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Hardy, Thomas, 1840-1928

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Summary Article:Hardy, Thomas from Continuum Encyclopedia of British Literature
Portrait of Thomas Hardy
Image from: Portrait of Thomas Hardy in The Bridgeman Art Library Archive [cite image]

Hardy is the only English author, except perhaps D. H. LAWRENCE, who left a substantial number of major novels and also major poems. Indeed, he had two careers, first as a Victorian novelist and short story writer and then as a 20th-c. poet.

His life, outwardly quiet, was racked by contradictions. He was born in a remote and old-fashioned part of Dorset (he called the region “Wessex”), but spent his twenties in London, working as an architect, and was very aware of contemporary currents of thought. Like most of his characters, he belonged to an “intermediate class,” which is always striving to better itself but has many links with the working poor and can easily topple over the edge. He was the first professional man in his family, but did not get into university. The struggles of the self-educated are a theme of the stark story “A Tragedy of Two Ambitions” (1894) and Jude the Obscure (1895). Like Tess Durbeyfield, he sometimes felt that he was talking two languages, one to his family and friends in Dorset, and one to educated strangers.

Two traumatic events colored his worldview. One was the execution of a woman in 1856, which he witnessed; the other the suicide in 1873 of his friend Horace Moule. He would always be interested in self-destructive behavior and conscious that there was no Providence that protected the innocent; this was why the Victorians sometimes found his work intolerably depressing. He himself insisted that he was not a pessimist but a “meliorist,” believing that if human life was to be improved its darker aspects must be honestly faced.

The changes in Hardy’s England could be symbolized, physically by the railways that opened up communities like his own, culturally by the rise of agnosticism. He knew the Bible thoroughly, and it is an influence on his work, but he lost his religion early although he continued to believe in Christian ethics. John Stuart MILL’s On Liberty and Charles DARWIN’s Origin of Species were also powerful influences, as were William SHAKESPEARE and the Greek tragedies.

As a young man he wrote several poems that did not find a publisher, and decided to concentrate on fiction. The title of his first, lost work The Poor Man and the Lady, is highly significant. He was aware that men and women were constantly marrying people “above” or “below” them and that this affected their careers. His own marriage in 1874 to Emma Gifford, who was a “lady,” would eventually fail.

He was able to give up architecture and become a self-supporting novelist, publishing Desperate Remedies (3 vols., 1871), Under the Greenwood Tree (2 vols., 1872), and A Pair of Blue Eyes (3 vols., 1873). But it was Far from the Madding Crowd (2 vols., 1874) that made his name. Readers to whom Dorset was another world were delighted by his story of a woman farmer and her three suitors, and his detailed and loving descriptions of the rhythms of the country year. It is not an entirely cheerful novel; it contains a murder and an unmarried mother who dies. But it does have a basically happy atmosphere, and as each later novel appeared critics would complain that it was darker than Far from the Madding Crowd.

Hardy’s next book, The Hand of Ethelberta (2 vols., 1876), particularly disappointed them. Yet it has an interesting theme that echoes his own situation; a successful writer conceals from her smart London audiences the fact that she comes from a family of servants.

The seven “Novels of Character and Environment”—Under the Greenwood Tree, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native (3 vols., 1878), The Mayor of Casterbridge (2 vols., 1886), The Woodlanders (3 vols., 1887), Tess of the D’Urbervilles (3 vols., 1891), and Jude the Obscure—are as a group far superior to the seven others that he wrote over a quarter of a century. The characteristic Hardy novel takes place in a small town or village, often in the past, in a partly real, partly dream-landscape vividly described, and among people from the “metamorphic” class, neither farmers nor laborers, into which he himself had been born. Their customs are picturesque and old-fashioned (to the Victorians, they were delightful and refreshing), but we are aware that the world is changing fast and that only those who can adapt to change will survive. Such a novel will also tell an absorbing story; Hardy believed that a novelist had no right to bore his audience and did not at first have much trouble writing serials for magazines. There is a certain amount of melodrama, due to the need to keep the reader in suspense, and coincidences are frequent, because his characters live in a very small world.

