Hardy’s Misery

Samuel Hynes

  • The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy. Vol. 2 edited by Richard Purdy and Michael Millgate
    Oxford, 309 pp, £17.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 19 812619 0

The first volume of Hardy’s letters, published two years ago, covered the three decades from 1862, when at 22 he set off for London to work as an architect, to 1892, the year after the publication of Tess. The story that those earlier letters tell is mainly the story of a career: how Hardy cast off architecture and took up novel-writing; how by 1884 he had earned enough from his books to build himself a substantial house near Dorchester; how a few years later he could also afford a flat in London for the ‘season’; how in London he entered both the world of letters and the world of Society, lunched with Browning and dined with Matthew Arnold, and visited Lord This and Lady That and the Honourable Whatshisname. The Hardy that we have at the end of the volume is a prosperous, middle-aged English Man of Letters, someone who might have written the works of, say, Edmund Gosse, or Walter Besant.

But a career is not a life. There was another private story in those earlier years – of a failed marriage and an unhappy wife, of childlessness and estrangement and despair. That story scarcely enters the letters, because Hardy was determined to suppress it: he burned his personal letters and papers and those of his wife, and he even dictated his own biography, to be published after his death under his second wife’s name. In so doing, he not only eliminated everything from his life that was not career, he also shaped and interpreted the career that was left – he created his own image. It was as though he had said: the part of my life that I could control shall stand for the whole: the other, uncontrolled part I will erase. Better to exist for posterity as Gosse than as Jude.

The second volume of letters spans the eight years from 1893 to 1901. These were crucial years for Hardy, years during which he underwent a profound transformation. One can begin to describe that change in literary terms by saying that during these years Hardy brought his career as a novelist to an end, and henceforth wrote only verse: but the change was far more than simply a matter of turning from one literary career to another. Hardy dismantled the whole Man-of-Letters career that he had so laboriously constructed, and replaced it, not with another kind of literary career, but with a private poetic life. It wasn’t merely that he had decided to write poems for a while, but rather that a change had occured in his sense of himself, and of his life, that made private poems the only possible mode of utterance for him.

Hardy underwent this change at a time when his public career was at its peak. His letters of the early Nineties are stuffed with references to London social successes, and at the same time contracts were arriving, editors were pleading for contributions, and the books were selling in ever-increasing numbers (100,000 copies of Tess were sold in one cheap edition alone at the end of the decade). Hardy was rich, he was famous, he was lionised – that is the substance of these letters. And he was miserable – that is the subtext. It is only the subtext: Hardy was not a man to reveal his private feelings, or, if he did reveal them, to allow such revelations to survive. Still, there are signs, even in these reticent and business-like letters, of a strained and suffering man.

One source of his misery enters the letters of 3 June 1893, when Hardy addresses for the first time ‘My dear Mrs Henniker’. Florence Henniker was a fellow novelist, though a very minor one; she was also, and more important, a lady of high social position, daughter of an earl, sister of the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, and wife of an officer in the Coldstream Guards. And she was beautiful, in a haughty, long-necked way, if we can believe her photographs. Hardy and his wife first met her in Dublin in 1893 when they visited the Viceregal Lodge, where she was serving as hostess to her widowed brother, Lord Houghton; she was 37 then, and Hardy and his wife were both 52. Hardy later recalled the visit as a ‘romantic time’, though characteristically he did not say what had made it so.

Whatever happened in Dublin, Hardy was sufficiently encouraged to pursue Mrs Henniker after his return to London. His first letters to her are correct and formal – they begin ‘My dear Mrs Henniker’ and end ‘Ever yours sincerely’ – but they are also, in their reticent way, ardent (when a shy man writes, ‘I much desire to go somewhere with you,’ and ‘I have wished so much that you had been in Town.’ he is smuggling his desire and his wishes into his letter, disguised as proprieties). He proposed schemes that would bring them together: he would teach her about Gothic architecture by walking her round London churches, they would collaborate on a story (as in fact they did). He made himself useful, getting her work noticed in papers, and escorting her to an Ibsen play (there is some irony in the fact that it was The Master Builder). And along the way he tried to convert her from what he called ‘ritualistic ecclesiasticism’ to a freer, more liberal view of life, believing, perhaps, that spiritual freedom might lead to other liberties.

How far he got with her remains unclear, though it can’t have been a very physical relationship. From the beginning he complained that it was ‘one-sided’, and a letter from the first weeks of their acquaintance suggests that already she was advising a regimen of social activities, as the YMCA used to advise exercise and cold showers, to distract him from amorous matters. Letters that might have made the situation clearer were destroyed (no letter from Mrs Henniker to Hardy exists dated earlier than 1906, and there are evident gaps in the sequence of his to her): those that remain are veiled in propriety, and a desire not to offend, though even so they suggest strong feelings withheld.

