about Hardy, but I wonder how James would have done, if given as a kind of literary test a cow’s udder to describe? Admirably, no doubt, with his usual lyrical paradox of oddly precise euphemism, but certainly without the solidity of Hardy’s sentence in Tess: ‘Their large-veined udders hung ponderous as sandbags, the teats sticking out like the legs of a gipsy’s crock.’ Again, that likeness to a sandbag is good but ordinary enough; but the teats like the legs of a common stool is absolutely alive. A lot of rather condescending nonsense used to be written about ‘the good little Thomas Hardy’ (James’s phrase, alas) and his modest social origins, those origins somehow explaining both the qualities and the lapses of his writing. Nevertheless, it is hard to escape the conclusion that some of the power of his writing flows from his rural childhood, with its long country walks and immersion in both the natural world and the particular poetry of dialect speech. Again and again Hardy’s images dip into the rural near-at-hand: paper-shavings, grain, ‘clucking’ milk, an eyelid’s blink, the legs of a stool.
That is why we find in his writing a tendency visible in Dickens, Chekhov, Lawrence, and Henry Green’s Loving: his own metaphors get very close, in style, to the speech of his least lettered characters, who in turn often use images that Hardy himself might have polished up a bit and used in his descriptive prose: ‘I were as dry as a lime basket,’ says Master Coggan in Far from the Madding Crowd. ‘They read that sort of thing as fast as a night-hawk will whir,’ a traveller says of the busy dons of Christminster. Tess’s mother describes her father’s unhealthy heart as ‘clogged like a dripping-pan’, while ’Liza-Lu more simply – but even more vividly – says that it is ‘growed in’. The character’s dripping-pan is not far from the author’s gypsy’s crock, and we see these two styles merge, as it were, in a moment in The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), when Hardy writes about twilight: ‘It being now what the people call the “pinking in” of the day, that is, the quarter-hour just before dusk.’ How Hardy must have relished hearing people talk of the ‘pinking in’. He told Robert Graves that some critic had upbraided him for writing: ‘his shape smalled in the distance.’ But how else, Hardy said, laughing, could he have written it? (Lawrence, who took so much from Hardy, has ‘the dawn is wanly blueing’ in Sea and Sardinia.)
It is one of the signal pleasures of Claire Tomalin’s superb new biography that she has an eye for this kind of thing in Hardy, and quotes so well from him. We know a good critic is at work from the start, when she mentions in her prologue the poem ‘The Voice’, which recalls the young writer meeting Emma Gifford, his wife-to-be, at a station in Cornwall.
Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!
Hardy changed the last line from ‘Even to the original hat and gown’, which Tomalin calls ‘dull’, to the ‘original air-blue gown’, which she calls ‘marvellous’. Hundreds of quotations follow, in the course of the book, and for almost every one Tomalin has a sharply appraising eye. This is, of course, a crucial – and you would think, inevitable – qualification for writing about Hardy; yet there are Hardy scholars who deal almost grudgingly with his Keatsian harvest, as if long storage in the barns of the academy had corrupted it. Years of experience as a biographer have taught Tomalin how to compress a summary of a novel into a couple of pages, and how to add a commonsensical yet acute judgment in a few paragraphs. She works, as she acknowledges, in the shadow of the extraordinary labours of Michael Millgate, whose revised biography of 2004 is the standard scholarly account. Millgate is invaluable, the definitive authority; but as he himself might admit, his very scrupulousness tends to slow down his narrative, gnarling it in necessary footnotes and parentheses. Tomalin’s book is a popular biography, and it cuts a wonderfully free, shapely narrative path through the sources (she tells the life in a neat 380 pages). She is a very congenial guide, always palpable on the page, sorting and shaping and narrating.
