It is easy to think of Thomas Hardy as a modest man. Much of his life consisted of nothing more glamorous than the domestic routines that sustained his writing over 60 years: "I never let a day go without using a pen. Just holding it sets me off." Hardy did not dazzle, yet he was a prodigy of determined defiance. A builder's son from Dorset, physically unimpressive, socially awkward, with neither a polished education nor influential connections, he made himself one of the most renowned novelists of his generation. At the peak of this fame, he renounced fiction, and began a perhaps still more distinguished career as a poet.
Hardy was a countryman who knew the capital well enough to call himself a Londoner, a family man who remained childless, a revered author never quite accepted as a gentleman. Little escapes his sceptical eye, as he dissects the injustices of a world making the painful adjustments demanded by modernity. Belonging nowhere, he observed everything, including himself. In "Afterwards", a late poem that muses on a natural world, "delicate-filmed as new-spun silk", which would survive his approaching death, he composed his own epitaph: "He was a man who used to notice such things."
Claire Tomalin's friendly account of Hardy's life can claim no bold revelations, but its sympathetic touch clarifies the dislocations that lay behind his success. She is particularly sensitive to his complex feelings towards women. He understood the frustrations of their confined situation, and generally took their part. Throughout his long life, he was startlingly inclined to fall in love.
Tomalin lists an impressive assortment of romantic entanglements - some passionately serious, some trivial and transient. The habit of looking to women for support has its origin in his mother's dedication. Jemima Hand, intelligent and forceful, had been hoping to find a new life in London when she discovered she was pregnant. Marriage with Hardy's father, handsome and good-natured, followed. Young Thomas was a fragile child, but his talents were a compensation for what Jemima felt she had lost.
These consolations did not reconcile her to marriage, and Jemima advised her four children not to wed. There could be no question of Hardy's attending university, but he was provided with an education to fit him for professional life. He was introduced to Latin, and became an enthusiastic classicist. It was made clear that he was not expected to toil with his hands, like his father. He would be an architect, not a builder, and was duly apprenticed to a firm in Dorchester.
Hardy assimilated his mother's confidence along with her aspirations. He proved to be a competent pupil, but Dorset would not do. In 1862, at 22, he set off for London, making the journey Jemima had been denied. He had little money, no job, and nowhere to stay. It was a brave decision, and it changed his life. Luck, a subject on which he was later to write so dourly, was with him. He quickly found a vacancy with a thriving architect. The work was not demanding, and Hardy was able to embark on a bustling course of self-cultivation, reading and writing, visiting churches, galleries, theatres, opera houses, libraries and museums. He made some progress as an architect, but it became dispiritingly clear that his background would prevent a rapid rise.
Turning to work where the right accent might count for less, Hardy began to write for publication. The shift was not easy. Poems were rejected, and potential publishers were alarmed by the cuttingly egalitarian views of his first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady (now lost). Hardy's single-minded drive began to falter.
He was rescued, as he had first been inspired, by a woman. When Hardy met Emma Gifford in Cornwall, she was living with her sister, who had married a sedate clergyman. She was a lady, though no longer a girl - nearly 30 when Hardy first saw her. Her conventional upbringing had not made her a conformist. Emma was a lively free-thinker, vigorous and sexy, and eager to escape her life as a superfluous presence in the vicarage.
She knew that Hardy was exceptional, and believed in his future. Hardy was overwhelmed, and his resolution renewed. Only money could enable him to marry Emma, and he worked doggedly at his writing, tailoring it to the appetites of publishers and readers. Desperate Remedies and A Pair of Blue Eyes began to make a mark, but it was the high-spirited romance of Far From the Madding Crowd that hit the jackpot. Hardy could depend on an income, and his wedding soon followed.
The marriage gradually slipped into unhappiness, but it gave Hardy the stability he needed. Emma had less to gain, and her position was difficult from the start. Her snobbish parents were never reconciled to their daughter's low-born husband. Emma had lost her freedom, with no real occupation in its place. Hopes of children came to nothing. There were compensations in their early years. When Hardy fell seriously ill in 1880, it was her nursing that pulled him through. It was the last necessary service. Volume succeeded volume amid the gloomy respectabilities of Max Gate, the solid house that Hardy built in Dorset, and Emma became jealous and resentful. Hardy withdrew into his writing, intermittently comforted by flirtations with other women.
Her death in 1912 was a bitter shock, for Hardy hardly noticed the fading of her health. In what he might have described as one of life's little ironies, Emma was able to confirm his greatness with her own extinction. His grief is expressed in a series of unforgettably intense poems, recalling Emma's presence as a young woman. These elegies establish his place among the major 20th-century poets. His distress was genuine, but it did not prevent him from marrying Florence Dugdale, devoted and beautiful, little more than a year after Emma's death.
Much productive work remained, for Hardy continued to write steadily until he died in 1928, at 87. Florence, like Emma, was lonely. She too became increasingly dejected. The story that Tomalin has to tell is not a sad one, for Hardy's triumph over the petty repressions of class can only be heartening. He fashioned a voice of his own, and he made it count. But his achievements came at a heavy price. A recognition of the sense of loss that haunts his writing shadows this sure-footed and compassionate biography.
Dinah Birch is professor of English at Liverpool University; her books include 'Ruskin's Myths'Reuse content