For the true nature of his feelings we must turn from the letters to the poems of this period. It was not Hardy’s custom to date poems, and when he did so it was usually because the poem had some particular association with the time at which it was written. Two poems, ‘A Thunderstorm in Town’ and ‘The Division’, are dated 1893. One says sadly, ‘I should have kissed her if the rain/Had lasted a minute more’ (but it didn’t); the other broods that

     that thwart thing betwixt us twain,
       Wich nothing cleaves or clears,
Is more than distance, Dear, or rain,
     And longer than the years!

What the ‘thwart thing’ is, the poem doesn’t say. Is it their spouses? Class? Emma’s mental state? Whatever it was, in 1893 it was already absolute and permanent.

Two other poems, ‘In Death Divided’ and ‘Last Love Word’, are dated 189 –, and these, too, are concerned with separation and loss. The latter ends:

I did not know ’twould swell to such
         Not, perhaps, you
When that first look and touch,
         Love, doomed us two!

Is this perhaps a reference to the ‘romantic time’ in Ireland? It seems possible: but whatever the occasion, the poem looks back at it as the beginning of an attachment that was mutually disastrous, and is now past.

With these sad love poems one must associate two other poems dated in the mid-Nineties: ‘In Tenebris’ (1895-6) and ‘Wessex Heights’ (1896). In both of these the mood is of loneliness and despair – they are the darkest poems of Hardy’s darkest period. Mrs Henniker enters clearly into the latter as the embodiment of loss itself:

As for one rare fair woman, I am now but a
               thought of hers,
I enter her mind and another thought succeeds
             me that she prefers;
Yet my love for her in its fulness she herself
             even did not know;
Well, time cures hearts of tenderness, and now
                I can let her go.

Together, these poems, with a few others, compose a little cycle of frustrated, unrequited love, as suffered by a shy 53-year-old lover, a love that began in 1893, and had ended in bleak despair by 1896. One must look to the poems for the story, but the letters confirm it. For example, in 1895 Hardy is writing sadly to his ‘dear friend’: ‘How I shd like to explain the quaint architecture to you! [She was travelling in Germany.] But that’s all over, I suppose.’ And so it was, though the correspondence, and the pale friendship, continued until Mrs Henniker died in 1923.

At the same time as Hardy’s attachment to Mrs Henniker was taking its unhappy course, his marriage was becoming more and more a bleak and burdensome formality. Emma, alone much of the time at Max Gate, a house that she disliked, had grown fat and peculiar; she had come to disapprove of her husband’s literary career, and she was no longer eager to share the social life that went with it. This clearly suited Hardy, who spent as much time as he could in town, writing home mainly to explain why he delayed his returns to the country. His letters to his wife are dutiful – he addresses her as ‘My dear Em’ and signs himself ‘Yours affly Tom’ – but the substance is the sort of information and advice that a man might write to a housekeeper – send my summer waistcoat, and don’t forget to pay the gardener. When the question of London lodgings comes up. Hardy is generally discouraging: it wouldn’t have taken a very sensitive woman, or even a very sane one, to see that he didn’t want her with him. Toward the end of the Nineties they even slept in different lodgings when she came to town – she at her ladies’ club, he at a hotel. The wife who was socially above him when they married, and was quick to mention that fact to her husband and his friends, had become a social liability and an embarrassment. Hardy even feels that he must tell her what kind of hat to wear in London: the safe headgear, he writes, ‘is black hat – black feather – all the best people are in black – white: some women, but not ladies exactly, are in bright colours.’ (What sort of creation do you suppose poor Emma was threatening to show up in?) An ugly, fat and foolish wife in the wrong hat: it isn’t matter for heroic suffering, but it is part of the depression that hung over Hardy in the Nineties like a barometric low, and that gives to these letters their tone of mute heavy-heartedness.

In 1895, just after Jude was published, Hardy wrote to Gosse: ‘As for the story itself, it is really sent out to those into whose souls the iron has entered. – has entered deeply, at some time in their lives.’ The phrase will do, I think, to describe, not only his intentions in his last novel, but his sense of himself at this point in his life. The iron had entered deeply and slowly as his marriage deteriorated; it had entered swiftly, but just as deeply, when he met Mrs Henniker. And it was these private wounds that darkened his view of life in these years: that is, his philosophy changed, but for private and emotional, not for philosophic reasons.