Above all, narrating. It is a moving story, and Tomalin tells it as vividly, with as great a fund of sympathy and sense, as can be imagined. Probably only the lives of Dickens and Lawrence rival Hardy’s, with its rise from the relatively prosperous upper working class into the establishment, its triumphant asymmetries of origin and arrival. The boy whose own father was barely literate (Tomalin quotes a halting letter) ended his life corresponding with Edmund Gosse and Edward Elgar, and lived long enough to scent posterity’s massive approval of his work. The boy whose mother in 1833 had watched from the roadside the passage of Princess Victoria hosted the Prince of Wales at his own house in 1923: Tomalin includes the famous photograph, with Hardy, his second wife, Florence, and the prince sitting awkwardly in the garden at Max Gate, on wicker seats. Florence looks almost asthmatically taut with terror, but Hardy, the only one not looking at the camera, is serenely sunk in himself. The prince confessed that he had not read a word by his host. But what could that matter, really, to Hardy? Imagine the sense of triumph: Tomalin cannot help remarking that it was from the prince’s grandfather that Hardy had purchased the plot of land on which Max Gate stood, and her caption speculates that he may have ‘felt understandably proud that royalty now came to him’, which is just what we want her to suggest.
Remove the aspirant mother and half of English literature would disappear. Hardy’s father was a builder and his mother, Jemima, had been a servant in several households. Tomalin suggests that Jemima’s exposure to literate and genteel families probably encouraged her social aspirations for her children. Unlike her husband, she was a great reader, counting The Divine Comedy and Rasselas among her favourite books. Perhaps it was Jemima, Tomalin writes, who pushed her son, in successful later life, to go up to London for the summer Season, having herself witnessed the ritual from downstairs as a young woman, when the family she served would transfer itself to London.
Like Lawrence’s mother she used her son’s feeble physique as a way to bypass the family calling, and sent him off to Dorchester (a three-mile walk each way), where he attended a good school run by a Nonconformist headmaster, Isaac Last. He read widely, loved animals – cruelty to animals is a recurring theme in his work – and, like Cézanne in this respect, hated to be touched, a characteristic he never lost. At the age of 12 he bought himself a Latin primer; at 16, he was articled to a Dorchester architect – the young Hardy’s expertise as a sketcher of churches and his knowledge of Gothic building would keep him in such employment for years.
Appropriately, then, the formative intellectual relationship was with an upper-class family. Hardy became close friends with Horace Moule, the rebellious son of a prominent local vicar, whose other children all ended up in impeccably conformist careers, most of them ecclesiastical. Horace Moule committed suicide in Cambridge in 1873, worn down by opium and drink. But in the 1860s, the time of their burgeoning fellowship, he and Hardy exchanged radical books and ideas: the liberal Essays and Reviews of 1860 (which defended German biblical criticism, among other things), perhaps The Origin of Species of 1859 (it is not clear how early Hardy read this, though he always claimed Darwin as a major influence), Mill, Comte, Marcus Aurelius. A pattern of self-education, ravenous and stringent, had begun. In London for five years from 1862, Hardy attended French classes at King’s College, and went daily for a time to the National Gallery to study a selected painter or painting. His Literary Notebooks, which have been edited into two large volumes, show how widely he read, painstakingly copying out essays from journals, and summarising books in English and French – on Russian and French realism, on German philosophy, on evolution, religion, science, music. Late in his life, he made note of Einstein’s theory of relativity, and of Prufrock and The Waste Land.
