About Thomas Hardy, OM
Thomas Hardy, OM (2 June 1840 – 11 January 1928) was an English novelist and poet. While his works typically belong to the Naturalism movement, several poems display elements of the previous Romantic and Enlightenment periods of literature, such as his fascination with the supernatural. While he regarded himself primarily as a poet who composed novels mainly for financial gain, he became and continues to be widely regarded for his novels, such as Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd. The bulk of his fictional works, initially published as serials in magazines, were set in the semi-fictional land of Wessex (based on the Dorchester region where he grew up) and explored tragic characters struggling against their passions and social circumstances. Hardy's poetry, first published in his fifties, has come to be as well regarded as his novels and has had a significant influence over modern English poetry, especially after The Movement poets of the 1950s and 1960s cited Hardy as a major figure.
Thomas Hardy was born at Higher Bockhampton, a hamlet in the parish of Stinsford to the east of Dorchester in Dorset, England. His father Thomas (d.1892) worked as a stonemason and local builder. His mother Jemima (d.1904) was well-read. She educated Thomas until he went to his first school at Bockhampton at age eight. For several years he attended Mr. Last's Academy for Young Gentlemen in Dorchester. Here he learned Latin and demonstrated academic potential. However, a family of Hardy's social position lacked the means for a university education, and his formal education ended at the age of sixteen when he became apprenticed to James Hicks, a local architect. Hardy trained as an architect in Dorchester before moving to London in 1862; there he enrolled as a student at King's College, London. He won prizes from the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Architectural Association. Hardy never felt at home in London. He was acutely conscious of class divisions and his social inferiority. However, he was interested in social reform and was familiar with the works of John Stuart Mill. He was also introduced to the works of Charles Fourier and Auguste Comte during this period by his Dorset friend Horace Moule. Five years later, concerned about his health, he returned to Dorset and decided to dedicate himself to writing.
In 1870, while on an architectural mission to restore the parish church of St Juliot in Cornwall, Hardy met and fell in love with Emma Lavinia Gifford, whom he married in 1874. Although he later became estranged from his wife, her death in 1912 had a traumatic effect on him. After her death, Hardy made a trip to Cornwall to revisit places linked with their courtship, and his Poems 1912–13 reflect upon her passing. In 1914, Hardy married his secretary Florence Emily Dugdale, who was 39 years his junior. However, he remained preoccupied with his first wife's death and tried to overcome his remorse by writing poetry. Hardy became ill with pleurisy in December 1927 and died at Max Gate just after 9 pm on 11 January 1928, having dictated his final poem to his wife on his deathbed; the cause of death was cited, on his death certificate, as "cardiac syncope", with "old age" given as a contributory factor. His funeral was on 16 January at Westminster Abbey, and it proved a controversial occasion because Hardy and his family and friends had wished for his body to be interred at Stinsford in the same grave as his first wife, Emma. However, his executor, Sir Sydney Carlyle Cockerell, insisted that he be placed in the abbey's famous Poets' Corner. A compromise was reached whereby his heart was buried at Stinsford with Emma, and his ashes in Poets' Corner. Shortly after Hardy's death, the executors of his estate burnt his letters and notebooks. Twelve records survived, one of them containing notes and extracts of newspaper stories from the 1820s. Research into these provided insight into how Hardy kept track of them and how he used them in his later work. In the year of his death Mrs Hardy published The Early Life of Thomas Hardy, 1841–1891: compiled largely from contemporary notes, letters, diaries, and biographical memoranda, as well as from oral information in conversations extending over many years.
Hardy's work was admired by many writers of a younger generation including D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. In his autobiography Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves recalls meeting Hardy in Dorset in the early 1920s. Hardy received him and his new wife warmly, and was encouraging about his work. In 1910, Hardy was awarded the Order of Merit. Hardy's cottage at Bockhampton and Max Gate in Dorchester are owned by the National Trust.
