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Internationally renowned as the author of Far From the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, Wessex Poems and Other Verses, and Winter Words, Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) nonetheless remains an elusive and enigmatic figure. His own diligent efforts to guard his privacy—making bonfires of his papers, ghost-writing his own biography to be published after his death—have obscured many aspects of the author’s personal life. This book, the first major biography of Hardy in decades, draws on new and ...
Internationally renowned as the author of Far From the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, Wessex Poems and Other Verses, and Winter Words, Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) nonetheless remains an elusive and enigmatic figure. His own diligent efforts to guard his privacy—making bonfires of his papers, ghost-writing his own biography to be published after his death—have obscured many aspects of the author’s personal life. This book, the first major biography of Hardy in decades, draws on new and extensive archival research to present a more complex picture of Hardy than has been possible to date.
Author Ralph Pite investigates the validity of long-accepted views of the author: Was his early life devoted to his preparation for becoming a writer? Did his first wife, Emma, trick him into an unwanted marriage? Was his poetry far dearer to his heart than the novels? And was Florence, his second wife, as conflicted and passionate as caricatures have suggested? Pite examines the relationships and contexts that shaped Hardy most—the women in his life, his friends and mentors, social and family pressures, career structures of his day, the Devonshire landscape—and offers new insight into the man who, until now, was hidden behind an opaque public image he helped to create.
Thomas Hardy (1840–1928), a shy country boy from Dorchester, England, became a world-famous writer of novels, short stories, and poetry. His first commercial success was Far from the Madding Crowd, which coincided with his marriage to Emma Gifford. The marriage proved to be tortuous to both parties, but Hardy's writing ventures remained successful—until the negative reception of Jude the Obscureand its handling of social and sexual mores and behaviors. From that point on, Hardy turned primarily to writing poetry, though he did pen his biography under an assumed name, glossing over what he did not want fully known. After Emma's death in 1912, he married Florence Dugdale, but his infatuations with women continued. Pite (English, Cardiff Univ.; Hardy's Geography: Wessex and the Regional Novel) draws on new archival research to integrate Hardy's personal life, including his marriages and the changing social scene, with his novels and poetry. Much has been written of Hardy, most influentially by Michael Millgate. But Pite's treatment, while not ignoring the writer's flaws, offers a more admirable portrait. Recommended for public and academic libraries.
ON 2 JUNE 1840, Thomas Hardy was born in Higher Bockhampton, a tiny village lying a few miles outside Dorchester in the south-west of England. When he died in 1928, he was buried in Westminster Abbey, a figure of national importance given something like a state funeral. As an old man Hardy tried to give the impression that this extraordinary success story had taken place almost by accident - that he had never sought fame or worked to get it. This cannot possibly be the case. Growing up where he did, Hardy was on the very outer fringes of English society. It was an extremely long way from Higher Bockhampton to London, in terms of distance, time and cultural separation. If Hardy had been as passive and indifferent as he said he was, then we would never have heard of him. You might not be reading this book.
Other Victorian writers, of course, came from humble backgrounds. Upward mobility was a feature of the nineteenth century and writing was one of the best ways to rise in the world. Dickens was born in obscurity, the son of a clerk in the Navy office in Portsmouth. He died in 1870 an internationally famous man. George Eliot was as a child nothing more promising than the youngest daughter of a land agent in the Midlands. In her maturity, nonetheless, she received visits from princesses, when Queen Victoria's daughters came to her seeking words of wisdom.
Even so, Hardy's rise to fame is exceptional because his origins were uniquely obscure. Portsmouth was a key naval base with strong links to London; George Eliot's Coventry was an expanding industrial city. Dorset in 1840 was, on the other hand, one of the most remote, backward and poor counties in England. Over the next twenty years, as Hardy grew up, it became if anything more remote. While the railways drew the rest of the country closer together, making it more unified and homogeneous than ever before, Dorset was transformed into a backwater.