Tomalin is sensitive to Hardy’s class-consciousness, and to the relative perilousness of his social position. She points out that Henry James arrived in London at around the same time, with a bond for £1000 in his pocket and letters of introduction to all the right people. Hardy, meanwhile, poor and relatively friendless, was trying and failing to get published the manuscript of a novel, tellingly titled The Poor Man and the Lady. He wrote in his notebook, in October 1870: ‘Mother’s notion, & also mine: That a figure stands in our van with arm uplifted, to knock us back from any pleasant prospect we indulge in as probable.’ Nowadays, we read this metaphysically, in the stained-glass light of Hardy’s theological pessimism. But it might more likely be seen as the expression of a straightforward social fact. He could be knocked back at any moment. Horace Moule, for instance, wrote both warmly and condescendingly about his friend’s novel A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873): ‘You understand the woman infinitely better than the lady,’ and went on to refer to ‘slips of taste, every now and then’. Hardy met Emma Gifford in 1870, and the courtship proceeded fast. But without solid prospects or income, it would be four years before he could marry her, and her father, a solicitor, strongly objected, on grounds of social disparity: Hardy went to Cornwall to ask for her hand, and never spoke to him again. Emma, wilful and fiery, was not deterred, but in a horrible irony, as their marriage deteriorated and the two grew alienated, she would snobbishly disdain her husband’s origins and his devotion to Dorset. This, then, was the background of the man who in later life went up to London every summer to attend grand parties, who used his Savile Club connections and who developed an embarrassing tendency to fall in love with well-born ladies: anxious pleasures, no doubt, and easy to forgive.
His cold eye on class and social mobility makes his fiction compelling, a different compulsion from the accelerated grimace of his melodramatic, libretto-like plots. His novels are often fantastical, but about class they are grimly realistic. Eustacia Vye, in The Return of the Native, is an English Emma Bovary, looking longingly at Paris as the escape from the provincialism of Egdon Heath. Elizabeth, in The Mayor of Casterbridge, occasionally lapses into dialect, ‘those terrible marks of the beast to the truly genteel’, Hardy remarks. Corrected speech is one of the things that sets Tess apart from her impoverished family. Hardy’s heroes and heroines are forced to make marriage choices that are sociologically fraught: will the landed female farmer marry the yeoman or the gentleman farmer (Bathsheba and Gabriel Oak or Farmer Boldwood)? Will the milkmaid marry the clergyman’s son or the nouveau riche seducer (Tess and Angel Clare or Alec D’Urberville)? Will the intellectual stonemason take the plebeian slattern or the sexless idealist and intellectual (Jude and Arabella or Sue Bridehead)?
Sometimes Hardy, like Austen, surrendered to wish-fulfilment, and united the yeoman and the middle-class woman: both Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) and Far from the Madding Crowd end with the happy exhaustion of marriages. But The Woodlanders takes the plot of those two earlier novels – a heroine made to choose between suitors – and darkens it. Grace Melbury is wooed by Giles Winterborne, a gentle local man who presses cider for a living. But she is swept away by the higher-born and more seductive Edred Fitzpiers, a doctor new to the area, who is related to a distinguished family. She marries Fitzpiers, only to watch him begin an affair with Mrs Charmond, a risqué widow and former actress, who lives in the village’s big house. Giles dies, and Edred, now estranged from Grace, leaves for the Continent. But Grace and Edred are eventually reunited (he returns from Europe apparently a new man), the novel ending fairly ambiguously: we doubt whether this renovated union will succeed. What is interesting is the way Hardy contrasts the deep roots of the landscape – the trees which feature so prominently in the book, and which provide a livelihood for many of its characters – with the more fragile roots of the protagonists. Fitzpiers is grand by origin but modest by occupation; Mrs Charmond is an outsider, who confesses that before she was widowed she had never lived in the country; and Grace, though local, is the well-educated daughter of a self-made timber merchant. Indeed, one of the best things about the book – it brings forth from Hardy a properly complicated mixture of judgment and sympathy – is the presentation of Mr Melbury, who is bullish and socially anxious, and desperate for his daughter to ignore the lowly Giles in favour of the higher-up Fitzpiers. His daughter is an investment to him: he sent her away to a pricey boarding-school and he wants his return. When she chides him for treating her as a ‘chattel’, he is characteristically pleased that she has used such a ‘dictionary word’.
