Sunday, March 06, 2011

Claire Tomalin – ‘Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man’

On the preface of Late Lyrics and Earlier, published in 1922:
he refused to be labelled as a pessimist. He was an ‘evolutionary meliorist’, he insisted, who believed that the world needed both religion and rationality, and that they might be reconciled and interfused through poetry. His theories are less interesting than his poetry, and Late Lyrics is not read for its ideas. (p. 342)
I’m glad she said that, because I had been wondering. Hardy is best known, perhaps, for bucking against the trend of Victorian fiction to give characters their moral due. The good rewarded, the bad punished, the good-but-fallen conveniently killed off, to the laments of those left behind. He doesn’t shirk from the third category, of course, but the other two? In The Mayor of Casterbridge, the plot seemed to spring from character: Farfrae rewarded for being easy going and level headed; Henchard punished for being short tempered and easily flustered. Tomalin suggests there is something else at work, citing a passage at the end of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, in which Hardy ‘invoked the idea of the President of the Immortals sporting with her’ (p. 221). There is a guiding hand, in other words, though not that of the Christian god:
Later still he saw the Cause of Things as ‘neither moral nor immoral, but unmoral’. (p. 223)
I can’t see how this is different from there being no guiding hand at all, but it is the closest the book gets to explaining the consistently bleak turns of event in Hardy’s plots in terms of an ideology.

The implication is that the ideology is flawed, and that it is pessimism which guides him, after all. Tomalin disapprovingly quotes a moment from Jude the Obscure, in which Jude is sorely in need of encouragement in the studies which have so little precedent amongst his class: ‘But nobody did come, because nobody does’. This, she says, is an instance of him ‘generalising falsely’ (p. 222), because sometimes helpful people do turn up (Hardy is the anti-Micawber). Jude’s position is roughly the same as Hardy’s was, as a boy, coming from a rural labouring family, harbouring scholarly ambitions. Hardy’s parents, seeing that he wasn’t cut out to be a builder, got him started as an architect, which was a step up, socially, and allowed him the move to London from where he launched his writing career. He found people who encouraged him, even before moving away, and the firms to whom he submitted his first book were not discouraging, though no-one liked it enough to publish it. And yet, ‘Reading Jude is like being hit in the face over and over again.’ (p. 254). A character willing to work hard, but dragged down by a lack of opportunity which was not his creator’s experience. Which is OK, it’s fiction after all. But what, besides drawing attention to the plight of the intellectually-inclined poor, is all this bleakness for?

The Time-Torn Man
opens dramatically with the death of Hardy’s wife, Emma. ‘He was not expecting her to die, but then he had not been taking much notice of her for some time.’ (p. xvii). She had taken to sleeping in the attic; the two were estranged without either having moved out. Her eccentric behaviour seems to have been partly responsible for this, and there were suggestions by contemporaries (which Tomalin does not accept) of insanity. The estrangement seems to have been partly cultural – it is when entertaining distinguished literary guests that her odd behaviour (which might mean no more than talking too much about their dog) is most excruciating. Her own poetry is dismissed out of hand, and the novel she wrote, The Maid on the Shore, is assessed as ‘not entirely unreadable’. (p. 157)
She made no progress with her own writing and became one of those wives who regards her huband’s work as ‘our work’ and refers to it that way in public. (p. 179)
Jealousy is part of it, then. Family loyalties too – Hardy’s mother hated Emma, the reason given is that she brought him ‘neither youth nor wealth, small intelligence and no children.’ (p. 172). From 1893, Hardy began to fall in love with other women – first Florence Henniker, then Florence Dugdale, the latter becoming his wife after Emma’s death in 1912. A triumph of sorts for Dugdale, after years of sneaking around, but the death marked the point at which he began to write poems about the early days of his life with Emma. Tomalin sees in the poems Hardy wrote about her in 1912-13 a tenderness and a strength of imagination which was new in his work, and which offer a perfect illustration of the gap between life as he lived it and as he imagined it. Ironically, Emma had been aware of this gap, far more so than Florence was (she hated these poems):
Emma complained that he cared more for the women he imagined than for any real woman, a remark that suggests she understood him better than she is usually given credit for. (p. 197)
Tomalin’s enthusiasm for the poetry is infectious, and makes me want to read more of it (generally I’m not good at reading poetry, but we’ll see). It is in this gap of Hardy’s, between life and imagination, that the reason for Jude the Obscure’s suffocating trajectory can be glimpsed: temperament and pessimism are certainly factors, but really he is just being true to his art. The situation repeats itself in miniature later on, and his future second wife has a veiled warning of what is to come:
[Florence was] further exasperated by the poem he was writing on the death of his cat, described as his only real friend. When she objected that the cat was not by any means his only friend, he explained that he was ‘not exactly writing about himself but about some imaginary man in a similar situation.’ (p. 304)

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