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Thomas Hardy: The Time-torn Man Hardcover – 5 Oct 2006
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Thomas Hardy is one of the sacred figures in English writing, a great poet and a novelist with a world reputation. His life was also extraordinary: from the poverty of rural Dorset he went on to become the Grand Old Man of English life and letters, his last resting place in Westminster Abbey. This seminal biography, by our leading biographer, covers Hardy's illegitimate birth, his rural upbringing, his escape to London in the 1860s, his marriages, his status as a bestselling novelist, and in later life, his supreme achievements as a poet.
About the Author
Claire Tomalin was literary editor of the New Statesman and Sunday Times. She has published a collection of journalism and is the author of seven highly acclaimed biographies, including: The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (Whitbread First Book Prize); The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (Hawthornden Prize, the NCR Book Award and James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography); and Pepys: The Unequalled Self (Whitbread Book of the Year).
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By Sid Astbury
A West Country son of the soil who championed the labouring poor; or an inveterate social climber who hobnobbed with royalty and holidayed on the Continent. An unbeliever who railed against the Church and the institution of marriage; or a twice-wed hymn-singer who wished to be buried in the local churchyard. A socialist who campaigned for radical reform and spurned a knighthood; or an old-style Tory keen on property, scornful of striking workers and readier to pick up an honorary degree than endow an Oxbridge college so that strugglers like himself had the chance to better themselves that he lacked. An admirer of strong women and advocate of emancipation; or a buttress of the status quo who didn’t see much wrong with Victorian Britain. A writer whose vivid depictions of country people gave zest to his novels and poetry; or a pen-for-hire happy to tone down his prose and excise naughty bits if that meant pleasing his publishers and getting into print.
Claire Tomalin, in her biography of Thomas Hardy, paints a portrait of the Victorian novelist and poet with a palette of all the colours. Her picture is of a man in perpetual conflict with himself: Christian or atheist, Establishment figure or rebel, artist or artisan, loyal husband or lounge lizard.
She notes that Hardy was not low-born - and not without influential friends and caring mentors - but that his success was indubitably the reward of hard work and evidence of an indomitable will. He gambled everything to become a man of letters and got a book contract with what might have been the last throw of the dice.
The image is of a not entirely likeable person – sometimes cruel to his long-suffering first wife and often infuriatingly maudlin about that first marriage when embarked on his second. Nevertheless, his was a quiet, gentle nature that achieved its fullest expression in his work if not in his life. He worked at his words seemingly every day of his life.
Tomalin, a journalist blossomed into an accomplished biographer, is unstinting in her research and scrupulous in weighing the strengths and weaknesses of a writer who “did not hesitate to take on the central themes of human experience, time, memory, loss, love, fear, grief, anger, uncertainty, death” and whose canvas was (like The Archers radio series) the everyday lives of country folk.
Tomalin suggests that Hardy’s character weaknesses – his churning self-doubt and rage against a fate that he perceived would keep him in his humble place – gave his words the sharp edge that made him a bestselling author and secured his place among the greatest of storytellers. “The wounds inflicted by life never quite healed over in Hardy,” Tomalin says. “Humiliation, rejection, condescension, failure and loss of love remained so close to the skin that the scars bled again at the slightest occasion.” They bled into his novels and his poems, imbuing them with authentic, heart-felt emotion.
Hardy’s strengths – his phenomenal gifts for description and evocation, for reported speech and the matching of the workings of nature with the doings of man – set him apart from contemporaries and ensured he would easily outlast them. Hardy shows; he doesn’t just tell. In the Mayor of Casterbridge, Elizabeth looks longingly at future-husband Farfrae, noticing the “sort of velvet-pile or down that was on the skin at the back of his neck ....” Tomalin notes a Hardy ahead of his time “imagining how it would feel to touch the skin and hair – not what a nineteenth-century girl was supposed to imagine, but he was not going to deny her sexual feeling.”
Putting him in the same pantheon as Shakespeare, Tomalin suggests how it was that Hardy could come up with figures of the magnitude of Michael Henchard in the Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude Fawley in Jude the Obscure. “A writer deeply engaged and absorbed in his work may surprise himself, and this may be what happened when Hardy wrote Jude, and may help to explain its unrelenting power and gloom,” she writes. “So perhaps we can believe that the worst parts of Jude and Sue’s story also came partly unbidden, out of the place inside him where the wounds made by grief and loss and humiliation and failure had never ceased to ache.”
Tomalin charts a life raddled by “grief and loss and humiliation and failure” that was nevertheless rendered immaculate by the power of his imagination.
Tomalin crams Hardy's eighty seven years into three hundred and seventy six pages without leaving much out, as she traces his life from son of a small country builder to worldwide acclaim as a consummate writer, and examines his genius for transporting commonplace scenes and occupations into literary immortality.
There is plenty to occupy her: the discomfort Hardy felt in his humble origins, a complex that haunted him all his life; rejection of his early novels bravely borne; religious ambivalence; censure from scornful critics; the beginnings of recognition; the triumph of unparalleled success; and not least the paradoxical attitude he adopted to his wives and loves. For Hardy has been criticised for disparaging Emma during her later years, and then blatantly mourning her in elegies that make up some of his finest poetry while married to his second wife Florence. Tomalin's evaluation of these and other Hardyesque enigmas is objective and emphasises the fact that writing only succeeds when the author is deeply moved by the subject. Tomalin is. She understands how it must have hurt Florence; but that's Hardy.
The book can't really be faulted; it's a fluent account of an epic life. And this reviewer rejects the censure that Tomalin's unsubstantiated conjectures are detrimental; after all, readers will draw their own conclusions on the food for thought they offer. Finally on a mundane note the book (mine a hardback version)is a handsome thing in itself, with its whimsical cover portrait and dark blue end papers, and there's a brilliant index which makes finding comment on the novels and poems an absolute doddle.