It is arguable that these private circumstances were the cause of Hardy’s turn from the public role of novelist to the private role of poet. That turn is the most interesting thing about him in the Nineties. His own account of it, in The Later Years, suggests that the decision was an abrupt and conscious one; he places it in 1897, just after a reviewer of The Well-Beloved (Hardy’s last published novel, though it was written before Jude) had described its author as suffering from ‘sex mania’. ‘Such,’ Hardy wrote, ‘were the odd effects of [his] introduction of the subjective theory of love into modern fiction, and so ended his prose contributions to literature (beyond two or three short sketches to fulfil engagements), his experiences of the few preceding years having killed all his interest in this form of imaginative work, which had ever been secondary to his interest in verse.’ The letters show that this account, though dramatic, is inaccurate – a case of career-shaping rather than of actual history. Letters dated after 1897 show that though he was not writing novels at the time, he did not think of himself as having abandoned the trade. Nor did he represent himself to his correspondents as a born-again poet. His first reference in these letters to his own verse occurs in a letter to Florence Henniker, dated September 1898, in which he explains that his recent ‘mysterious occupation’ has been making sketches that will illustrate ‘some verses of mine which I think now of publishing’. This was written less than three months before the publication of Wessex Poems, his first book of verse: yet even here the subject is the drawings, not the poems. Why such reticence, why such closet-versifying?

One answer is simply that Hardy was using verse to deal with strong and painful personal feelings – about love, about marriage, about life. This thesis explains some of the poems in the first volume: poems like the dreadful ‘The Ivy Wife’, which so upset Emma (as well it might have), ‘At an Inn’, which is clearly about Florence Henniker, and ‘A Meeting with Despair’. But it doesn’t explain all the boring narrative poems that burst from him, nor the dredging up of his undistinguished juvenilia. All one can say of the narratives is that a storyteller, freed of prose commitments, might well find himself telling tales in verse; and of the poems resurrected from his twenties, that Hardy was fond of the remembered young man who had written them, and that he had no sense of self-criticism, ever.

Hardy’s turn to verse may be the most interesting event in his life during these years, but it is not a major subject in his letters. Here neither literature nor life concerns him much: his principal subjects are business and health. It is interesting, for a little while, to see what a shrewd and knowledgeable businessman Hardy was – how much he knew about contracts, and how carefully he pursued his own interests. It is less interesting to find in him the hypochondria that provided drama in so many Victorian lives. At various times we hear about his rheumatism, his colds, his influenzas, that he had a chill on his liver, neuralgia in his face, a headache, the ‘English cholera’ (whatever that may be). He shows again and again that he was Victorian in other ways as well, as when he explains, in two letters, the difference between delicacy and indelicacy: ‘If I say to a lady “I met a naked woman,” it is indelicate. But if I go on to say “I found she was mad with sorrow,” it ceases to be indelicate.’

Here and there in the letters Hardy lets fall a remark that is momentarily arresting: ‘few persons are more martial than I am’; plays are ‘distinctly a lower form of art’ than novels; and (to Mrs Henniker) ‘I don’t see any possible scheme for the union of the sexes that wd be satisfactory.’ And here and there he reveals conflicting sides of his quirky character: that he was a mean man in small matters (he fusses a good deal over sixpences), but that he was tolerant and polite to the bores who wasted his time, things like that.

At the end of this volume of letters Hardy is 61. His career as a novelist is behind him, and so, increasingly, is the social life of London; he has withdrawn into the private glooms of Max Gate. He thinks of himself and Emma as elderly; ‘we go about very little now,’ he explains as he declines an invitation, and the phrase ‘as I grow older’ creeps more and more into his writing. His reputation as a novelist is secure: critics mention him in the same breath with Meredith. Yet if Hardy had died in 1901 he would have no reputation as a poet at all: at best he would stand with George Eliot as a great novelist who had also written some poems, of which the less said the better. You might take this fact as an encouragement to the middle-aged: don’t despair, look at Hardy’s productive seventies and eighties. But who would want Hardy’s old age, even for the great poems that emerged from it?

The editing of these letters, under the careful eyes of Richard Purdy and Michael Millgate, is as superbly well done as it was in the first volume. This is not to say that the letters are great letters. Alas, no. The expense of reticence is boringness, and if you want literary gossip you’ll still have to go to Virginia Woolf, and if you want self-revelation, to D.H. Lawrence. Nevertheless the letters are the man – or such of the man as he allowed the world to see. And because the man was a great artist, even that shaped and shielded self is worth examining.

Robert Giltings’s biography is now in two Penguin paperbacks.[*] This is, at least for the present, the standard life of Hardy, and it is good to have it available at a very moderate price.

[*] Young Thomas Hardy and The Older Hardy, 368 pp., and 325 pp., £1.50 each, 26 June, 0 14 004667 4 and 0 14 005049 3.