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Thomas Hardy

 

In the pantheon of biographers Claire Tomlin must be somewhere near the apex. Her biography of Pepys is a masterpiece – but made so as much by the subject and his times as anything: he lived through the great watershed of British history when the world became recognizably modern. He was there and a player in its epochal events and knew its outstanding protagonists. A literary biography is, in its very nature, a more difficult task as most writers live a solitary life of the mind and their legacy is not deeds but words. The facts of their lives can be interesting enough but not as interesting as what you can read directly from their mind via their own pen.


So it is with Thomas Hardy. His long life stretched from the birth of the railways to the 1920s and he lived most of it in the rural Dorset where he was born. What I had not realised was the poverty of his early years, not so much economically - though his family were working class – but of expectation. He dreamed of becoming an author able to support himself in a middle class fashion by his writing but all through his long life he was never able to shake the caste of his birth. His first wife’s family never let him forget his humble beginnings and even when his greatness as a writer was unquestioned he felt drawn to ‘society’ – most of whose members were intellectual fleas by comparison. There is something awful about the invisible shackles that such a rigid society imposed, in the barriers those en haut imposed on those en bas, but also in the straining insecurity of the social mountaineer himself. We live in a time of rising economic inequality but it is at least a real meritocracy. The class system is alive and well - but it is not a caste system.


Another abiding impression from Hardy’s life is the unenviable lot of women – the stultifying ennui of their day-to-day lives and the iron hard conventions of an unforgiving society. His courtship of Emma, his first wife, took four years when they saw each other for only a couple of weeks a year while she was living in a remote vicarage in Cornwall where very little went on for a woman of intelligence and reading. His second wife, Florence, dreamed of being a writer in her own right but lived the life of a carer and secretary for her elderly husband – an old maid of sorts before her time. And for both of them there was the sad paradox that for writer who wrote so much about women and love he seems to have been unable to bring happiness to either of them.


For Hardyphiles there is another insightful fictional biography by Peter Tait called Florence, mistress of the Gate which captures in all its claustrophobia, life at Max Gate, Hardy’s house outside Dorchester. There, his novels well behind him, Hardy worked as a prolific poet for the last quarter of his life - until 1912 with a slightly mad Emma, estranged and living in another part of the house. After Emma died he married Florence who went from mistress to carer with no honeymoon in between and who had to suffer the hurt of Hardy’s post mortem guilt when his poems beatified the dead Emma in an outpouring of the love that he had so failed to show her during their life together.


Tragic is a word much used about Hardy’s novels. Sad is the word that describes his life.

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