The subtitle of Simon Gatrell’s study of Hardy as a creator is somewhat misleading, for a reader who comes to it expecting a biography of Hardy based on a study of his texts will be disappointed. Instead of a study of Hardy’s life, this is actually a study of the “life” of his texts, that is, how his works moved from original manuscript in Hardy’s own hand through their various appearances in print. Thus, the major emphasis of the subtitle of this study is on the word “textual” rather than on “biography.”
Gatrell’s assumption, and it is one that will receive no argument from traditional literary scholars, is that one cannot really know a writer’s work unless one knows how it reached the final state in which readers respond to it. Although usually only literary scholars are interested in such matters, it should be of concern to merely casual readers that they read a work in just the way that the author ultimately intended. Most works of literature go through various publishing configurations during their lives as texts—from manuscript to galley proofs, from galley proofs to page proofs, from page proofs to magazine publication, from magazine publication to single volume, and often from single volume to collected works. In each of these incarnations, the artist has an opportunity to make changes in the work, and most artists, as they develop their skills or change their ideas (or even as the cultural milieu itself changes), find that they cannot resist tinkering with their words. The usual assumption is that the authoritative version of an artist’s work is the final version which he or she had the opportunity to revise or edit; the question often is:
How does one know that the text at hand actually reflects the author’s final intention?
Students usually assume that the texts they read have been authoritatively verified by scholars before them. It is sometimes the case, however, that an error creeps in which neither proofreader nor artist, nor even generations of readers, catch, thus setting the stage for misunderstanding. Textual study is filled with examples of such errors—from readers of Herman Melville creating an elaborate interpretation of a phrase about “soiled fish,” only to have it revealed later that the intended phrase was “coiled fish,” to readers of Henry James enjoying one of his finely crafted novels with an entire chapter missing.
Although textual study at its most tedious is often thought to be old-fashioned and dull, no dynamic and entertaining young critic or literary theoretician can do without the painstaking work of such textual critics as Simon Gatrell, for textual critics not only do much to validate authoritative texts of writers, but also reveal much about how an artist’s fictional techniques and social themes develop over the life of his fiction. Gatrell’s study is primarily chronological, covering Hardy’s fiction from 1868, when he submitted his first manuscript to a publisher, until his death in 1928, for even after Hardy stopped writing fiction, he never stopped being concerned with how his novels were received by the public.
Gatrell’s study not only throws light on Hardy’s growth as a novelist and his approach to the creation and revision of fiction, it also provides significant background for the understanding of nineteenth century publishing practices. For example, one should not underestimate the influence of serial publications of fictional works—a practice that often compelled writers such as Hardy and Charles Dickens to submit early sections of their novels for publication long before they had written, or even fully thought out, the later sections. Gatrell also calls attention to the influence of the circulating libraries of the period, which had a dampening effect on candor in fiction because they catered to a family audience and thus forced writers to write down to the level of the adolescent female, at least as she was seen by the Victorian father figure.
Hardy’s fiction, especially late in his career when he published such powerful indictments of Victorian social prejudices as Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895), was seldom free from controversy. Gatrell suggests, as many critics have before him, that it was precisely Hardy’s weariness with such battles with the prudish society of the late nineteenth century that made him finally give up writing fiction altogether and turn to poetry. Gatrell shows that even early in his writing career with such novels as Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) Hardy was asked to remove certain “coarse” words or phrases, for example, to change a reference to the “buttocks” of a sheep to the word “back” so as not to offend Victorian social decorum. Although one might expect such delicacy from a society that refused to acknowledge the “leg” of a chair, preferring to call it a “limb” instead, still it is somewhat disquieting to be reminded that a novelist of Hardy’s stature was the...
(The entire section is 2059 words.)