In the year 1923 young Harry Bentley of Dorchester was responsible for delivering the mail to Max Gate, the home of Thomas Hardy. He took the opportunity of telling Hardy that he liked reading but had been denied the chance of higher education by his parents' poverty. Hardy invited him in, lent him some books, later discussed them with him and lent him others. Bentley never forgot this kindness.
In the same year, the Prince of Wales announced that he would be lunching at Max Gate. Though Mrs Hardy was understandably flustered, Hardy was delighted. The prince's literary education was, like Bentley's, minimal (when lent a copy of Wuthering Heights, he had asked, tetchily "Who is this woman Brunt?"). He had never read a word written by his host, yet the lunch went off well. There's a commemorative photograph to prove it, though the postman is not in the picture. Nor is the Hardys' dog Wessex, a terrier of notoriously savage disposition upon whom this doting, childless couple lavished every affection. "Someone," Claire Tomalin observes, tartly, "had the sense to lock up Wessie."
Tomalin is an unrivalled biographer. Her research is painstakingly thorough, meticulous and carefully sifted. Not for her the exhaustive detailing of every heavy cold or visit to the dentist: though her full and often entertaining notes allow the reader access to such minutiae, her text is properly digested, direct and uncluttered. Her style is balanced and as elegant as a white orchid.
Other biographers aspire to such standards, but what makes Tomalin supreme is her remarkable ability fully to enter into the life she describes. She knows her subject as well, if not better, than did his many friends and both his wives. She understands him, and she is amused, moved, delighted, occasionally bored and sometimes exasperated by him. She is an affectionate and reliable guide, biased towards him but never blind to his failings. Considering his verse-drama about Tristram and Iseult, also published in 1923, she is typically helpful: she has read it for us, and considers it short, violent and heavy-going. Soon afterwards he was painted by Augustus John and remarked: "If I look like that, then the sooner I'm under the ground the better." Before the year was out, he had aroused an emotional storm between two younger women, both passionately committed to him. To do that at the age of 83, says Tomalin, is not given to many men.
Hardy's father was a builder who played the fiddle in church: his mother, made of sterner stuff, had travelled, in service, beyond their native Dorset as far as London. Caught out by pregnancy, she abandoned her wider ambitions - but she always advised her children never to marry. His three younger siblings followed that advice but Thomas, the oldest, married twice. His first wife Emma Gifford was an enthusiastic horsewoman - whimsical, romantic and slightly lame. He met her when, apprenticed to an architect, he was working on a church in Cornwall. They married for love, though both families were implacably opposed to the match on grounds of class.
Emma helped him with his writing, offering suggestions and copying out his manuscripts. Until he decided to do without her, she considered them to be a literary team, together engaged in writing collaborative novels. Thereafter, very hurt, she made bold gestures of independence, learning to ride a bicycle, moving up into the attic and essaying books of her own: one of them, says Tomalin laconically, is "not entirely unreadable".
Claire Tomalin's own book opens with Emma's death in 1912. By this time, Hardy had formed romantic attachments with several other women and become estranged from Emma. Suddenly and unexpectedly losing her opened in him a flood of poetry that was to sustain him for the rest of his life - and to enrage his second wife, Florence Dugdale, with a furious and lasting jealousy. Old Mrs Hardy's doomy advice might have been right, Tomalin concludes: he did not know how to be an easily companionable and loving husband.
Yet by all the lights of the world with which he was familiar, his was a long and successful life. His novels attracted attention, scandal and very impressive sales figures, at home and abroad. Often written at speed for serialisation and frequently bowdlerised to save the sensitivities of readers, they can seem over-stuffed with events and far from perfect, as Hardy himself (most endearingly) readily agreed. Yet there is something about them that captures the imagination: their identifiably rooted and glorious Dorset setting, and the powerful characters inhabiting that indomitable landscape. Bathsheba, Tess, Mr Henchard, Angel Clare, Mrs Yeobright and Gabriel Oak - all have become iconic figures, dramatic, passionate, unforgettable.
What bothers many readers is the increasingly depressing nature of the later novels: he seems, as one critic remarked, "to be plotting against his own characters". This tendency infuriates Claire Tomalin. She quotes a passage from the gloomiest of them all, Jude the Obscure (or Jude the Obscene as one reviewer styled it) in which nobody came to help Jude on his way "because nobody does". "This," she says firmly, is "not a true account of life." As she has, by this time, convincingly illustrated, plenty of people had come along to help Hardy himself on his way. Why does he deny such serendipity to Jude?
Perhaps the answer lies in his painful loss of belief in Christianity, perhaps in his natural tendency to despondency - he was a man who never willingly missed a funeral - and in his unusual sensitivity to slights, disappointments and humiliations. Whatever the reason, and despite some surprisingly jolly moments, the gloom, given half a chance, reasserted itself and instantly became all-encircling. This can't have been a cheerful book to write: indeed, Tomalin admits as much, thanking her husband Michael Frayn for his kindness while she spent several years "in the slough of despond". It is to her great credit that she went right in there with Hardy - and that she emerges now, scarcely dripping, to tell the tale.
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