For the 1912 centennial of the birth of Charles Dickens, the editors of Bookman sent out a questionnaire to hundreds of writers asking them to explain how Dickens had influenced their work. Quite a few wrote extensively about the impact of the most celebrated Victorian novelist on their work. George Bernard Shaw, by then recognized as the foremost English dramatist of the time, went so far as to claim that Dickens was influential in ways not even imagined by his Victorian contemporaries in revising attitudes toward society. The response submitted by Thomas Hardy was hardly so effusive. In his laconic two-line reply, he said he supposed he was influenced in some way by Dickenshe suspected everyone wasbut he was unable to say how or why.
That comment speaks volumes not only about Hardy’s attitude toward Dickens but also about his own approach to novel writing. By his own admission, he cared little for the fiction he turned out over nearly three decades. He wrote novels, he often said, as a way to earn a living so he could practice the craft for which he had a deep and abiding love: poetry. Although by the end of the century he was among the country’s most successful novelists, according to legend (a legend Hardy endorsed), when public opinion turned against him after the publication of Jude the Obscure in 1895 he turned his back on fiction and devoted the rest of his lifeanother three decadesexclusively to writing verse.
That story and many others are retold in Claire Tomalin’s well-written and engaging Thomas Hardy, a biography that humanizes the man whose private life was often a well-guarded secret from his contemporaries. The facts of that life contain no spectacular secrets. Born in 1840 of working-class parents, Hardy was apprenticed as an architect at age fifteen and took up novel writing before he was thirty. He fell in love with and married Emma Gifford, a woman above his social station, at nearly the same time. Encouraged by friends, such as the editor and writer Edmund Gosse, he spent three decades cranking out stories in which he tried to explain something about people’s passions, while constantly battling censors who were unwilling to let him speak freely lest he bring a blush to the cheek of some young unwed maid by alluding to anything that might remotely suggest there was a sexual side to human relationships. While he was battling to become more open about sexuality in his fiction, he was undergoing a gradual estrangement from his wife, who eventually moved into the attic of the country home Hardy had built with the profits from his novels. In the 1890’s, he flirted seriously with an attractive socialite named Florence Henniker, but nothing came of the affair. In 1905, he began a relationship with a much younger woman, Florence Dugdale, whom he married shortly after Emma Hardy died in 1912. He lived until 1928long enough to be hailed as one of the foremost writers England ever produced.
These events have been told beforein fact, in greater detail than Tomalin provides. Hardy himself completed a two-volume autobiographyThe Early Life of Hardy (1928) and The Later Years of Thomas Hardy (1930), together as The Life of Thomas Hardy (1962)that was published after his death, with his second wife listed as author in order to give the story a facade of objectivity. Several scholars have taken up the story during the twentieth century, and lengthy accounts by Robert Giddings and Michael Millgate are just two of a rather imposing group of biographical studies that attempt to get at the man behind the work. Additionally, just before Tomalin’s book appeared, Picador Press and Yale University Press issued Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life (2006) by Ralph Pite, professor at the University of Cardiff and an accomplished poet in his own right. One might have wondered, then, if there would be anything left for another biographer to say.
Tomalin proves that, indeed, there is. Without resorting to outlandish speculation, and often restating information provided by other sources, Tomalin nevertheless manages to create a portrait of the writer that is sympathetic, well developed, and filled with details that bring Hardy to life for her readers. Throughout the narrative, she contrasts Hardy’s rather well-ordered, conservative lifestyle with those of the characters he...
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