Hardy's first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, finished by 1867, failed to find a publisher and Hardy destroyed the manuscript so only parts of the novel remain. He was encouraged to try again by his mentor and friend, Victorian poet and novelist George Meredith. Desperate Remedies (1871) and Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) were published anonymously. In 1873 A Pair of Blue Eyes, a novel drawing on Hardy's courtship of his first wife, was published under his own name. The term "cliffhanger" is considered to have originated with the serialised version of this story (which was published in Tinsley's Magazine between September 1872 and July 1873) in which Henry Knight, one of the protagonists, is left literally hanging off a cliff. Hardy said that he first introduced Wessex in Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), his next novel. It was successful enough for Hardy to give up architectural work and pursue a literary career. Over the next twenty-five years Hardy produced ten more novels. The Hardys moved from London to Yeovil and then to Sturminster Newton, where he wrote The Return of the Native (1878). In 1885, they moved for a last time, to Max Gate, a house outside Dorchester designed by Hardy and built by his brother. There he wrote The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), The Woodlanders (1887), and Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891), the last of which attracted criticism for its sympathetic portrayal of a "fallen woman" and was initially refused publication. Its subtitle, A Pure Woman: Faithfully Presented, was intended to raise the eyebrows of the Victorian middle-classes. Jude the Obscure, published in 1895, met with even stronger negative outcries from the Victorian public for its frank treatment of sex, and was often referred to as "Jude the Obscene". Heavily criticised for its apparent attack on the institution of marriage through the presentation of such concepts as erotolepsy, the book caused further strain on Hardy's already difficult marriage because Emma Hardy was concerned that Jude the Obscure would be read as autobiographical. Some booksellers sold the novel in brown paper bags, and the Bishop of Wakefield is reputed to have burnt his copy. In his postscript of 1912, Hardy humorously referred to this incident as part of the career of the book: "After these [hostile] verdicts from the press its next misfortune was to be burnt by a bishop – probably in his despair at not being able to burn me".
Despite this criticism, Hardy had become a celebrity in English literature by the 1900s, with several highly successful novels behind him, yet he felt disgust at the public reception of two of his greatest works and gave up writing fiction altogether. Other novels written by Hardy include Two on a Tower, a romance story set in the world of Astronomy.
Hardy criticises certain social constraints that hindered the lives of those living in the 19th century. Considered a Victorian Realist writer, Hardy examines the social constraints that are part of the Victorian status quo, suggesting these rules hinder the lives of all involved and ultimately lead to unhappiness. In Two on a Tower, Hardy seeks to take a stand against these rules and sets up a story against the backdrop of social structure by creating a story of love that crosses the boundaries of class. The reader is forced to consider disposing of the conventions set up for love. Nineteenth-century society enforces these conventions, and societal pressure ensures conformity. Swithin St Cleeve's idealism pits him against contemporary social constraints. He is a self-willed individual set up against the coercive strictures of social rules and mores. “ In a novel structured around contrasts, the main opposition is between Swithin St Cleeve and Lady Viviette Constantine, who are presented as binary figures in a series of ways: aristocratic and lower class, youthful and mature, single and married, fair and dark, religious and agnostic…she [Lady Viviette Constantine] is also deeply conventional, absurdly wishing to conceal their marriage until Swithin has achieved social status through his scientific work, which gives rise to uncontrolled ironies and tragic-comic misunderstandings (Harvey 108). ”
Hardy’s characters often encounter crossroads, which are symbolic of a point of opportunity and transition. But the hand of fate is an important part of many of Hardy's plots. Far From the Madding Crowd tells a tale of lives that are constructed by chance. “Had Bathsheba not sent the valentine, had Fanny not missed her wedding, for example, the story would have taken an entirely different path.” Hardy's main characters often seem to be in the overwhelming and overpowering grip of fate.
