Sunday, February 25, 2007

Claire Tomalin on Thomas Hardy

Claire Tomalin's Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self (2003) is, hands down, the best biography I've read. In choosing Pepys as her subject, Tomalin set herself a tremendously difficult task--after all, how can any biography top the story Pepys himself tells?
29 June 1663
In Westminster Hall fell in talk with Mrs Lane and after great talk that she never went abroad with any man as she used heretofore to do, I with one word got her to go with me and to meet me at the further Rhenish wine-house--where I did give her a lobster and do so towse her and feel her all over, making her believe how fair and good a skin she had; and endeed, she hath a very white thigh and leg, but monstrous fat. When weary, I did give over, and somebody having seen some of our dalliance, called aloud in the street, "Sir, why do you kiss the gentlewoman so?" and flung a stone at the window--which vexed me--but I believe they could not see my towsing her; and so we broke up and went out the back way, without being observed, I think.
Pepys is an unparalleled narrator of his own life, yet Tomalin's biography is full of verve, so affecting that his death at the close of the book feels like the death of a friend.

Her biography of Thomas Hardy is not quite as powerful, but the fault lies, I judge, less with Tomalin than with Hardy, who, for all his frequent charm, has little of Pepys's self-involved liveliness--but who among us does? Tomalin regardless brings her formidable biographical skills to bear, and despite the frequent assertions by Hardy's friends that he was essentially inscrutable, she succeeds in creating a convincing portrait. Her Hardy is a man whose complicated internalization--and overcoming--of early disappointments fueled a lifetime of tremendous achievements, achievements which were perpetually undercut by a deep-rooted melancholy and doubt. Trapped in an unexpectedly unhappy marriage, resentful his whole life of the class structure that blighted his youth, and unable to will a belief in a higher purpose or eternal reward, Hardy as revealed by Tomalin is frequently a sad, even sometimes pathetic figure. But at the same time, we marvel along with her at Hardy's unflagging curiosity and drive, and she never lets us lose sight of the remarkable talent that makes his life worth remembering.

Tomalin's greatest gift as a biographer is her wide-ranging sympathy. Though realizing that our knowledge can never be perfect, she really wants to understand everyone's reasons, see everyone's point of view. Her inclination is to give each person the benefit of the doubt, but she doesn't flinch from judging when the evidence calls for it; that openness to the multiplicities of motive and feeling are what give her biographies the full roundedness of real life. She's the biographer we all should hope to have.

Her treatment of Hardy's first wife, Emma, whose personal oddity was commented upon in letters and diaries by nearly everyone who met her, is typical of her approach:
[Edmund] Gosse's letter to his wife Nellie included a careful comment on Emma: "She means to be very kind," he wrote. Hardy was too observant not to notice that his friend was sometimes rather at a loss in his attempts at conversation with his wife. To find that Emma's zest for life, so much prized by him during their wooing, was not so attractive to others, and that her charm fell flat, was upsetting. Of course she was middle aged now. She no longer wore her glorious hair over her shoulders in curls, her strong features were settling into heaviness, and her talk sometimes strayed from the point and followed its own track in a way that had once seemed delightful but now sometimes disconcerting.
Hasn't everyone known someone like that, someone just a little off--or felt like that themselves at times? And doesn't Tomalin's portrait elicit sympathy for Hardy? But then she continues:
Feeling unappreciated brings out the worst in everyone, and when people failed to warm to Emma she became more difficult. She had lost her hope of children, hardly saw her own family and was suspicious of his. A letter this year from her friend in Sturminster, Mrs. Dashwood, also reminded her of her failed literary amibitions: "I hope your stories will emerge one after another and astonish the literary world, they have been concocting in your head long enough and should now see the light . . . When will you and Mr. Hardy spend the day with us? You have not visited this gay city for a long time, and ought to renew your acquaintance once with it." Emma could say nothing of any publication prospects, alas, and there was no visit to the gay city of Sturminster. Gosse's friendship with Hardy was strong enough to include Emma, but he never warmed to her in her own right.
Though our sympathies don't shift completely--Emma is, after all, clearly a source of real difficulty for everyone--Tomalin's emotional contextualization of her behavior leavens our judgment; it is a courtesy Tomalin extends to everyone.

