(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Among British authors of the late Victorian period, Thomas Hardy enjoys a critical reputation as a serious writer of primary importance. Born into a middle-class home in Bockhampton, he was educated in the village school and in nearby Dorchester; afterward, rather than attend a university, he became an apprentice architect. Yet because he had acquired a passion for reading and cherished the ambition of becoming a poet, he abandoned a promising career as an architect to try writing fiction. He achieved initial success with novels and short stories set in the south-central region of England.

Throughout his career, his fictional settings remained primarily agrarian Dorsetshire, which he called Wessex, an area removed from the rapid industrial and commercial development of the late Victorian era. Beginning with Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), Hardy produced a series of highly successful novels, the most important including The Return of the Native (1878), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), and Jude the Obscure (1895). Although he often offended public taste by writing frankly of sexuality, he became financially independent through the sale of his work. After 1896, he could afford to devote his efforts largely to a less remunerative literary form, poetry. Although his poems do not rank among the greatest in English literature, or even among the best in British Victorian poetry, they were well received, and volumes like his Wessex Poems (1898) enhanced his literary reputation. When he died in 1928, Hardy was recognized as one of the world’s leading authors.

Martin Seymour-Smith, who has previously written extensively on Victorian and modern literature, has produced a massive critical biography of Thomas Hardy. In doing so, Seymour-Smith has furnished a thorough account of the life, a critical assessment of the works, and a partial evaluation of the most important Hardy scholarship. As a critic, he shuns the theoretical for a more commonsensical approach and an insistence on logic. Early in the work, he cites Ockham’s Razor as an important guide, a principle named for the fourteenth century English monk William of Ockham. It holds that when several conflicting or contradictory explanations are possible, the simplest that accounts for all elements is likely to be the correct one. It is the bane of scholars and sophists, who are attracted to abstruse, improbable, and arcane theories and speculations. Yet, contrary to reasonable expectation, its application by no means creates brevity in Seymour-Smith’s text; instead it increases the length because he employs the principle to refute numerous improbable conjectures by earlier biographers.

When the truth is not known, he attempts to weigh the probabilities involved and to offer conclusions reached through inference. Since his knowledge of the Victorian era, the modern period, and Hardy’s English setting is vast, he is able to establish priorities among the probabilities convincingly, although he advances his views with caution. When he has to make inferences supported only by educated guesses, he uses the biographer’s normal qualifiers—expressions such as “he must have” and “we may fairly guess.” When he makes conjectures that are highly speculative, he usually labels them accordingly.

As a personality, Hardy, although not a recluse, was somewhat withdrawn and shy. In narrating his life, Seymour-Smith is enough of a Freudian to find significance in early traumatic events, as one can discover in his biographies of Robert Graves and Rudyard Kipling. Thus he discerns the seeds of Hardy’s pessimism in early life. At his birth, the attending physician mistakenly assumed Hardy to be dead and laid him aside, where he remained without moving or crying until an attentive nurse detected signs of life. Inclined to despondency in his youth, Hardy once expressed the hope that he would not live to maturity. He was below average in height, and from early youth his keen interest in reading became an avenue to self-education. He was quiet if not serene by temperament, and not at all given to outbursts. Following his father’s taste, he enjoyed music and dancing from an early age. While he acquired many friends during his long life, he was not gregarious, and his adventures, such as they were, fell far short of those of his admired romantic hero, George Gordon, Lord Byron. When W. Somerset Maugham attempted to portray him as Edward Driffield in his popular novel Cakes and Ale (1930), he created a respected but private, colorless man of letters.

In his religious outlook, Hardy became a pessimist and an agnostic, yet, as Seymour-Smith points out, he retained a lifelong emotional attachment to the Church of England and regularly attended services. Despite his frequent denials and efforts to downplay its importance, Hardy was influenced by the pessimistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, whose Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1818; The World as Will and Representation, 1883-1886) cast a long shadow over late...

(The entire section is 2095 words.)