I borrowed this from my friend earlier this year and finished it last month on a trip to Dorset. I read Robert Gittings' two-volume (Young Thomas Hardy
, The Older Hardy
) biography of Hardy a long time ago, so the story of his remarkable life and his two contrasting marriages was familiar to me, but it was good to hear about these things again. Claire Tomalin has an easy style which occasionally slips into the second person as she suggests to the reader what "you" might have thought had you been there, but she's also worked hard at her research and brings up some interesting snippets. For example, at one point she notes that Hardy was friends with Bertrand Russell's aunt, and wonders what each would have made of the other had they met. She also gives a memorable vignette from (one of) Hardy's funerals, which was probably the only occasion on which Kipling and Shaw met.
But - as others have pointed out - it's Tomalin's treatment of the poetry that takes up most of her attention. The tale of how his guilt and regret at his first wife's death found its expression in a large collection of extraordinary poetry (which profoundly unsettled his second wife) is a distinctive one, and is worth telling in detail, but I'd've liked more attention paid to his novels. These - I think - are the route through which most readers encounter Hardy but unfortunately, she seems to lose interest in them as she goes through his life; certainly the treatment of his later books - which are far more important - is more cursory than the account she gives of the earlier ones.