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on 30 April 2017
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on 2 December 2013
Claire Tomalin is already an established literary biographer; Dickens, Austen, etc.
This one is different. The key might be in the subtitle. For Dickens and Austen, 'A Life' was sufficient. Not for Hardy. He is the 'Time-Torn Man'. Already a hint that the Hardy project was different, special, and I think it shows.
It starts with a paradox. Why did hardy's life change so fundamentally the the day his (almost totally estranged) wife died, and why, when he could have been free (he did remarry) did he choose to shackle himself to his wife's memory for the rest of his long life? Everything in the book works backward and forward from that point and is beautifully handled.
To be a novelist-poet is in itself almost a paradox. It takes one to know one and some of the most perceptive criticism of Hardy was written by D H Lawrence. This is not a work of literary criticism, although the reader is thoughtfully directed to the most recent scholarship in the notes and Bibliography.
As to why Hardy was so beastly to his heroes (and heroines), who was the 'President of the gods' and what this had to do with Hardy's progressive loss of faith and why (the ultimate paradox) he was remembered by his friends and family as a witty and jovial old man - you will have to read the book!
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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.
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on 12 October 2016
Good, if you are interested in Thomas Hardy, but I'm not!
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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.
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on 22 February 2014
The image for most people of Thomas Hardy is like the front cover illustration. Claire Tomalin charts the spectrum of his life particularly referring to the relationships he had with his family and his two wives. We do tend to forget that Hardy was young once and he experienced the vicissitudes of growing up in rural and later urban 19th Century England. She helpfully points out some of his life experiences which he would later use in his novels. Hardy is a complex man cocooned in his beloved Wessex comforted by the changeable but nevertheless reassuring natural world. This absorbing account of his life reflects the various different aspects of the man, his relationships and his environment and goes a considerable way to provide an understanding of what made him tick.
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on 21 December 2012
Unadorned and undeviating can be similarly applied to Claire Tomalin's rapid and readable romp through the life of the novelist and poet. The events keep the reader avidly reading on, and her perspicacious treatment of the novels and poetry reflects her love for her subject. This shines out right from the start of the book. For instance in the preface she picks up on the last verse of one of Hardy's most poignant poems `At Castle Boterel'; verses guaranteed to touch the heart--- and to inspire recourse to the whole poem.

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.
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Claire Tomalin writes an excellent biography and I really enjoyed this one of the great writer. I'm not a huge fan of Thomas Hardy's novels and the biography didn't mean that I have gone out and become reacquainted with his works; I read this more as a work of social history and biography and although the author does reference books of his that I haven't read I didn't find that an issue.

Hardy came from a poor background and owed his education to his poor health which meant that he wasn't going to be able to undertake physical labour. The author outlines his path upwards through society and the particular individuals who assisted him. She is clear on the class implications and the problems that then ensued in the relationships with his own family and later that of his wife. She is excellent too on Hardy's relationship with women and obviously has significant sympathy for his wife who seems to have been left behind by his social rise and her inability to change as he did. Weaving Hardy's story into the social background of the time does help us to understand what he does a little better although there are occasions when the reader has very little sympathy for him and I suspect that the author doesn't have either.

Hardy's writings are examined in the context of his life and clues contained within them to his thought processes are brought out for the reader to examine. This is not an examination of their literary merit but what the author does include enhances our understanding of Hardy's life. The book is also good at examining Hardy's role as a commercial writer - he wrote for his audience and wanted to write what was popular and what would sell. We think of Hardy as one of the great writers now but this book helps us discover how he thought of himself, what contemporaries thought and how he progressed through his writing life.

The book is easy to read and not over detailed. If you want a critical examination of his works you will need to look elsewhere. What this book does well is to give us a picture of Hardy the man, the times in which he lived and how her worked as a writer.
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on 23 August 2008
It has been almost a year since I read this biography but I enjoyed it. I am not an expert on Hardy by any means and have not read any other accounts of his life although I have enjoyed reading both his novels and poems.
I appreciated the detailed construction of the society Hardy was born into. From the start we are aware of what type of family he was born into, the struggles he faced and his ambition to learn. The helpful map at the start demonstrates the extent to which Hardy's world was centred around a small patch of England. I also found Tomalin's accounts of Hardy's novels to be thoughtful, incisive and interesting. I have not read Desperate Remedies, but I will. Her analysis of his poetry is equally informative and astute. She is not afraid to criticise her subject, but is always aware of what he was aiming to write.
I would recommend this book highly to anyone who wants to enhance their knowledge of Hardy.
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VINE VOICEon 5 November 2006
Claire Tomalin's biographies are always worth reading, she's one of the few biographers I read no matter who their subject is. Thomas Hardy is one of my favourite novellists and poets, so this was a perfect match for me. Tomalin manages to say something fresh about a man who has been endlessly written about. She concentrates on the poetry, which has often been relegated to second place behind the novels. She also shines a light on Hardy's relationship with his first wife, Emma, who emerges from the book as a spirited and exciting young woman. The book opens with a beautifully written chapter on Emma's death and how this inspired Hardy to write some of his most beautiful love poems. Their relationship had deteriorated to the point where they hardly spoke and Emma lived in the attic, but her death released all his happy memories of their courtship and early life together. Tomalin's previous books on Ellen Ternan and Dorothea Jordan have shown her ability to imagine the lives of women on the margins, and with Emma Hardy, she has recalled her to life. The book sent me back to the work, which is what I look for in a literary biography.
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