Hardy’s position was as shifting as any of his characters’, until the great breakthrough late in 1873, when Leslie Stephen offered him £400 to serialise Far from the Madding Crowd in the Cornhill. It was a lot of money: Tomalin, with the biographer’s welcome nose for cash, informs us that a year earlier, Hardy’s cousin Tryphena had become headmistress of a primary school at a salary of £100 a year. Stephen’s annual salary at the Cornhill was £500. Hardy would soon become well-off; he left an estate of almost £100,000 in 1928. Far from the Madding Crowd was published in 1874, and sold out in two months. He would write more complicated books, and his prose would get better, too, but there is a joyousness that makes this novel deeply lovable. As in all Hardy, there is coincidence and implausibility, the concertina-pleats of the plot pressing against each other more tightly as the tale speeds towards its melodramatic conclusion. Still, the story also has a beautiful ballad-like purity: Bathsheba and her three suitors, the oak-like Gabriel Oak, the scarlet-uniformed Sergeant Troy (one of the most brilliant namings in English fiction) and the mournful, oppressive, relentless Mr Boldwood. Henry James reviewed it without mercy, but I think it cast a shadow that he would never have admitted: six years later he began The Portrait of a Lady, in which a heroine is courted by three men, one of whom, like Boldwood, refuses to accept defeat, and who is called … Goodwood.
What one remembers, as so often in Hardy, are the great scenes: Gabriel’s young dog excitedly chasing his sheep off the hillside to their deaths; Troy doing his flashy sword exercises for a swooning Bathsheba; Troy returning from his faked suicide to reclaim his wife at Boldwood’s Christmas party (‘Bathsheba, I come here for you … Come, madam’); Boldwood shooting Troy at the same party, and dazedly looking on as Bathsheba presses her hand to Troy’s chest to stop the jetting blood. I read the novel at about 14, and for a long time it was the only Hardy novel I had read, because I persisted in rereading it rather than beginning a new one. Something I no doubt missed at that age, in my zeal for pure story, was the Shakespearean buoyancy of the speech of the rural characters. There is a lot of rustic comedy, as for instance when Henery Fray explains to Bathsheba, the mistress of the farm where he works, how Cain Ball, a fellow worker, got his name:
O you see, mem, his pore mother, not being a Scripture-read woman made a mistake at his christening, thinking ’twas Abel killed Cain, and called en Cain meaning Abel all the time. She didn’t find out till ’twas too late, and the chiel was handed back to his godmother … She were brought up by a very heathen father and mother who never sent her to church or school, and it shows how the sins of the parents are visited upon the children, mem.
Henery’s complacent misappropriation of the biblical curse about the sins of the fathers is sublimely funny, and not unsubtle. Raymond Williams, who did so much to reorient serious study of Hardy, mysteriously declared that his dialect and rustic comedy was one of the least successful aspects of Hardy’s work, but Hardy rarely plays these people just for laughs. In The Return of the Native, a character bursts into a house to tell Mrs Yeobright that there has been a commotion at church, and that Eustacia has been stabbed there with a stocking-needle, and then can’t help adding: ‘O, and what d’ye think I found out, Mrs Yeobright? The pa’son wears a suit of clothes under his surplice! – I could see his black sleeve when he held up his arm.’ The little riot of addition, the self’s gratuity, the ego’s tip to itself, as it were – Hardy has a comedy-cocked ear for it. Here is Master Coggan on the difference between the established church and chapel. Regular church, he says, is cosy and known:
But to be a dissenter you must go to chapel in all winds and weathers, and make yerself as frantic as a skit. Not but that chapel-members be clever chaps enough in their way. They can lift up beautiful prayers out of their own heads, all about their families and shipwrecks in the newspaper.
That last sentence is not only very funny – there is something so absurd about finding it remarkable that prayer should issue from ‘their own heads’ when prayer is precisely supposed to issue from one’s own head – but crystallises what must have seemed a central difference between established liturgy and dissenting freedom. The zeugma of ‘families and shipwrecks in the newspaper’ is marvellous. Hardy describes a similar character in The Mayor of Casterbridge as ‘bursting into naturalness’, which would nicely fit Hardy’s own writing here, too.