The Return of the Native, set on the heath around Hardy’s birthplace, introduces a new theme; a man who has done what his mother wanted and “got on” begins to doubt the value of his work. Clym Yeobright refuses to be a diamond merchant, dreams of educating the heath workers’ children, and ends up as an unconventional traveling preacher, and celibate. The other great theme in this novel is marriage, and this would become increasingly important to Hardy His characters fall in love with, and sometimes marry, an incompatible person, ignoring their genuine other half or not meeting them until it is too late. “To be yearning for the difficult, to be weary of that offered; to care for the remote, to dislike the near,” is the nature of Wildeve in The Return. Hardy was aware of this tendency in himself and satirized it in The Well-Beloved (1897). The fatal attraction, the chance that will not come again, the present which is not valued until it has become the past, are the great subjects of his poetry and fiction.

He went on to write three minor novels; The Trumpet-Major (3 vols., 1880), set during the Napoleonic Wars; A Laodicean (1881), and Two on a Tower (3 vols., 1882), in which the theme of class differences between lovers is particularly pronounced. After moving back permanently to Dorchester, he published one of his most impressive works, The Mayor of Casterbridge, set in his hometown. There is a love interest, and the characters make the wrong choices as usual, but Hardy’s real concern is with the rise and fall of a passionate man who cannot fit into a competitive, and changing, society. It is subversive, because it hints that the successful man is not necessarily the one who deserves most sympathy, and because Henchard grows to love a girl who is not his daughter but another man’s illegitimate child. Hardy would become steadily more at odds with Victorian conventions.

The Woodlanders is still darker, suggesting that the struggle for existence has nothing to do with morality. Nature in this novel is particularly lush and inviting, but not innocent. It is a Darwinian world where trees fight for space, animals prey on one another and the best characters die or fail to thrive while the amoral Fitzpiers does quite well. In his last two great novels, Hardy would challenge orthodox Christianity head on.

His best short stories were written in the 1880s and 1890s—”Fellow-Townsmen,” “The Three Strangers,” “The Withered Arm,” “The Melancholy Hussar,” “A Tragedy of Two Ambitions,” the notorious “Barbara of the House of Grebe,” “The Son’s Veto,” and “The Fiddler of the Reels.” Their themes are the familiar ones; class, religion, a wrong marriage choice, brutality to women and often, in the background, an execution, which would form the climax of Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

He had always caused offense to some readers, but he now felt it was impossible for him to write what he wished while being serialized in a family magazine. Tess was a great success for the wrong reasons, causing scandal because Hardy described his heroine, who had been seduced and ended up committing murder, as “a pure woman.” Tess is the archetypal woman betrayed, a victim of the double standard, but she has also been identified with the “English peasantry,” the vanishing “better-informed class,” and animals and birds which are ruthlessly hunted down. Hardy said that his books were “one plea against ‘man’s inhumanity to man’—to woman—and to the lower animals,” and his sympathy for victims, whether they are slaughtered pheasants or the rural poor, was intense.

His last novel, Jude the Obscure, is untypical, and feels much more “modern” than the rest, because the hero leaves his village very early and the traditional culture of that village has gone. Jude is a self-educated scholar who is kept out of Oxford University and wanders restlessly from town to town by train, supporting himself and his unconventional family by work that is not the kind he would have chosen. The natural world, often kindly in the earlier works, has become bleak and threatening. The novel is a tragic one and its attacks on the Church and the marriage laws provoked several hostile reviews.

Partly as a result, Hardy decided to renounce fiction and return, as he had always wished, to poetry. He felt, correctly, that it was easier to say in verse things which conventional readers did not wish to know. His first collection, Wessex Poems (1898), which contained both old and recent work, surprised everyone, and was attacked as “slovenly, slipshod, uncouth.” This perception would change over a generation as he went on to publish seven more volumes of poetry, the last posthumously in 1928.

