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Hardy the Enigma
on 24 July 2007
Thomas Hardy will always remain something of an enigma: a man best known for his lyrical descriptions of landscape and country life who almost without fail chose to spend the summer months in the smog and grime of London; a man who wrote some of the most moving love poems in the language in honour of his wife but only after her death and only after treating her with cold neglect during their marriage. A man obsessed with class and social status who in his novels always sided with the underdog. He is, I suspect, simultaneously a biographer's dream subject (so many contradictions, such a fascinating character) and worst nightmare (so enigmatic and so inconsistent).
I thoroughly enjoyed Claire Tomalin's book, although I do have one or two reservations. She is excellent on Hardy's attitudes towards women. Hardy clearly adored the ladies, albeit in an idealised sense. One only has to read his descriptions of Eustacia Vye in 'The Return of the Native' or of Tess in the book that bears her name to see how much beautiful women appealed to him, and indeed how well he understood them. The women in his own life however, especially his first wife Emma Gifford, failed, through no fault of their own, to live up to his ideals and he sadly became tired of them. Emma's journey as Hardy's wife, taking her from a free-spirited girl to a sad and lonely figure living almost alone in an attic, is well explained in the book. You sense Tomalin has a deep sympathy for Emma and she does much to portray her as a thinking, feeling human being. A woman who played a major role in Hardy's development both as a novelist and as a poet.
The book is also very good on Hardy's childhood and his youthful friendship with the brilliant but troubled Horace Moule. Youthful experiences are important in the development of any writer and Tomalin does Hardy full justice here. Where I think she does less well is with Hardy the elderly gentleman. He struggles for success, he writes his novels, he falls in and out of love with numerous fascinating women, his wife dies and he writes several beautiful poems in her honour .... and then it all seems to drift into nothingness. Hardy lived for sixteen more years following Emma's death, he remarried, published several excellent volumes of poetry and became a grand old man of English letters, courted by royalty and the literary establishment alike, and yet this part of his life seems very sketchily dealt with in the book, almost as if the author had rather lost interest. Also a few errors creep in. At one point Hardy is described as visiting Samuel Hoare and his wife, Lady Alda Hoare, at Stourhead. Hardy certainly visited Lady Alda at Stourhead, but she was married to Henry Hoare, not Samuel. Samuel Hoare, the politician, had nothing to do with either Lady Alda, Stourhead or indeed with Hardy.
Still these are minor quibbles with what is generally a good and informative read. Besides, the best measure of success for any literary biography is the speed with which it sends the reader back to the works of the author under discussion. As I have already started re-reading one of Hardy's novels, in this sense, Claire Tomalin has succeeded admirably.