His Only Friend

Elaine Showalter

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.

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