Tuesday, February 27, 2007

One last post on Thomas and Emma Hardy, and Jude

I'm worn out from working the election today, but nothing puts a tired mind to rest like forcing it to make some sentences, so here are a few last thoughts for the week about Thomas Hardy.

1) In the past two posts, I've written about Jude the Obscure, agreeing with Claire Tomalin that at points in the novel Hardy's characters suffer tragedies so extreme they les the result of blind, uncaring fate than the effects of a willfully malevolent god--or, in this case, a willfully cruel author. "See--see how bad life can be?" he seems to be saying, but the very intensity of the suffering undercuts our willingness to believe his assertion--it feels, as Nick Hornby has put it before when talking about a different author, as if Hardy has his thumb on the scale.

Anthony Powell, in reviewing J.I.M. Stewart's biography of Hardy for the Daily Telegraph back in 1971 quoted T. S. Eliot saying,
What again and again introduces a note of falsity into Hardy's novels is that he will leave nothing to nature, but will always be giving one last turn of the screw himself, and of his motives for doing I have the gravest suspicion.
In this case I think Eliot is being too general. I have no trouble believing the suffering in Hardy's other great novels (Tess of the D'Urbervilles, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Far from the Madding Crowd); once the plot necessities of Victorian serial publication are allowed for, the events of all seem fully within the realm of possibility, potential outcomes of the very real human emotions and ambitions that animate their characters.

After all this complaining, I should say that Jude is still well worth reading, if only for the character of Sue (which Powell calls "astonishingly well expressed") and for Hardy's ability to convey, in the early portions of the book, the palpable ache of Jude's ambitions. As you might guess from how much I've written about it, it's a hard book to forget.

2) The same collection of Anthony Powell's reviews from which I drew the Eliot quote above includes a review of the memoir written by Hardy's much-maligned first wife, Emma, Some Recollections, which despite her lack of literary training is fairly well-regarded. While Powell admits that she does display talent and a "certain gift for appreciation of what was happening round her," he also says,
One can see how captivated Hardy must have been by her; at the same time, what an appalling bore she must have become in middle age. Her egotism was obviously tremendous. What appeared imaginative energy was mostly an immense concentration on herself.
Even if we cut Emma Hardy significant slack to compensate for Hardy's failures as a husband (of attention, of care, of understanding) and for the ill effects of the intensely circumscribed world in which Victorian women were forced to dwell, she still comes across as an inherent problem. Her deep insecurity and outsized sense of self-importance seem a toxic combination. In later years she took to reminding guests of the gap in social standing between her family and Hardy's; she also frequently went so far as to talk of his novels as "their work" and even to hint at coauthorship of important works. It is easy to see why Hardy drew away from her; easy as well to see how that drawing away could easily lead to more of the very behavior by Emma that troubled the marriage in the first place.

Powell, in a 1979 review of Denys Kay-Robinson's The First Mrs. Thomas Hardy says
Kay-Robinson thinks Emma Hardy has been unfairly treated, and one of the aims of his book is to set right the balance. He does convince the reader that Hardy was very much in love when the first marriage took place, and no one would disagree with the view that Hardy was a difficult husband. At the same time, as the list of witnesses to the first Mrs. Hardy's shortcomings are assembled--some of them to a certain degree confused--we begin to wonder whether, if Emma Hardy is to be presented in a sympathetic light, it would have been easier to prove the case without calling on so many people who found her tiresome.

For all that, when Emma died, Hardy embarked almost instantly on a lengthy set of eulogizing poems, ones that Claire Tomalin regards as his best. Those very poems, and the reborn (or reimagined) love they expressed, had the perverse effect of greatly damaging, at its very outset, Hardy's marriage to his second wife, who had been waiting patiently in the wings for Emma's passing.

If nothing else, Hardy's marriages remind us that few people are ever really simple, and that a marriage not one's own is perhaps best thought of as, like L. P. Hartley said about the past, "another country. They do things differently there."

3) From Barbara Pym's diary, the entry for 20 May, 1977:
Seeing a handsome Dorset woman at a petrol pump I thought a Hardy heroine of today might follow such an occupation. Tess for instance.

4) From a letter from Nancy Mitford to Evelyn Waugh, 26 December 1945:
Uncle Matthew has been here, deep in my book. He says he once read a book that ended badly and he hasn't ever been the same since--it was called Tess of the D'Urbervilles. This is news to all of us and very interesting news too.

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