Norman Page

  • Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy: Vol. VI, 1920-1925 edited by Richard Little Purdy and Michael Millgate
    Oxford, 379 pp, £27.50, March 1987, ISBN 0 19 812623 9
  • Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy: Vol. VII, 1926-1927 edited by Richard Little Purdy and Michael Millgate
    Oxford, 304 pp, £29.50, October 1988, ISBN 0 19 812624 7
  • Thomas Hardy: The Offensive Truth by John Goode
    Blackwell, 184 pp, £17.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 631 13954 0
  • The Thomas Hardy Journal. Vol. IV: October 1988 edited by James Gibson
    Thomas Hardy Society, 80 pp, £2.50, October 1988, ISBN 0 00 268541 8
  • Hardy’s Metres and Victorian Prosody by Dennis Taylor
    Oxford, 297 pp, £32.50, December 1988, ISBN 0 19 812967 X
  • Collected Short Stories by Thomas Hardy
    Macmillan, 936 pp, £16.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 333 47332 9

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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