If you travel down to Dorset now, it still feels like an out-of-the-way place, at least by English standards. England is the most densely populated major country in Europe and its southern half is especially crowded. Settlements lie close together, running into one another in what can appear to be an endless suburb of London, and increasingly it is thought of like that: people refer to 'the south-east'; a generation ago they would have talked of Greater London and the Home Counties. City, suburb and country are blurred together in a process of development that seems now, if anything, to be accelerating. Hardy saw this coming: in 1909 he told his fellow-citizens in Dorchester that they should resign themselves to living in a suburb of London. Even so, in some ways, Dorchester and Dorset have escaped.
There are no motorways in the entire county and the railway into London does not form one of the major strands in the national network. The line runs through Basingstoke, Winchester, Southampton, Bournemouth and Poole. After the commuter belt, the industrial port and the swathes of housing behind the seaside resorts, the last little section from Poole into Dorchester has a different quality. Rural England reappears in heathland, pine forest and the winding River Frome, clear and delicate, more like an enlarged stream than a river.
That sense of escape gives the impression that Dorset is not a suburb of London at all, not yet at least, and implies perhaps that Hardy was being characteristically pessimistic. In fact, though, Dorset's idyllic rurality and almost quaint perfection were just what worried him in prospect, not least because he thought he had helped to bring them about.
* * *
Hardy's second published novel, Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), comes as near as he ever did in his fiction to portraying his family home. The Dewy family lives in a house modelled on Hardy's birthplace, and in successive editions over the years, Hardy changed the wording of the description to make the similarity more and more plain, though steadfastly denying it all the time. From the novel's first appearance, however, the likeness is present in the book because Hardy situates the house in a hamlet he called 'Lewgate' (later changed to Upper Mellstock) and the book's topography made Lewgate into an exact equivalent of Higher Bockhampton. Mellstock, Hardy wrote:
was a parish of considerable acreage, the hamlets composing it lying at a much greater distance from each other than is ordinarily the case. [...] There was East Mellstock, the main village; half a mile from this were the church and the vicarage, called West Mellstock, and originally the most thickly-populated portion. A mile north-east lay the hamlet of Lewgate [...] and at other points knots of cottages besides solitary farmsteads and dairies.
'East Mellstock', later renamed Lower Mellstock, corresponds to Lower Bockhampton, on the edge of the water meadows, where the village schoolhouse stood in both novel and reality. West Mellstock, the name later reduced to simply Mellstock, maps onto the actual Stinsford; its tiny church is described in accurate detail a few chapters later. Lewgate, a 'mile north-east' must be Higher Bockhampton. Hardy may even have chosen the name because it would provide a hidden clue. Within the family, 'Lewgate' was remembered as a name they had thought of using for the house where Hardy was born.
The likenesses continue beyond this central layout. When the novel moves towards Yellowham, for instance, renamed Yalbury (where Geoffrey Day's cottage lies hidden in the woods) it continues to depict Dorset realities. Details of the scenery recall Hardy's surroundings - the patchwork of woodland and heath, intersected by compact, lush river valleys, and the sunken lanes, sometimes made into tunnels by a roof of intersecting tree branches. Figures in this landscape also recall real people whom Hardy knew. Reuben Dewy is a musician, as Hardy's father was; Reuben's father, William Dewy, is leader of the band: a venerable, authoritative figure, similar to Hardy's paternal grandfather (though Hardy had never known him). Dick Dewy, the son and grandson in this family of players, sang the treble part and played the violin - again, as Hardy had done himself. Some of the events are historical too: the novel opens with the Mellstock Quire singing carols around the parish at Christmas time - something that Hardy remembered, having probably taken part himself when a boy. His family had maintained the tradition of 'going the rounds' for generations. Although by the time he wrote the novel the practice had died out, in the 1840s of his childhood, where he set the novel, it still continued.
