Embarrassed

Graham Hough

  • Thomas Hardy: A Biography by Michael Millgate
    Oxford, 637 pp, £15.00, June 1982, ISBN 0 19 211725 4
  • The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy. Vol. III: 1902-1908 edited by Richard Purdy and Michael Millgate
    Oxford, 367 pp, £19.50, July 1982, ISBN 0 19 812620 4
  • The Neglected Hardy: Thomas Hardy’s Lesser Novels by Richard Taylor
    Macmillan, 202 pp, £17.50, May 1982, ISBN 0 333 31051 9
  • Good Little Thomas Hardy by C.H. Salter
    Macmillan, 200 pp, £15.00, August 1982, ISBN 0 333 29387 8
  • Thomas Hardy and Women: Sexual Ideology and Narrative Form by Penny Boumelha
    Harvester, 178 pp, £18.95, April 1982, ISBN 0 7108 0018 5
  • Illustration and the Novels of Thomas Hardy by Arlene Jackson
    Macmillan, 151 pp, £15.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 333 32303 3

There has been an abundance of good critical writing about Thomas Hardy, from Lionel Johnson in 1894 to our own day, but his biography has been in a curious condition from the start. The authorised version (Early Life, 1928; Later Years, 1930) is supposed to be by Florence, his second wife, but is wholly composed from notes by Hardy himself, and for the most part actually dictated by him. Along with a record of the basic external facts it gives, often unknowingly, an incomparable insight into certain aspects of Hardy’s mind. But there is a good deal that it leaves out. Ordinary family discretion was compounded by an anxious secretiveness to produce something like a touched-up Edwardian photograph, not exactly false, revealing more of the truth than it means to, yet keeping a great deal in the shadows. The standard life apart from this is Carl Weber’s Hardy of Wessex (1940). It fills out and amends the quasi-autobiography with good judgment and reasonable candour, but it relies heavily on self-revelation in the novels, and is rather short on concrete detail. R.L. Purdy’s invaluable Bibliographical Study (1954) gives far more than its name implies, and is packed with biographical information. And innumerable references to Hardy, pen-portraits and sketches, appear in the memoirs of others. So altogether a completer picture than the one he issued himself has long been beginning to form. But the full-scale biography has never been attempted till now. There are times when a nail gets knocked in so thoroughly that no one need touch it again, and this is the case with Michael Mill-gate’s biography, which is surely, if the word means anything, definitive. Millgate has been in a strong position to make it so. He has already written a detailed study of the novels, he is evidently a close student of the poetry, and with Purdy is co-editor of Hardy’s letters, of which the third volume (of a projected seven) has just appeared. This is a superb edition, comprehensive, full but discreetly unobtrusive in its annotation, and impeccable in its editorial method. Without embarking on the troubled sea of interpretation, Purdy and Millgate between them have given as detailed a study of Hardy’s career as any that exists for any 19th-century author. The edition of the letters is complementary to Millgate’s biography, and evidently planned in parallel with it. No source of information has been left untapped, printed, manuscript or oral; and I cannot suppose that this record can be added to or in any substantial way altered.

What did Hardy gloss over or conceal in his own version of his life? The usual things that autobiographers gloss over or conceal – love, money and family history. There was nothing he needed to conceal. An honourable life with a core of stoical bleakness. Outwardly Hardy’s career is one of the great success stories of Late Victorian letters. In 1871 he was an obscure young architect’s assistant who had just published a barely passable novel, Desperate Remedies. By 1873, on the appearance of A Pair of Blue Eyes, he was enjoying an agreeable intimacy with the formidable Leslie Stephen and his charming sister-in-law, Anne Thackeray. In 1874, when Far from the Madding Crowd came out, he became famous, and shortly afterwards was hobnobbing with most of the intellectual leaders of the day, and a surpringly large number of the social notabilities as well. But Hardy, who had a running battle with the Grundyism and squeamishness of his time, himself had patches of morbid self-consciousness and even of self-deception. Early Life and Later Years contain almost nothing about his family, and he was always defensive about his modest and rural origins and reluctant to expose them. Steadily loyal to his relations in life, he had even endangered two marriages by his devotion to his own people. But the circumstances that would have been a positive asset in the changed social climate of today were an embarrassment to him. He was anxious to present his family as farther removed from the working class than they were, and to exaggerate the extent and formality of his education. He had been a poor young man and he was still shy about it. His first marriage, after what looked like an idyllic start, never really came to much, and later was desperately unhappy; and the second one, while doubtless a consolation to him, was a pinched and meagre affair that brought little joy to his partner. Furthermore, Hardy was a lifelong philanderer. Not a heartless philanderer: on the contrary, his heart was only too easily touched, by a wide variety of objects – humble admirers as well as society ladies, for whom he had a great penchant and who often reciprocated. These were mild affairs judged by the sexual mores of today, but they form a strong and constant undercurrent to the decorum of his outward life.

