Inspired by shadowy women, mythologised by men

Thomas Hardy
October 13, 2006

Writing Thomas Hardy's biography must be an exasperating business, frustrated by the defensive misrepresentations that imbue his autobiography and thwarted by the evasiveness of his motivations and ambitions. Perhaps it is the natural consequence of this exasperation that Ralph Pite's radical biography of Hardy deliberately resonates with gently reproachful judgments of the way his subject "guarded" his own image to establish an enduring fiction, which has been subsequently "guarded" by others. In doing so, Pite makes some fairly censorious assaults on Hardy himself and on the way he has traditionally been viewed, and his profound re-evaluation of critical convictions about the relationship between Hardy's life and his work will stir up some overdue scholarly debate.

Nevertheless, this biography is not unusual in comprising almost as much consideration of the character of Hardy's first wife, Emma Gifford, as of Hardy himself, although the Emma portrayed will not be familiar to most readers. Despite the impression given in the remorseful poems of 1912-13, Hardy seems to have been content to allow Emma to be traduced by his contemporaries as insanely malevolent, and most subsequent biographers and critics have joined this conspiracy to condemn Emma and "guard" Hardy.

In Pite's version, however, Emma is sympathetically rendered as an isolated, powerless, yet above all dutiful and loving wife. Furthermore, her marriage to Hardy seems to have been more collaborative and tranquil than is usually claimed, at least until the final few years before Emma's sudden death.

Many readers will find this a refreshingly unembellished portrait of a marriage more often described in rather sensational terms, but some will no doubt feel equivocal about Pite's disparagement of Hardy's treatment of Emma, especially when, as on some occasions, it seems to lack evidentiary support. Even when evidence is provided, judgmental rancour is plainly manifest: one chapter, for example, draws to a close with the emotive lines: "Though so good at remembering dates, Hardy never did anything on Emma's birthday. Not once."

Furthermore, Pite seems to withhold deliberately from Emma the opportunity to condemn herself. She is quoted only sparingly, and his suppression of her most caustic diary entries and letters arouses a suspicion that this biographer may be trying too hard to compensate for the ways in which Emma has suffered in other works. At times, her presence in the biography is, perhaps, a little too overwhelming. After the account of Emma's death, a mere 70 pages briskly tell the story of the last 16 years of Hardy's life (including the details of his second marriage, the deaths of a number of significant friends and family and the First World War, not to mention Hardy's own death and its aftermath).

However, in the opinion of many scholars, Emma's influence on Hardy's literary oeuvre can scarcely be exaggerated, and Pite's radical alternative to the traditional presentation of Emma and his conjectures in respect of Hardy's relationships with women in general are shrewdly argued and dextrously analysed in references from Hardy's literary works.

This biography thereby illuminates Hardy's creation of novels and poetry not only in light of his reactions to chauvinist Victorian assessments of his worldview; much light is also thrown on the pedagogical and intellectual influence on him of a bewildering variety of intelligent women.

It is clear that Hardy benefited from the influence of his male acquaintances as well, but many of the most significant of these died relatively early in his life and, despite an impressive assortment of intellectual friendships with men, Hardy does seem to have turned to women more than to men for his inspiration.

That not many of these relationships with women, intellectual or otherwise, brought Hardy much fulfilment will no doubt be of interest to enthusiasts of his richly fascinating female characters, especially in the light of later revisions to a number of his novels. Equally illuminating is the way in which Hardy's most successful works seem often to have been those written in closest collaboration with the many women in his life.

Pite's perceptive research and inclination to well-reasoned, if sometimes fanciful, speculations about the influence and characters of Tryphena Sparks, Florence Henniker, Florence Dugdale and others show, perhaps for the first time, the true scope and extent of their influence on Hardy's development as a writer. While not all readers will concur with Pite's bold challenges to Hardy's "guarded" life, by assailing the efficacy of Hardy and his other biographers' mythologised chronicles, Pite has lifted a dead hand laid from much critical thinking about Hardy and has cleared the way for fresh inspiration to breathe life into the study of his work.

Jonathan Mitchell is head of English, Magdalen College School, Oxford.

Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life

Author - Ralph Pite
Publisher - Picador
Pages - 528
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 330 48186 X

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