Under the Greenwood Tree presented this rural world with great affection as well as literal accuracy. Fondness and honesty come into conflict in the book, nonetheless, and there's no doubt that it smoothes away the rougher edges of rural life. Heavy manual labour, poverty and hunger are all kept out of sight although in reality the first two were accepted as inevitable while the third was a constant threat. Instead, Hardy's rustics are buffoonish and endearing. Michael Mail, for instance, an old member of the choir, recalls sitting one day eating a meal in an inn and hearing a brass band playing outside in the street. He found himself compelled to chew in time to the music. 'Truly, now [...] there's a friendly tie of some sort,' he declares, 'between music and eating.'
When he came to revise the book as a middle-aged man and again in old age, Hardy worried that its comedy was not as harmless as it had first appeared. The book had slotted Hardy's personal history into a conventional point of view, converting old friends and neighbours into stereotypical rural characters. Perhaps there was something vulgar and appeasing about doing that. The 'realities out of which [the narrative] was spun were material for another kind of study', Hardy commented, with his characteristic, rueful understatement - a novel very different from 'the chapters here penned so lightly, even so farcically and flippantly at times'. But, Hardy continues, 'circumstances would have rendered any aim at a deeper, more essential, more transcendent handling unadvisable at the date of writing'. As a young writer, just starting out, Hardy was forced to compromise; at least, this is what he claims, and he had good reason to. Hardy's readership was made up predominantly of people living in cities, most of them middle- or lower middle-class. A direct challenge to their assumptions about rustic folk would not have been published. Reviews of the book - even a supportive one, written by his friend Horace Moule - show the tightness of the constraints Hardy was compelled to work within.
In the novel Reuben and the rest of the choir are under threat from barrel organs and harmoniums. These recently invented instruments were being introduced into churches in the mid nineteenth century and, inevitably, their presence made other musicians redundant. Hardy records the historical change and also makes the clash between choir and organ into the novel's symbolic keystone. Early on, he presents the rustics inveighing against their rivals, these newfangled instruments. William Dewy takes the lead, calling them, 'Miserable machines for such a divine thing as music!' In his review, Moule picked up on this apparently innocuous turn of phrase. Such formality showed, he said, how the country people were made to speak 'in the language of the author's manner of thought, rather than their own'. Rustics must not be too articulate or clever because then they would not be proper rustics.
Hardy dutifully changed the wording of Dewy's speech in later editions. Still, the first version was probably the more accurate one. It's perfectly possible that Hardy's grandfather and others like him - church-going, musical people whom Hardy knew - could and would have used exactly the same words as William Dewy does. They would have heard every Sunday the words of the Prayer Book and the Bible, memorizing much of what they heard and absorbing biblical language into their vocabulary. Hardy's urban audience, though, had set ideas about 'rustics' in which this sort of sophistication found no place, and Hardy's writing was pressured to conform to those expectations. If it didn't, then his representation was not believed. He was faced by a conundrum. If he produced a true record of what he heard around him in the countryside, it would be perceived as a distortion of the reality. He would be accused of interfering. He had to make his country characters speak in the language expected by the audience if he was not to be criticized for imposing on them the audience's language.
Hardy did manage to find ways around this problem even as early as Under the Greenwood Tree and addressed it again many times in his later novels. It became habitual with him to provide the standard image and to undermine it at the same time. Nonetheless, as the later preface to Under the Greenwood Tree reveals, Hardy was liable to feel uneasy about his role. He was in his novel-writing always an intermediary, who was attempting to translate one way of life into the terms of another, hoping to make it understood, a little at least, by people whose lives were very different. In that undertaking he continually ran up against the prejudices of those he spoke to - the terms on which they were prepared to accept the 'other' world that Hardy came from. At times, unfortunately, it appeared to him that his compromises with prejudice had helped reinforce it. Perhaps he had not done enough to challenge his audience's assumptions. Perhaps he had participated in the process of turning Dorset into an olde worlde sort of place.