So there is plenty for the objective biographer to add to the existing record. And for the most part Millgate is entirely objective, letting the facts speak for themselves, without the persuasions of any psychological or sociological theory. At first this seems to make for a surface narrative, lacking in penetration to Hardy’s inner experience and motives: but it turns out to be the right method. Hardy’s life was one of neutral tones, to use his own phrase, and any attempt to dramatise it would be a falsification. But it has a coherence, given by the quiet obstinacy of his own character, and an accumulation of precise and authentic touches brings this out with great clarity. Where positive information is insufficient, and judgment and interpretation are required, Mr Millgate inspires confidence. The principal case is the idyll that went sour, Hardy’s first marriage, recounted here with fairness and understanding for both sides. Emma Lavinia Gifford was a vain, pretentious and snobbish woman, and probably in the end a little mad. But there was an element of dour self-will in Hardy that can scarcely have made for domestic warmth, as the second Mrs Hardy was soon to discover. Other writers on Hardy’s personal affairs have inclined either to idealise or to be frankly puzzled by the contradiction between the cramped awkward life and the genius revealed in the work. Millgate not only understands this but can make it understandable to his readers. The nobility and simplicity of Hardy were not achieved by detachment from the long littleness of life, but by a continual immersion in it – as only a detailed biography such as this can show. Hardy was not, like Lawrence, continually engaged on his own bildungsroman: but the wry situations in the novels, the ironic plots behind the poems, are again and again found to have their roots in direct experience, observed or lived through; and the power of the best scenes in the fiction, the almost unbearable poignancy of many of the poems, come from the intensity with which the criss-cross haps and mishaps of the common world are felt. Hardy’s life often seems insufficiently detached from the web of trivial circumstance in which it was involved – the domestic unease, the social discomforts and the more incongruous social triumphs, the inability to reconcile London and Wessex. But his art at its most characteristic lay precisely in the transfiguration of these banalities.

That is where Hardy’s power lies, but he did not wholly trust it. The melodrama and the strained coincidences of his plots are a bid to make his real material more enticing to the magazine public. With one part of his mind he wanted to be ‘a good hand at a serial’, as he put it himself. ‘Did it hold your interest?’ Hardy asked Virginia Woolf of The Mayor of Casterbridge. Richard Taylor cites this anecdote, to remind us of how fundamental this criterion was in Hardy’s imagination. He thought of himself first and foremost as a storyteller; and a story, he said, must be worth the telling. Mr Taylor’s purpose is to point out how much of this aim is fulfilled in the minor novels, now often left unread. Without in the least attempting to elevate them to the stature of the seven great fictions, he claims that they are both interesting and rewarding in themselves, and integral to Hardy’s creative life. Obedient to his suasions I read Desperate Remedies, which I had always skipped before; and found the claims were true. The book does hold the attention, in Hardy’s grotesquely modest phrase. The unmistakable Hardy is present, even among the near-absurdities of the Wilkie Collins plot – as he is present in different fashions throughout the minor works. Present in moods of lesser tension that are worth recalling as a real part of Hardy’s achievement. This is thoughtful criticism exercised on a subject that was well worth taking up. A trip through these less ambitious bypaths enables us to see the tragic Hardy, the ideological Hardy, in better perspective. This is also the aim of C.H. Salter’s Good Little Thomas Hardy – but fulfilled in a very different spirit. The offensive title of this book is taken from a letter of Henry James. What right had James to patronise Hardy, and why should Salter think it worth repeating? Salter’s aim is admittedly to cut Hardy down to size – he thinks the reputation exaggerated, particularly that of the man of ideas and social critic. This ungrateful purpose is pursued by a laborious demonstration that Hardy’s dealings with contemporary philosophy and actual social conditions were more inconsistent and superficial than has been supposed. In the course of this Salter successfully makes mincemeat of a good deal of Hardy criticism: but since he seems incapable of distinguishing between art and the raw material of art, he leaves Hardy the novelist and poet largely untouched.

Penny Boumelha’s Thomas Hardy and Women begins with a conventional Marxist-feminist introduction and an equally conventional run-down on Victorian theories of sexuality: in effect, a long bout of ritual scolding in which earlier writers are reproved for being men, or bourgeois, or both. But this unpromising start turns out to have little relevance to the substance of the book. Hardy’s treatment of his women characters is a highroad to the centre of his work, and the argument follows the texts closely and with perception. Above all, it performs the difficult feat of sticking to the text, as the scrupulous critic is supposed to do, while at the same time fulfilling the supererogatory but enriching purpose of saying something about the society that lies behind it. It illustrates the strange modernity of many of the issues raised by Hardy’s fiction, which tempts one to talk of them in terms contemporary to ourselves, forgetting the extent to which Hardy was constrained by the ethos and manners of his own day. Arlene Jackson’s book takes us back decisively to Hardy the Late Victorian. It is a study, of a kind that has recently been burgeoning, of the illustrations to Hardy’s novels – illustrations, that is to say, to the original serial versions. While not as closely involved with his illustrators as Dickens was, Hardy took a close interest in their activities and was well served by them. The drawings of Helen Allingham (wife of William Allingham) and Arthur Hopkins (brother of Gerard Manley Hopkins) are particularly attractive.