The uncouthness cannot be wholly denied. He deliberately avoids the “jewelled line” of Alfred, Lord TENNYSON or A. C. SWINBURNE and uses many puzzling and unexpected words or compounds—”hap,” “unhope,” “ruers,” “unweeting,” “sense-sealed,” “foot-folk”—which show the influence of the Dorset poet William BARNES. He also shuns “poetic” imagery, instead looking at his own wrinkled face in a mirror and, in “The Darkling Thrush,” which invites comparison with the great odes of John KEATS and Percy Bysshe SHELLEY, painting the bird that makes wonderful music as unglamorous. So he is anti-Romantic in a sense, but he is not a modernist either; he disliked “rhymeless, rhythmless poets” and wrote in 1918 that the “fashion for obscurity” would drive readers away. His work is, despite some eccentric phrases, thoroughly accessible. He uses a great variety of forms; the themes, though, are much the same as in his fiction. Many of them tell stories, about love and disillusionment. Others are to do with nature, religious doubt, and the ravages of time, and he occasionally wrote magnificent poems about public events. They include a group on the Boer War (”Drummer Hodge,” “A Christmas Ghost Story,” “The Souls of the Slain”) and “The Convergence of the Twain,” written after the sinking of the Titanic.

Over nine hundred short poems survive. Not all can be dated, and it is difficult to say in what sense his poetry “developed.” The earliest are obviously Victorian yet include the striking “Neutral Tones” (1867); sixty years later, in 1927, he was still capable of writing a marvelous piece like “Lying Awake.” But the numbers of good poems increased as he was able to give more time to them, and many of the best were written in his seventies.

Before that, there was a diversion. In the early years of the 20th c., Hardy was preoccupied with The Dynasts (3 parts, 1904–8), a huge drama, not intended to be performed and written mostly in blank verse, about the Napoleonic Wars. He had always been fascinated by this period; the Boer War reawakened his interest in conflict and he wove the unrecorded history of ordinary Wessex people into the history of “dynasts” and statesmen. It is not much read today, although younger poets who had been through the First World War greatly admired it. But it is interesting to see how the Spirit of the Pities and Spirits Sinister and Ironic who comment on the action reflect his own attitudes to human folly. The blank verse is not very impressive and the characters are one-dimensional, but it contains some fine lyrics.

Hardy and his wife had been semi-estranged for years when, in 1912, she suddenly died. During her lifetime, he had written wistful love poetry to other women, including Florence Dugdale who eventually became his second wife. But, characteristically, once Emma had gone for good his original feelings returned and inspired the “Poems of 1912–13,” which are among the greatest poems in the language about bereavement. The fact that there had been a “deep division” and “dark undying pain” adds to their intensity. Other poems written in old age, “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’” and “Afterwards” are profound meditations on time and death.

During and after his lifetime, Hardy triumphantly faced down all criticism. His novels have always been popular and are now more popular than ever, constantly being filmed, adapted for television and radio, and set as academic texts. Up to about 1960, he was not much discussed in the universities, but there now exist literally thousands of books and articles on various aspects of his work. Marxists are interested in his treatment of class, feminists in his treatment of women, and he has attracted the attention of posts tructuralist critics too. His poetry took longer to make its way and it was argued, for a time, that he had written only a handful of good lyrics, but he is now recognized as one of the great figures of the early 20th c. and an influence on each generation which came after.


Bibliography Bailey, J. O., The Poetry of T. H. (1970); Brady, K., The Short Stories of T. H. (1982); Gibson, J., T. H. (1996); Hardy, F. E., The Life ofT. H. (1962); Millgate, M., T. H. (1982); Morgan, R., Women and Sexuality in the Novels of T. H. (1988); Page, N., ed., Oxford Reader’s Companion to H. (2000); Sumner, R., T. H. (1981); Taylor, R. H., The Neglected H. (1982); Widdowson, P., T. H. (1996); Williams, M., Preface to H. (1993)

Merryn Williams

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