Author Guide: Thomas Hardy

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"[Hardy]'s not a transcendental writer, he's not a Yeats, he's not an Eliot; his subjects are men, the life of men, time and the passing of time, love and the fading of love." 
- Philip Larkin

Biography

Thomas Hardy (2nd June 1840 – 11th January 1928) was one of the best known and highest-earning novelists of the Victorian period, and a prolific poet who wrote verse throughout his life. His work focused on the diminishing rural communities of his fictional Wessex (based on his own county of Dorset – one of the poorest in Britain – and the surrounding area), which he depicted with sensitive realism. His fiction is often compared to George Eliot’s – another of the great Victorian realists – and his poetry finds its roots in Romanticism, particularly the writing of William Wordsworth as well as regional dialect poetry.

Throughout his life, Hardy was a man caught between the rural community of his birth and the industrious cities at the centre not only of Britain but of the British Empire. Raised in rural surroundings, Hardy was encouraged by his mother to read. He would take long walks in the peaceful surroundings of Dorset, taking in and attuning himself to the natural world about him, a habit he would continue his whole life. With his parents unable to afford a university education for him, Hardy made his way to London to become an architect. He hated the busy city, and it would not be long before he escaped the city and took up work in an office in Dorchester, Dorset. On an assignment that took him to Cornwall he met and fell in love with Emma Gifford, a woman from a good family. He would later marry Emma, much to the displeasure of both his and her families, and she encouraged and nurtured his writing.

With Emma’s support, Hardy began to earn small amounts of money from his writing. In 1885, eleven years after they were married, Emma and Hardy moved into Max Gate – a house that Hardy had designed, and which represented a blend of the urban and rural. He lived here for the remainder of his life, working fastidiously on his writing to the exclusion of his wife. Over the years, they became estranged despite remaining in the same house. However, Emma’s death in 1912 provoked an extreme mournfulness on Hardy’s part, and he revisited many of the places in Cornwall where they had first courted. This period produced some of his most personal and painful poetry and, despite marrying Florence Dugdale – a young secretary, many years his junior – in 1914, Hardy continued to be haunted by the strange relationship with his first wife. At his death in 1928, Hardy’s body was - against his wishes - entombed in Westminster Abbey, but his heart was buried with Emma in Dorset.

Hardy was a solitary man, caught between many things: the receding rural life and aggressive urbanisation, comfortable religiosity and progressive secularism, the practical people of his Dorset and the intellectual circles he was pulled into, the demands of publishers and his desire to record life as it was, and between the many women who captured his attention. Hardy’s role as an outsider was chosen as much as enforced, but there is a melancholy that spreads across his fiction, which, while rooted in his mourning for the simpler life being lost amidst the rapid changes to society and thought that he saw, is often a result of his apartness from life.

Hardy’s novels celebrate the rustic tradition of rural England, but more importantly they examine with uncompromising clarity the stifling social constraints under which people lived, often focusing on Victorian beliefs about marriage, religion, and education. These themes are perhaps most brutally explored in his 1895 novel Jude the Obscure. The scandal and critical backlash to this book was such that Hardy vowed never to write another novel, a vow which he kept to assiduously. Until his death, he wrote poetry – a form which he had long favoured – and he became an important figure for young poets after the turn of the century. Hardy claimed that his poetry contained more autobiography than his novels and for a man as cautious and private as Hardy – he destroyed many of his personal papers and notes before his death, and wrote his own biography to be published under his second wife’s name – his poetry is invaluable in locating Hardy, and understanding him as a man – a hard task indeed.

Over the twentieth century, Hardy’s reputation evolved. He was admired by writers like D. H. Lawrence, but there was a tendency across the wider literary community to undervalue Hardy’s work. His early novels were seen as pleasant pastoral tales (his later, more controversial work, was seen as valuable very early by the literary establishment) and his poetry as not particularly sophisticated. Over the course of the century, his early novels were more deeply explored by newly developing literary theory, and were more valued. Thanks to the patronage of many poets, notably Philip Larkin, he came to be considered not just as a popular novelist, but as a profound English writer and an important poet.