Far from the Madding Crowd is a cheerful novel – Hardy counted himself a Comtean at this time – but it was followed by much bleaker books. Like Millgate, Tomalin suggests that there was no classic Victorian crisis of faith for Hardy, rather a gradual waning. As a young man he had thought of getting ordained. By the mid-1860s, he was no longer regularly attending church, though he would never entirely cease. The Return of the Native, which was published four years after Far from the Madding Crowd, expresses the thought that ‘what the Greeks only suspected we know well; what their Aeschylus imagined our nursery children feel’ – that is, ‘the defects of natural laws’. In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy declares that Michael Henchard has been brought down by ‘the ingenious machinery contrived by the gods for reducing human possibilities of amelioration to a minimum’.
Much of Hardy’s mature writing can be seen as a commentary on John Stuart Mill’s essay ‘Nature’, published in 1874. Mill argues that people are always appealing to nature to make moral cases – as, for instance, when acts one disapproves of are deemed unnatural – whereas in fact nature is unmoral, blindly cruel, indifferent. Mill rises to a positively Hardyesque denunciation: ‘Nature impales men, breaks them as if on the wheel, casts them to be devoured by wild beasts, burns them to death … All this, Nature does with the most supercilious disregard both of mercy and of justice, emptying her shafts upon the best and noblest indifferently with the meanest and worst.’ Mill proceeds from here to mount an attack on theodicy and the idea of providence, concluding that the only idea of God that makes any sense is one in which he is beneficent but weak – unable to stop the suffering he presumably deplores.
Hardy’s two last major novels, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, are complex because they both attack nature’s laws and appeal to them. In other words, they share Mill’s view of nature, but often seem not to follow Mill’s advice about the unwisdom of appealing to nature. On the one hand, this work is full of characters whose invocation of nature is clearly suspect. When Tess is raped by Alec, her mother remarks, ‘’Tis nater after all, and what do please God,’ the fatalistic appeal to nature indistinguishable here from the fatalistic appeal to religion. This is clearly to be rejected. Yet, on the other hand, the same novel makes much reference to ‘nature’s inexorable laws’, to the ‘vulpine slyness of Dame Nature’, and consistently praises Tess as a child of nature. Can nature then be both right and wrong? Similarly, is Tess punished and finally killed by the absence of providence, or by providence itself? At the end of the book there is a famously clumsy line: ‘“Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals (in Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess.’ At this point the novel seems to readmit the theologising it most savagely attacks: Tess is ‘sacrificed’ on the pagan altar of Stonehenge, going so far as to tell Angel there that as a pagan she has obviously returned home. Hardy used to be accused of intellectual confusion on this score. Postmodern criticism tends to get round these apparent contradictions by praising them, or rather by warmly ironising them. The contradictions of these texts are seen as if not quite intentional on Hardy’s part then as symptomatically inevitable (the usual manner in which contemporary criticism elides the question of authorial intention): these are books that flaunt their own uncertainties and irregularities, that seem to aim to destabilise meaning and unitary readings.
There is much to be said for this. Hardy has much in common in this regard with Dostoevsky, another theologically obsessed novelist once accused of bad writing, whose melodramatics and sometimes awkward rapidities have encouraged theorists to see in his texts deliberate, ‘dialogic’ irregularity rather than mere lapses in taste or the presence of oppressive journalistic deadlines. Hardy seems to have had little time for conventional realism, and his manner of loading a huge salad of overdetermined causalities onto the narrative plate certainly looks deliberately ironic. Both Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure offer at least four large narrative explanations for the fates of their protagonists: a genealogical explanation (it’s ‘in the blood’ of the D’Urberville and Fawley families); a socioeconomic one; a ‘natural’ explanation (nature’s cruelty); and a theological one (sometimes merging with the natural explanation, and sometimes pulling away from it, as at the end of Tess with the invocation of Aeschylus). Are all these causalities justly blamed, or does each offer only a partial explanation? And there remains one other form of causality, the one that gives readers most pause: the grinding plots of the novels themselves. Even if one takes postmodernism’s proffered exit, and happily turns the novels into fascinating melodramatic bricolage, tattooed with a mess of different and contradictory discourses, one is left with the unpalatable paradox that these are deeply coercive novels supposedly fighting against what Sue Bridehead, in Jude the Obscure, calls ‘the common enemy, coercion’. True, one cannot show characters trying to fight coercion unless one also represents coercion; but equally, it seems important that the coercion being represented is not overwhelmingly the author’s own. ‘I cannot conceive of God as the arch-plotter against His own creation.’ Hardy copied these words from Mrs Humphry Ward’s novel Robert Elsmere into his notebook. What was he thinking? He had become God himself, plotting against his characters.