In 1898 Hardy published his first volume of poetry, Wessex Poems, a collection of poems written over 30 years. Hardy claimed poetry as his first love, and after a great amount of negative criticism erupted from the publication of his novel Jude The Obscure, Hardy decided to give up writing novels permanently and to focus his literary efforts on writing poetry. After giving up the novel form, Hardy continued to publish poetry collections until his death in 1928. Although he did publish one last novel in 1897, that novel, The Well-Beloved, had actually been written prior to Jude the Obscure. Although his poems were not initially as well received by his contemporaries as his novels were, Hardy is now recognised as one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. His verse had a profound influence on later writers, notably Philip Larkin, who included many of Hardy's poems in the edition of the Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse that Larkin edited in 1973. In a recent biography on Hardy, Claire Tomalin argues that Hardy became a truly great English poet after the death of his first wife, Emma, beginning with the elegies he wrote in her memory, calling these poems, "one of the finest and strangest celebrations of the dead in English poetry." Most of Hardy's poems, such as "Neutral Tones'" and "A Broken Appointment", deal with themes of disappointment in love and life (which were also prominent themes in his novels), and mankind's long struggle against indifference to human suffering. Using stylistic patterns similar to those that he used in his novels, Hardy sometimes wrote ironic poems, like "Ah, Are You Digging On My Grave," in which he employed twist endings in the last few lines or in the last stanza to convey that irony. Some, like "The Darkling Thrush" and "An August Midnight", appear as poems about writing poetry, because the nature mentioned in them gives Hardy the inspiration to write. His compositions range in style from the three-volume epic closet drama The Dynasts to shorter poems such as "A Broken Appointment." A particularly strong theme in the Wessex Poems is the long shadow that the Napoleonic Wars cast over the nineteenth century, for example, in "The Sergeant's Song" and "Leipzig". A few of Hardy's poems, such as "The Blinded Bird" (a melancholy polemic against the sport of vinkenzetting), display his love of the natural world and his firm stance against animal cruelty, exhibited in his antivivisectionist views and his membership in the RSPCA. A number of notable composers, including Gerald Finzi, Benjamin Britten, and Gustav Holst, have set poems by Hardy to music.
Hardy's family was Anglican, but not especially devout. He was baptised at the age of five weeks and attended church, where his father and uncle contributed to music. However, he did not attend the local Church of England school, instead being sent to Mr Last's school, three miles away. As a young adult, he befriended Henry R. Bastow (a Plymouth Brethren man), who also worked as a pupil architect, and who was preparing for adult baptism in the Baptist Church. Hardy flirted with conversion, but decided against it. Bastow went to Australia and maintained a long correspondence with Hardy, but eventually Hardy tired of these exchanges and the correspondence ceased. This concluded Hardy's links with the Baptists. Although Hardy’s faith remained intact, the irony and struggles of life led him to question the traditional Christian view of God: “ The Christian god – the external personality – has been replaced by the intelligence of the First Cause…the replacement of the old concept of God as all-powerful by a new concept of universal consciousness. The 'tribal god, man-shaped, fiery-faced and tyrannous' is replaced by the 'unconscious will of the Universe' which progressively grows aware of itself and 'ultimately, it is to be hoped, sympathetic'. ” Hardy's religious life seems to have mixed agnosticism, deism, and spiritism. Once, when asked in correspondence by a clergyman about the question of reconciling the horrors of pain with the goodness of a loving God, Hardy replied, “ Mr. Hardy regrets that he is unable to offer any hypothesis which would reconcile the existence of such evils as Dr. Grosart describes with the idea of omnipotent goodness. Perhaps Dr. Grosart might be helped to a provisional view of the universe by the recently published Life of Darwin and the works of Herbert Spencer and other agnostics. ” Nevertheless, Hardy frequently conceived of and wrote about supernatural forces that control the universe, more through indifference or caprice than any firm will. Also, Hardy showed in his writing some degree of fascination with ghosts and spirits. Despite these sentiments, Hardy retained a strong emotional attachment to the Christian liturgy and church rituals, particularly as manifested in rural communities, that had been such a formative influence in his early years, and Biblical references can be found woven throughout many of Hardy's novels. Hardy's friends during his apprenticeship to John Hicks included Horace Moule (one of the eight sons of Henry Moule), and the poet William Barnes, both ministers of religion. Moule remained a close friend of Hardy's for the rest of his life, and introduced him to new scientific findings that cast doubt on literal interpretations of the Bible, such as those of Gideon Mantell. Moule gave Hardy a copy of Mantell's book The Wonders of Geology (1848) in 1858, and Adelene Buckland has suggested that there are "compelling similarities" between the "cliffhanger" section from A Pair of Blue Eyes and Mantell's geological descriptions. It has also been suggested that the character of Henry Knight in A Pair of Blue Eyes was based on Horace Moule.