Three Books You Should Read

Hardy wrote a lot and in many different forms over his life and this makes it particularly difficult to select three books you should read. This difficulty is only compounded by the fact that different qualities in Hardy are admired by different readers: some will enjoy his writing on nature, others his intimate poetry, and some his tortured grappling with the modern world. Thankfully, there are, I think, two stand-out novels from Hardy’s career, which are essential reading, leaving just one spot in the top three books to read for me to agonise over.

1. The Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy

I look and see it there, shrinking, shrinking, 
     I look back at it amid the rain 
For the very last time; for my sand is sinking, 
     And I shall traverse old love’s domain 
          Never again.
(from "At Castle Boterel")

Hardy was rare amongst English writers in being successful across a number of forms of writing: his novels, short stories, and poetry are all celebrated, and he wrote a number of play and dramatised versions of his fiction too. But Hardy always thought of himself as a poet first and foremost, and so his poetry is a fitting place to start. His reputation as poet was solidified far later than his reputation as a novelist, and this eventual recognition was thanks in no small part to Philip Larkin’s writing on Hardy. Hardy himself saw the Dorset dialect poet William Barnes – a friend and mentor – as his predecessor, but Hardy would go on to write poetry that dealt with more than the regional pleasures of his home county. Perhaps his most emotive and powerful poetry was written in a burst during 1912-13 after the death of his first wife, Emma. But whether it’s his vivid descriptions of nature, his tender renderings of country life, or his intimate understanding of the personal, Hardy’s poetry offers a real variety of pleasures. The copious number of poems the he wrote illustrate, as Claire Tomalin puts it, “the contradictions always present in Hardy, between the vulnerable, doomstruck man and the serene inhabitant of the natural world.”

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me, 
Saying that now you are not as you were 
When you had changed from the one who was all to me, 
But as at first, when our day was fair.

      Thus I; faltering forward, 
     Leaves around me falling, 
Wind oozing thing through the thorn from norward, 
     And the woman calling.
(both from "The Voice")


2. Jude the Obscure (1895)

“But his dreams were as gigantic as his surroundings were small.”

Hardy’s final novel, Jude the Obscure – dubbed “Jude the Obscene” on its publication – is perhaps Hardy’s bleakest and most resonant novel. Its hero, Jude Fawley, is a bright boy who dreams of one day studying at Christminster University (a thinly veiled Oxford), but, without the means to carry himself away from his modest, rustic background and onto such an adventure, his life is doomed to obscurity. A failed marriage and a scandalous liaison with his cousin carry Jude no closer to finding his place in the world, and Hardy’s narration of a life doomed to failure reaches its denouement with a shocking infanticide (more specifically, siblicide). It’s a novel of brutal honesty, and deals with three of the most pressing issues that concerned Hardy: the inability of the poor and lowly to break into the bourgeois world; the stifling conditions of marriage, particularly for women in a patriarchal society; and the church’s continuing influence in a society still coming to terms with Darwin’s theory of life and evolution.

"People go on marrying because they can't resist natural forces, although many of them may know perfectly well that they are possibly buying a month's pleasure with a life's discomfort.”

“I am in a chaos of principles—groping in the dark—acting by instinct and not after example. Eight or nine years ago when I came here first, I had a neat stock of fixed opinions, but they dropped away one by one; and the further I get the less sure I am. I doubt if I have anything more for my present rule of life than following inclinations which do me and nobody else any harm, and actually give pleasure to those I love best. There, gentlemen, since you wanted to know how I was getting on, I have told you. Much good may it do you! I cannot explain further here. I perceive there is something wrong somewhere in our social formulas: what it is can only be discovered by men or women with greater insight than mine – if, indeed, they ever discover it – at least in our time. For who knoweth what is good for man in this life? – and who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?”


3. Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891)

“...she moved about in a mental cloud of many-coloured idealities, which eclipsed all sinister contingencies by its brightness.”

Throughout his life Hardy had a great feeling for women (despite often treating them badly) and Tess of the d’Urbervilles is the novel that best reflects this. Charged with erotic energy and indignation, it is one of the most affecting of his novels. An innocent but beautiful country girl who lives in harmony with nature, Tess is soon stripped of her naivety by a world that punishes her continually for her crime of being an appealing but naive woman as she attempts to seek a mate and reclaim a birth rite she believes lost to her family. Abused by men, trapped by social convention, and provided with no support from family or church, Tess faces the world alone and wholly unequipped for its violence towards her female body. Of all his heroines Tess is undoubtedly Hardy’s favourite. His language, as he traces her downfall, is painfully intimate, and this is perhaps his richest, most vivid novel.