My own feeling is that in these last two books Hardy was indeed consumed by a theological bitterness that made the freedom necessary to successful narrative almost impossible, and that he abandoned fiction for poetry after Jude the Obscure in part because he could see that he had perforce abandoned narrative itself. What were Hardy’s own beliefs? As far as one can tell, he was very close to Mill. His position never settled down into a hard cake of despair, and never had the hygienic, disillusioned certainty of Mill’s, not least because he could not abandon his nostalgia for Christian belief; his most complexly riven thought appears in poems like ‘The Oxen’, ‘The Darkling Thrush’ and ‘God’s Funeral’ (in which he imagines witnessing a cortège carrying the corpse of the deity, and weeps for the absence of the old comfort). But he did indeed begin to think of providence as what he called an Immanent Will, a blind, unsympathetic if not malevolent force. At other times, he argued that this force was striving to express itself and failing to, and was perhaps merely baffled by what it had created. In his last thirty years, he seems to veer from Epicureanism to a very dark Gnosticism, and often to a Sophoclean fatality: better not to have been born. He wrote an uncanny poem, ‘The Unborn’, in which the poet visits the yet-to-be-born, with their excited questions about human existence, and can hardly bear to tell them that the world is terrible. He was consumed with the notion that this Will had botched the original making of the universe, and that the really great punishment was that humans were given consciousness. Animals, after all, suffer less because they cannot reflect on their pain, theologically or otherwise. There is a fascinating notebook entry on this (quoted by Millgate but not by Tomalin, who has less than Millgate to say on these issues):
Law has produced in man a child who cannot but constantly reproach its parent for doing much and yet not all, and constantly say to such parent that it would have been better never to have begun doing than to have overdone so indecisively; that is, than to have created so far beyond all apparent first intention (on the emotional side), without mending matters by a second intention and execution, to eliminate the evils of the blunder of overdoing. The emotions have no place in a world of defect, and it is a cruel injustice that they should have developed in it.
It’s an extraordinary passage, with that calm implacability characteristic of Hardy in this mood. It was wrong, he seems to say, to have been given human feeling, and this was the first blunder – the aboriginal error of God’s ‘overdoing’ things. There should have been a correction of this blunder, just as Genesis seems to offer two accounts of creation. Hardy, of course, is the writer who is always accused of overdoing things, and perhaps his novels strive to mimic, to represent, this theological overdoing? Similarly, Hardy’s plots are full of repetition; his characters attempt to mend an original injustice, but the second or third mendings fail: Tess runs from Angel to Alec and then back to Angel, but she is doomed; Jude runs from Arabella to Sue and back to Arabella, but he is doomed. Tomalin quotes a terrible letter Hardy wrote to his friend Rider Haggard, on the loss of Haggard’s ten-year-old son. He expressed his condolences, and then added: ‘Though, to be candid, I think the death of a child is never really to be regretted, when one reflects on what he has escaped.’ She comments acutely that Haggard, who never replied, ‘may have understood that Hardy’s ability to believe several conflicting things at once meant he sometimes expressed himself strangely’. Soon the world would eat the fruit of that strangeness, that terrible honesty, that ironic brutality, in the novel that would make Hardy more complicatedly celebrated than ever: Tess of the D’Urbervilles was published later that year.
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