Country life for capital's club set

Thomas Hardy
March 18, 2005

Terry Eagleton explores how novels by a 'low-born churl' rendered rural realities for urban readers.

There is a paradox about literary biographies. The life stories of writers are usually thought worth recounting because they may cast some light on their art; yet a critical exploration of the art is generally the last thing that such biographies go in for. What makes such works valuable, then, is exactly what they tend to exclude. Michael Millgate, for example, tells us a good deal about Thomas Hardy's correspondence with his publishers in this superbly erudite study, but he does not yield us any fresh critical insights into Tess of the D'Urbervilles . Most literary biographies deal with the material infrastructure of writing - with drafts, contracts, royalties, reviews and editions - rather than with the thing itself. It is like an account of Versailles that focuses mainly on the plumbing.

Besides, knowing that Hardy met his rheumatic father in Bath in October 1877 is no great aid to grasping the narrative structure of Jude the Obscure . Most of the information such biographies provide is too humdrum to be critically illuminating. If these were details from the life of Al Gore or Gary Lineker, we would find them merely tedious. Authors' life experiences do, to be sure, end up in their writing, and in Hardy's case perhaps more regularly than most. "The texture of his work," Millgate comments, "is thick with remembered experience and observation, with family and local traditions." Yet since art is not a mirror, its relation to real life is more delicate and oblique than biographers tend to imagine. Shakespeare, as far as we are aware, was never seen crazed and naked on a heath, but Lear reads convincingly even so. There is nothing in the fiction of Joseph Conrad to prove that he ever set foot on board ship. Critics are quick to rebuke those who reduce literature to its social conditions while being oddly indulgent of those reducing it to the experience of an individual life. In this revised edition of a biography first published two decades ago, Millgate valuably dispels some tenacious myths surrounding his subject.

Though Hardy's haughty first wife, Emma, dismissed her husband's clannish kinsfolk as "of the peasant class", she was mistaken; partly because a peasantry scarcely existed in the post-enclosure rural England of the time, but also because Hardy was the tolerably well-educated son of a Dorset master mason. If he sometimes spoke the West Country dialect at home, it was not for lack of proficiency in standard English. His future father-in-law dismissed him as a "low-born churl", and the reviews of his work brimmed with sardonic allusions to pigsties and village idiots. "The only things we believe in are the sheep and the dogs," observed the supercilious Henry James of one of his finest novels. Yet Hardy himself attended a decent secondary school and was trained as an architect. His mother read omnivorously and passed on a passion for print to her sickly, intellectually gifted son. He was not literally an autodidact - a word that, as Raymond Williams once remarked, has sometimes been reserved for anyone ill starred enough to be without an Oxbridge education.

Nor was Hardy particularly nostalgic for some organic rural past. As Millgate demonstrates, he supported progressive changes in the countryside and was well aware of the squalor, cholera, drunkenness, pauperism and domestic violence of the depressed rural society of his day. The farm labourers of Far from the Madding Crowd , far from constituting some joyous bucolic crew, are too inept to deal with blown sheep or put out a fire. Yet their author was not driven by this dire condition into some homespun cosmic fatalism, which is another of the myths clustered around him. His view of life, to be sure, was bleakly disenchanted, and he could suffer from atrocious depressions; but the cause of these fits was probably the ways of his snobbish, imperious wife rather than the way of the world.

Hardy enraged his Victorian readers less because he was an agnostic than because he refused to cheer them up. The task of art was to edify, whereas he perversely insisted on telling the offensive, unpalatable truth. Yet he himself claimed to be a meliorist, and as a stout Liberal, environmentalist and pro-feminist lent his voice to some robust social reform. He was a wry, modest, provisional thinker, self-ironising and sceptical of grandiose schemes; like Balzac and Dickens, his fiction was more radical than he was himself. His first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady , was judged too subversive for publication; yet as a young man this sexual freethinker could not bring himself to write of a woman's neck and lip in his diary, coyly penning "n-k" and "l-p" instead.

Most of the major English novelists from the Brontës to Henry James were social misfits or displaced persons of one kind or another, caught on the hop between countries, cultures or classes; and Hardy, son of the aspiring lower middle class, was no stranger to this painful, creative ambiguity.

Having made a name for himself in London, he returned in an unusual move to live in Dorchester, where he was loyally supportive of his needy family.

Yet though he complained that there were still people in the town too grand to speak to him, he would nip off to London from time to time to dine at the Athenaeum and rub shoulders with the literary and social elite of the day. It is somehow typical of his social ambiguity that he turned down a knighthood but accepted an Order of Merit, while rating the freedom of the Borough of Dorchester above both.

If Hardy did not publicise his modest background, neither was he embarrassed by it. Though Hardy cannily resisted being pigeonholed as a purely rural or regional writer, Millgate rightly sees his fiction as mediating between rural and urban England, reporting to a middle-class readership on what for them was a quaint rustic landscape but for him was a complex social world. If his literary style could be stilted and laborious, it was partly because he was writing with one prudent eye on a potentially unsympathetic audience. Like his fellow rural realist George Eliot, he knew that the commonest human lives can conceal passionate intensities; but he also knew that he had a job on his hands convincing some of his hardboiled metropolitan readership of the fact.

Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revisited fails to embed Hardy's life in his historical context as deeply as it might. As a lucid, judicious, opulently detailed account of its intensely private author, however, it is hard to imagine it being surpassed. Millgate has even consulted men and women who encountered Hardy at first hand, such as E.M. Forster, Harold Macmillan, the novelist's secretary and his wife's maid.

If this might seem to involve some curious Hardyesque kink in time, or even the odd seance, one should note that Millgate set out on his research in the early 1960s, and Hardy himself died at 9.05 one morning in 1928, just in time for an announcement of his death to make the end of the nine o'clock news.

Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory, Manchester University.

Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revisited

Author - Michael Millgate
Publisher - Oxford University
Pages - 625
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 19 9565 3

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