In Friday night's post I mentioned how apt I found Tomalin's take on Jude the Obscure (1895); the following passage gives a good sense of how sharp her literary criticism can be. She quotes Hardy essentially abdicating responsibility for his characters' sufferings, saying that he is only reflecting the darkness of fate and circumstance. Then she argues:
Hardy's defense is made weaker because there are other examples in his fiction of people suffering from exceptionally bad luck--luck so bad that it looks as though it has been willed, by the gods, or fate, or possibly by the author. For example, when the young Jude falls into despair at the difficulty of learning Latin and Greek, "he wished he had never seen a book, that he might never see another, that he had never been born." This is a reasonable account of a sensitive boy's reaction to severe disappointment, but Hardy continues. "Somebody might have come along that way who would have asked him his trouble, and might have cheered him . . . But nobody did come, because nobody does." I have put the last words in italics because this is not a true account of life. Hardy is not only coercing his plot, he is generalizing falsely. There are times when nobody comes, but there are also times when somebody does come. For example . . . a good many people had come along [for Hardy himself]. Jude is not Hardy, of course, but in so far as he represents Hardy's own unfulfilled wish to go to a university, he is put through a much worse experience than Hardy ever went through. This is part of what made even Hardy's friend Gosse ask in his review, "What has Providence done to Mr Hardy that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex and shake his fist at his Creator?"
Most of my thinking about literature ultimately boils down to that question--is this a true representation of life? Thus I view generalizing falsely as one of the greatest offenses an author can commit, and Tomalin the critic is a deeply congenial spirit. The criticism of Hardy's novels in Thomas Hardy not only managed to make me think afresh about them, it woke me as well to his poetry, of which I'd read little. Tightly rhymed, flawlessly rhythmic, with a strong spine of thought, as Tomalin puts it, in each poem, it hadn't impressed me when I was twenty. I was looking for something less formal--Hardy's poetry felt dated, not adventurous enough. But I suppose the list of things that don't impress us when we're twenty are extensive; if we have the good fortune to live long enough, maybe eventually they're no longer even embarrassing.

This is where I take advantage of the fact that this is a blog, rather than a newspaper or magazine. I should end this with a summation, a statement about Hardy or the biography. But instead, because we've had thick, wet snow all day here--the sort through which you splash in the morning and slip at night--and I've spent many an hour in my chair by the window watching wet, puffed-up juncos and finches eat thistle from our feeder, I'll end instead with Hardy's "Snow in the Suburbs" (1925):
Every branch big with it,
Bent every twig with it;
Every fork like a white web-foot;
Every street and pavement mute:
Some flakes have lost their way, and grope back upward when
Meeting those meandering down they turn and descend again.
The palings are glued together like a wall,
And there is no waft of wind with the fleecy fall.
A sparrow enters the tree,
Whereon immediately
A snow-lump thrice his own slight size
Descends on him and showers his head and eye
And overturns him,
And near inurns him,
And lights on a nether twig, when its brush
Starts off a volley of other lodging lumps with a rush.
The steps are a blanched slope,
Up which, with feeble hope,
A black cat comes, wide-eyed and thin;
And we take him in.


  1. Your note about how Tomalin found Hardy a bit disingenuous reminded me of a point another critic made along the same line (sorry I don't remember who--it's been a while) in reference to his poems about Emma. It had to do with the way Hardy, in his poetry, tended to over idealize his lovers once they had died (I can cite no examples; sorry). Characters in his prose perhaps he imbued with a bit too much bad luck; dead lovers in his poetry perhaps a bit too much idealization. I wonder, which is the greater trespass to a seeker of truth?

  2. Tomalin makes much of Hardy's eulogies to Emma and the tendency he had, as he himself noted in roundabout form (in a letter? diary?), to fall in love with an ideal. She sharply links that to his appreciation of Proust--and Proust's of him.

  3. It seems to me the only proper times to idealize a lover are before you've had her, and after she's dead.