“Why didn’t you tell me there was danger? Why didn’t you warn me? Ladies know what to guard against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance of discovering in that way; and you did not help me!”

“Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong women the man, many years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order”

“She was not an existence, an experience, a passion, a structure of sensations, to anybody but herself. To all humankind besides Tess was only a passing thought. Even to friends she was no more than a frequently passing thought.”

What to Read Next

Published in 1878, The Return of the Native combines Hardy’s feeling for nature with some excellent characterisation. The first chapter, which describes the heath on which the story is set, is often pointed to as an example of Hardy over writing a description of nature, but it sets the stage perfectly, for me, and demonstrates how finely Hardy understands the unchanging environment of his Wessex. The story revolves around the lives and relationships of some of Hardy’s finest characters: the dark lady killer Wildeve, and the wild Eustacia Vye who roams the heath are a Gothic pair to match Heathcliff and Cathy; Diggory Venn, a reddleman, is a comfortable slice of rural life fading out of existence; Clym Yeobright a well-intentioned, progressive man; and his sister, Thomasin a na├»ve but good country girl to contrast Eustacia’s wildness. As the characters’ lives intertwine, one gets the sense of a living community spread across Egdon Heath – arguably, the book’s main character.

Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography – Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man – offers a solid overview of his life, which should, I think, command almost as much interest as his writing. His poetry particularly is so tied with his personal experiences that being familiar with his biography can only help one enjoy Hardy’s writing all the more. Tomalin is strong on Hardy’s women, and this is very important to understanding him as a writer. She also writes well on his (grudging) loss of faith and the impact that had upon him. Hardy did himself compile a biography, which was published under the name of his second wife, Florence; a sign of his own desire for privacy and control over his legacy. Robert Gittings and Michael Millgate have also written biographies on Hardy and his work that are worth reading.

There is plenty of Hardy to explore, if these works have whetted your appetite. The Mayor of Casterbridge and Far From the Madding Crowd are both worth reading, and there are some memorable scenes scattered across his fiction, but none of his novels can rival Jude or Tess for their completeness and power. His short stories are also worth reading, and can be found in various collections.

There is no shortage of critical work on Hardy, and so whatever area of his work you are interested in there is bound to be material available, however, The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy has some valuable essays and is a good place to start.

Full Bibliography

It's hard to know what level of detail to go into for Hardy's bibliography - he did, after all, write a great deal. For example, he dramatised some of his novels, but I have not included those here. Rather, I have settled for listing his novels, short story collections, and poetry collections, and significant plays, and excluded published letters or shorter pieces that do not appear in collections.

Novels

The Poor Man and the Lady, 1867 (unpublished and lost)

Desperate Remedies, 1871 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Under the Greenwood Tree, 1872 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

A Pair of Blue Eyes, 1873 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Far From the Madding Crowd, 1874 [Read my review] [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Hand of Ethelberta, 1876 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Return of the Native, 1878 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Trumpet Major, 1880 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

A Laodicean, 1881 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Two on a Tower, 1882 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Mayor of Casterbridge, 1886 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Woodlanders, 1887 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Tess of the d'Urbervilles, 1891 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Jude the Obscure, 1895 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Well-Beloved, 1897 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Short Story Collections

Wessex Tales, 1888 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

A Group of Noble Dames, 1891 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Life’s Little Ironies, 1894 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

A Changed Man and Other Tales, 1913 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Poetry Collections

Wessex Poems and Other Verses, 1898 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Poems of the Past and the Present, 1901 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses, 1909 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Satires of Circumstance, 1914 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Moments of Vision, 1917 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Late Lyrics and Earlier with Many Other Verses, 1923 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles, 1925 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres, 1928 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

Plays

The Dynasts: Part One, 1904 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Dynasts: Part Two, 1906 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Dynasts: Part Three, 1908 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Play of St. George, 1921 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall, 1923 [Amazon UK] [Amazon US]

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