Thomas Hardy

Michael Millgate’s fine biography of Thomas Hardy will almost surely be considered the standard for many years to come. Millgate is especially well qualified as biographer, having earlier published Thomas Hardy: His Career as a Novelist (1971) and coedited (with Richard L. Purdy) the first two volumes (1978 and 1980) of the planned seven-volume Clarendon Press edition of The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy. Millgate has made extensive use of diaries, notebooks, letters, and other materials related not only to Hardy and his two wives but also to family members and to many friends who came into Hardy’s life during various stages in his long career.

Hardy was born in 1840 in Dorset (the Wessex of his novels), England. Sickly as a child, he spent much time at home listening to his parents and their friends as they talked, laughed, sang, joked, and told stories in the local dialect. This experience was to have an enduring effect on his novels, his stories, and his poetry. In old age, long after he had given up his fiction-writing, he looked upon his novels as having greater antiquarian than literary value because they commemorated customs, traditions, beliefs, and ways of speech which were fading out and might have been lost to future generations had he not used them in portraying his characters and scenes.

Hardy ended his schooling at age sixteen to assist a Dorchester architect and later continued his architectural training in London. Millgate remarks that Hardy “never quite lost the sense of inferiority and resentment stemming from the incompleteness of his schooling.” Through extensive reading and through friendship with numerous men of more extended formal education, he later attempted to compensate for what he had missed when he was young. He experienced a particular pleasure when, after he had gained both national and international fame through his novels, he was honored by doctorates from his nation’s two great universities, Cambridge (in 1913) and Oxford (in 1920).

For several years, Hardy vacillated regarding the choice of a career. Despite his training as an architect, he thought of becoming a country curate, but this would have required long university residence and much more money than he had. While still considering the ministry (and before the loss of his traditional religious beliefs), Hardy tried literary journalism as a means of earning extra money, and he developed an increasing interest in writing both prose and verse.

An apprentice novel, “The Poor Man and the Lady”, was never published, but Millgate says that Hardy drew material from it for his next three novels, Desperate Remedies (1871), Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), and A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873). The last was sold for two hundred pounds to run as a serial in Tinsley’s Magazine. A request from Leslie Stephen for a serial for the Cornhill Magazine led to the writing of Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) for four hundred pounds, and Hardy realized it was possible to make a comfortable living for himself and a wife through writing novels.

Hardy’s first marriage, to Emma Lavinia Gifford, lasted more than thirty years. It brought a great deal of unhappiness to both of them, though in public and on the surface, the marriage may have seemed happy. Following Emma’s death there was a curious, ironic aftermath.

The Hardy family did not like Emma, and she in turn was repelled by their rural ways and speech. She particularly incurred the dislike of her mother-in-law, Jemima, who regarded her as an interloper. Thomas was the only one of the four Hardy children to marry, and Jemima looked upon Emma as having taken her elder son from his family. Hardy felt a sense of responsibility to his parents as they grew older and to his spinster sisters; he was thus caught in a tug-of-war from which he could not decently escape, since he felt permanently obligated by his marriage vows. Millgate says that within the first two years of the marriage, Hardy had become disillusioned with the woman he had earlier idealized as an intellectual and physical companion.

Friends often thought Emma a silly, boring, inconsequential chatterer. She annoyed Hardy by pretending that she “helped” him write his novels. As she aged, she continued to dress in ribbons and frills like a young girl. She embarrassed her husband in the home by scolding him while he maintained a stoic silence before visitors. Millgate lists Hardy’s disappointments with his wife: “the absence of children, the early fading of Emma’s physical charms, the persistence and even exaggeration of various affectations, pretensions, and gaucheries.” Hardy avoided open conflict with her by increasingly avoiding their home, often going to London alone. Yet, oddly, after Emma died in 1912 and particularly after Hardy read the secret diaries in which she had...

(The entire section is 2015 words.)


The Atlantic. CCXLIX, June, 1982, p. 93.

Choice. XX, September, 1982, p. 86.

Christian Science Monitor. July 30, 1982, p. 15.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, May 9, 1982, p. 11.

Saturday Review. IX, May, 1982, p. 57.

Times Literary Supplement. July 16, 1982, p. 759.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LVIII, Autumn, 1982, p. 120.