His career as a novelist continually placed him, therefore, in between two societies. To the city-dweller, he was a rural novelist and a Dorset man; an exotic creature, who was condemned to remain something of an outsider however much he assimilated. To the rural communities that Hardy described, he was an outsider as well. Even if his subject matter lay close to home, and even if he stoutly defended country life against the routine disdain of city folk, his writing about the countryside at all set him apart from it. Hardy's livelihood depended on literate, leisured people, on publishers and novel-readers, nearly all of whom lived miles away; his line of business separated him from the economy that drew the rest of community together. And perhaps, as Hardy himself sometimes feared, his work also made him a traitor to his background.
Certainly, he won few friends among the locals. A string of anecdotes records the hostility to Hardy felt by ordinary Dorsetshire people, who repeatedly said when asked about Hardy that they could not see much point in writing books at all, but especially not ones as miserable as Hardy's. Within this forthright philistinism there was, I suspect, an undercurrent of suspicion - either that Hardy was making capital out of rustic mannerisms (laughing at country folk with his city friends) or that he was presenting country people as worse than other folk - irreligious, licentious, coarse, morbid and generally unrespectable. In other words, while his metropolitan readers demanded a condescending version of rurality, his and his family's neighbours felt they were being shown up if Hardy was more candid. It looked as if he would be accused of betraying them whatever he did.
Because he became a writer, Hardy was particularly exposed to this problem. His profession divided his loyalties. That division, though, only reflected a more fundamental rupture in him. He was born in the heart of the English countryside and was surrounded from boyhood by a feudal society and a peasant culture that was essentially medieval. He grew up, however, just as it was undergoing drastic change. His was the first generation in Dorset separated by the Industrial Revolution from the continuum of the past. Surrounded by and intimate with something from which he was also divided, simply by the date of his birth, Hardy could never feel himself to be either a part of the rural world (as his father was) or safely distanced from it (as the next generation would be).
* * *
This turning point in history arrived with the railways. When Hardy was born, there were none in Dorset, though they were starting to be built in other parts of the country. The first Dorsetshire railway was constructed in 1847, linking Dorchester to Southampton, with connections from there to London. The route ran along the Frome valley and passed within two miles of Hardy's childhood home. Standing in the garden, you can still hear the whistle of the trains, and from Rainbarrows Beacon you can see them, on the far side of the water meadows. Steam trains would have been still more eye-catching than modern diesels.
Before the railways came, Dorchester was an important regional centre. Families in the county had town houses there; every year, there was a 'season' when the landed gentry moved in from their country seats to enjoy parties and 'routs'. Like other provincial towns and cities, Dorchester was a world unto itself to an extent that is now difficult to imagine; even so, it was not cut off. Coaches ran regularly to and from London; in the mid century more than forty coaches a week changed horses at the King's Arms on High West Street. They travelled on westwards, beyond Dorchester, to Exeter and the strategic ports of Falmouth and Plymouth. Dorchester lay, in other words, on the main route south-west out of London. It was one of the stopping-points on the Western Circuit too. Several of 1688's Bloody Assizes were held in Dorchester and, even in Hardy's day, hangings still took place at the county gaol. Hardy was seven by the time the railway was built, so he could remember Dorchester as it was before - as a place that enjoyed daily contact with London via the coaches and preserved its independence too, with its own social world, its own dialect and traditions. With the arrival of the trains, Hardy wrote, the ancient folk ballads were 'slain at a stroke by the London comic songs that were introduced'.
With improved communications, the capital was bound to exert greater control over the regions, both economically and culturally. This happened throughout nineteenth-century England. Unlike many other places, though, Dorchester (and Dorset as a whole) did not receive very much in return. There was little investment or development and the economy remained almost exclusively agricultural. The county had too few of the natural resources - coal, iron ore, tin or china clay - that brought industry to other rural areas and so, as industry became more important nationally, Dorset was left behind. Similarly, when agriculture entered a long period of depression towards the end of the nineteenth century (a depression produced in part by improved international trade), Dorset suffered disproportionately. Employment declined as farms enlarged. Unemployment and emigration became widespread.
Excerpted from THOMAS HARDY: THE GUARDED LIFE by Ralph Pite Copyright © 2006 by Ralph Pite. Excerpted by permission.
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