BOOK REVIEW / Snapping at other heels: 'Hardy' - Martin Seymour-Smith: Bloomsbury, 25 pounds

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The Independent Culture
WESSEX, the wire-haired terrier owned by Thomas Hardy and his wife Florence, 'wanted desperately to be human' and shared his master's feelings, according to Martin Seymour- Smith. He 'loved to listen to the radio' too; Hardy believed he understood the programme. Wessex was also free from conventional notions of time, 'perhaps reflecting upon the emotional . . . impact of Einstein' on Hardy. And when the terrier bit the postman and flew at the maids it was their fault for being impertinent and silly - they certainly didn't appreciate Einstein.

Seymour-Smith's tribute to this 'magnificent creature' is sharply at odds with Robert Gittings's in his 1978 biography of Hardy. Gittings describes Wessex savaging and biting guests, shredding their trouser legs and trying to snatch the food from their forks at table; and says Florence lived in terror that he would bite someone so badly he would have to be destroyed. Another recent biographer, Michael Millgate, also dwells on the dog's snappishness and ill behaviour.

A small point, except that Seymour- Smith's attitude to Hardy's earlier biographers is very much that of Wessex to the postman. He nips, growls and savages them on page after page of this enormous book, accusing them of denigrating and misunderstanding his hero. He is incensed by their speculations about Hardy's sex life - which are certainly sometimes inept - but this does not stop him launching into still steamier ones of his own.

Florence Dugdale, Hardy's second wife, is accused not only of being 'suburban' and having 'the values of Enfield', but of getting an inheritance from Sir Thornley Stoker - for whom she had worked - because she masturbated him. The same thing happened with Hardy, it seems, both before and after marriage, not because he was not capable of sexual intercourse well into his eighties, but because Florence was the type of woman who 'preferred giving 'relief', which was far less strenuous and alarming'; something to do with being brought up in Enfield, perhaps.

Later, he says, she probably withdrew even this sexual service from her poor old husband, all part of her malice and mean spirit. He does concede that there is not a shred of evidence for any of these suggestions, but it does not stop him spelling them out.

Since Seymour-Smith reveres Hardy, and has made a close study of his work, it is a pity his book should be skewed and diminished by this sort of thing. There are some excellent chapters, good discussions of individual poems, detailed critical appreciations of the novels, and a sharp account of Leslie Stephen's editorial interventions in the name of family values. There is also a determined championing of Emma, Hardy's first wife, though far too much of this; in the end it becomes counter-productive. Seymour-Smith must have read everything remotely connected with his subject, and is a passionate advocate for Hardy. So why has the book gone so badly wrong?

It is partly sheer size. There are nearly 900 pages of text, and that is without footnotes; in a book as contentious as this, which claims to be the definitive biography, footnotes are necessary. Much worse is the fact that Hardy himself fails to come to life. He is admired, but he is not there. Probably he was squashed flat by the weight of Seymour-Smith's endless arguments with his other biographers and with all the 'academics' and reviewers who have ever approached him or his work. He becomes a disputed territory rather than a man living in particular places and feeling particular emotions.

Seymour-Smith's insistently stated case is that Hardy has been denigrated, patronised and misinterpreted, denied his standing as a great man: but is this true? You get quite a surprise when you turn back to Gittings and Millgate, and find that their portraits are after all affectionate and admiring. Gittings, while he shows Hardy as always more intent on what was going on inside his head than on being an attentive son or husband - not an unusual thing for a writer - speaks of his courtship of Emma as the 'great event of his life'; praises the 'high seriousness and maturity' of his early novels; says he was 'the spiritual parent of the whole generation of modern poets' and responsible for 'an achievement of work that challenged any other English writer'. Gittings does not always like Hardy's behaviour, but a biographer is not obliged to find perfection.

Similarly, Seymour-Smith says Millgate dismisses Hardy as someone 'possessed of incidental literary gifts . . . who wrote one great novel, Tess, and a few good untutored poems'. Turn to Millgate, and you find him according Hardy 'a unique standing as both major novelist and major poet' with a reputation that 'continues to strengthen and develop'. Seymour-Smith's publishers should have taken the trouble to check some of his choleric statements.

They could also have halved the size of the book by removing the wrangles with fellow biographers from the text and putting them into footnotes, where they belong. If anyone at Bloomsbury read the book through - and you can't help wondering if they did - they failed to question, edit or cut as they should have done, for the author's sake as much as the reader's.

This is a pity. Seymour-Smith is learned and enthusiastic, and plenty of people want to read about Hardy. Tess of the d'Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Far From the Madding Crowd are among the 20 most frequently borrowed library novels in this country, and his poetry is devoutly appreciated by poets and public alike. All his work is steadily in print.

His vision of the way in which human behaviour is linked with the physical world - trees, roads, houses, animals, flowers, weather - is unparalleled; so is his birdlike eye for detail, the quickness to catch the smallest emblematic moments and sights. The sight of an old dress suit hanging outside a pawnbroker's called up for him not only its owner dancing, but also the woman whose bare powdered arm had left a pale smear on the black sleeve. His poems are like novels, his novels poetic dramas. He had the eye of a painter or an absorbed child, and prized in himself that he noticed the things other people passed by, that he saw and felt the world with an intensity denied to most. Of course he had defects of character, and he certainly was not an agreeable husband to either of his wives; he lived mostly inside his head.

The Victorian age was a rotten time, snobbish, prudish and false, and Hardy felt himself at odds with it even when he became a great man; but he was not going to leave for Italy or the South Seas - all the roots of his imagination were set in English soil. So he sat gloomily in Max Gate in the later years, with his wretched women and his wretched dog, making poems as bright and plentiful as stars.

(Photograph omitted)