BOOK REVIEW / Desperate remedy for a gloomy sage: D J Taylor follows Martin Seymour-Smith into the mysterious labyrinth of Thomas Hardy's life: Hardy - Martin Seymour-Smith: Bloomsbury, pounds 25

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE enigma that was Thomas Hardy's inner life was apparently of his own making. To read the hundreds of letters in Michael Millgate's edition is to run up against an almost impenetrable wall of silence. Asked to supply a personal opinion - on God, Liberalism or the plight of the agricultural labourer - Hardy is polite, sedulous and eternally out of reach.

His letter to Ezra Pound, in response to some poems Pound had sent him, is a small masterpiece of evasion, an absolute refusal to be drawn. A tart judgement is a major event in Hardy, explosive when it comes; for the most part his letters are a kind of genteel play-acting, made ominous by the force of the rare detonations.

The impression left by Martin Seymour-Smith's impossibly long biography is that the mysteries are mostly grafted on. Hardy is ordinary; the biographers have imprisoned him in shadow. Hardy is one of those dense, cantankerous and curiously old-fashioned literary lives, crawling with quaint personal judgments and psychological guesswork, severe and indulgent by turns, and quite unrelenting. Something of its tone, perhaps, can be inferred in a passage which describes Hardy's first marriage to Emma Gifford, 'at St Peter's, Elgin Avenue, Paddington (closed by the Bishop of London in 1971, and later rebuilt) on Thursday 17 September 1872. . .' Somehow it is that parenthesis which conveys the awful extent of Seymour-Smith's labours and the gargantuan nature of his obsession.

As a biographer, Seymour-Smith specialises in the radical redefinition. His last book concluded that Kipling was bisexual. His mission in Hardy is to reinvent its subject as a genial, sensitive, intelligent and, most important of all, misrepresented figure. Previous biographers such as Millgate and Robert Gittings are periodically arraigned for their disparagement of Hardy's background, temperament and output, and the thought of conspiracy hangs in the air. Much of this, it must be said, is factitious. One of the most regular sights in the book is Seymour-Smith flushing paper tigers out of the undergrowth and blowing them to pieces with interpretive gelignite.

This constant raising of welts on the skin of professional rivals is a pity because Seymour-Smith's account of Hardy's life is otherwise full of interest and entertainment. In particular, he demonstrates just how well Hardy was able to look after himself in a literary marketplace which a man of similar background and ambition such as George Gissing found perpetually intimidating. As early as Desperate Remedies (1872) he was capable of dealing with slippery publishers like Tinsley (although Tinsley hung on to Under the Greenwood Tree, his first popular success). A year or so later we find him holding his own in what must have been the formidable company of his editor, Leslie Stephen, Stephen's wife Minny (nee Thackeray) and her sister Anny.

Shrewdness and adaptibility are one thing. Seymour-Smith's emphasis on the new Hardy, a capering figure come to confound the gloomy sage of old, is rarely convincing. The tone of a letter in which, commiserating with a friend on the death of a child, Hardy reflects that it is probably for the best, seeing what had been avoided, is doggedly maintained. Out cycling in his sixties with a friend, and distressed by a wounded blackbird, Hardy demanded: 'If you had had the choice of being born would you have been?' The friend, Clive Holland, says yes. Hardy's 'No, surely not,' is perhaps less important than the sincerity with which it was voiced.

This is a partisan biography, but that hardly excuses the serious and continual misrepresentation of anyone with whom the author happens to disagree. To describe the Victorian critic R H Hutton as one of a collection of 'dullards' is just gesturing. R D Blackmore 'must have been jealous of Hardy's greater success'. Who says so? One of the worst dismissals of unhelpful testimony comes in a retelling of the appearance chez Hardy of A C Benson and Edmund Gosse shortly before Emma's death in 1912, excerpted from Benson's voluminous diaries. Describing the diaries as 'full of malice' (untrue) and Benson himself as subject to 'hatred and pathological fear of women' (highly questionable), Seymour-Smith decides that 'all he really tells us is that Emma was a rambling and inconsequential old woman'. In fact, Benson provides a revealing portrait of a reserved and defensive old man ('there is something secret and inscrutable about him') becalmed in shabby surroundings with a vague, capricious wife. Above all, there is a memorable glimpse of Emma in the garden, where she delights in popping the pods of the Noli me tangere: 'Mrs Hardy got entirely absorbed in this and went on . . . with little jumps and elfin shrieks of pleasure.'

Emma also confides to Gosse that she frequently beats Hardy with a rolled-up newspaper during the course of their quarrels. Benson concludes that 'the crazy wife, the stolid niece didn't seem the right background for the old rhapsodist in the evening of his days' - not the only external view of Hardy in his old age, but one that can hardly be disregarded by an objective biographer.

Like the unremitting favouritism, Hardy's faults are the faults of the old-fashioned literary life.

Every so often Seymour-Smith enjoys a brisk exchange with a Hardy scholar like J O Bailey or Rosemarie Morgan, but there are no notes and frequently even the name of the authority he is quoting from goes astray. There are also some delicious personal asides: 'hotels put women off lovemaking'; Emma sensing 'what all authors' wives sense: a lack of interest in her'. Authorial invincibility rises like a fog, and the reader emerges with the queer sensation of a writer being escorted round his own life by a zealous and well-informed museum attendant. In Seymour-Smith's defence, it must be said that his enthusiasm is redemptive. Unlike, say, the recent chroniclers of HG Wells's boorishness or Stephen Spender's boyfriends, he gives the impression of actually caring about his subject. And so, however narrowly, you can forgive it all - the one-sidedness, cancelled hotel sex, the jeers at poor, innocent Mr Millgate, the howdah of Seymour-Smith's imagination lurching into the jungle on another paper tiger hunt.