Son of the Heath : An exhaustive new biography of Thomas Hardy reveres and defends and finally suffocates its victim. : HARDY: A Biography, <i> By Martin Seymour-Smith (St. Martin’s Press: $35; 896 pp.)</i>
You can’t park outside Thomas Hardy’s cottage at Higher Bockhampton, Dorset. You have to walk for 10 minutes up a woodland path, an unusually reverential gesture for modern England--an indication, perhaps, of the hold Hardy has on the national imagination.
On my one and only pilgrimage, over 15 years ago, my school friend Charles and I had the creaking floorboards and crooked walls and famous window-seat to ourselves. Outside, looking up at the “long low cottage with a hipped roof of thatch” (Dick Dewy’s house in “Under the Greenwood Tree” and Hardy’s birthplace are one and the same), my friend said that of course Hardy was a rather disagreeable man--difficult to live with, careful with money, snappy with servants, generally curmudgeonly--and that his first wife went mad. I believed Charles--he was, after all, the grandson of Hardy’s lawyer (and now, as Dr. Charles Lock of Toronto University, a renowned Hardy scholar)--but I was nevertheless surprised and not a little disappointed. It was possibly the first time in my life that the notion of great writers being great men had been properly sabotaged.
I was disappointed because I had considered Hardy as someone particularly beyond the norms of human behavior; a wild intractable being who stood four-square against bourgeois niceties, a stonemason’s maverick son who brought depth, passion and meaning to obscure rural lives and the landscape that seemed both to engender and destroy them. In the film of his life I was certain he’d be played by Alan Bates. D. H. Lawrence, after all, had acknowledged his indebtedness at great length.
After Hardy, no one could look at the tame English valleys and hills in the same way: Gabriel and Bathsheba or the lovelorn Dick Dewy trod them still; Eustacia Vye stood smoldering on every far-off barrow at dusk, forever watched by the stained reddleman (the man who sells ocher for marking sheep) on the chalky road; Jude went on stumbling toward Christminster over the bleak but beautiful Berkshire downs, where Hardy’s grandmother endured the stony poverty of her childhood that so fascinated little Tom, regaled with her tales at the fireside, here, in this very cottage. A field of shining flints after rain would conjure Tess as much as cuckoo-spit on lush waist-high grass, and all heath-land was Henchard’s or Clym’s or Eustacia’s just as much as it was King Lear’s.
The English landscape had been changed, made potent and sexual, thanks to Hardy. Like Clym Yeobright, “he was permeated with its scenes, with its substance, and with its odours.” No other rural writer spoke with such authority on his subject, and this authority was borne from staying 30 years, give or take the odd London sojourn, in this beech-shrouded cottage on the edge of one of the wildest places in England--Egdon Heath. It was fitting that this colossal and mysterious Titan had been finally tamed and shrouded and therefore slain by the rapacious conifers planted by the Forestry Commission: All of Hardy’s novels were impregnated with change and death, loss and decay, the plangencies of quiet extinction. Who now speaks like Granfer Cantle or Tranter Dewey or dances even “a private little jig” in the peat and hay at the hay-trusser’s house, or is able to tell the hiss of an ash tree from the rustle of a beech on a breezy night, or knows the way in which sunlight fires a young rabbit’s ears to a “blood-red transparency,” or why those seated on the settle in a cavernous fireplace sing and tell tales while the rest shiver? Who now sits on a settle and sings at all?
We have to go to Hardy to know these things. And maybe he knew it all along, that it would be thus, being an implacable pessimist. In that sense, I was in love with Hardy and his writings, his primeval and terrifying and paradisal landscapes, his sensuous full-lipped heroines. That brief glimpse of his biographical surface was quite enough, thank you.
Yet a very fine one, Richard Holmes, has referred to biography as an act of “psychological trespass,” beginning at the moment this blind adolescent sort of love first glimpses the deep and shadowy complications of its subject, and grows disillusioned. Perhaps Martin Seymour-Smith was never sufficiently infatuated with Thomas Hardy to feel this disillusion, for the giant “Hardy: A Biography” treats its subject with something of the air of a magazine advice column: common-sensical, tolerant, striving to prove every inch of the way that the great writer was, if not the great man of my early fantasy, then “a good man . . . who did good things,” and anything running counter to that is a creation of ill-inclined posterity--particularly in the form of those biographers (Robert Gittings, Michael Millgate) who have preceded him.
Hardy’s complications are peculiarly shadowy, however. Another 19th-Century writer who shares much in terms of attitude and vision--Herman Melville--is equally complicated, but at least his letters are brilliant lamps shining into the very cave of his making, whereas Hardy’s are unforthcoming and stiff, written in that curmudgeonly voice that is one among the many sorts of voices sounding in his novels and poetry. There is something intractable about the man, something brooding and surly, that one fancies should be left well alone, as the heath should have been left well alone. Writers are fragile systems; the average contemporary literary biographer goes in at the wheel of an earthmover, grubbing up what he or she can and planting evergreen simplicities in which no birds sing. Shame on pretty much the whole enterprise! One sometimes feels like crying.
Hardy tried to deter it all by ghosting his own for his second wife. “The Early Life of Thomas Hardy” by Florence Hardy is a fascinating red herring, concealing as much as it reveals, a coda to the massive bonfire of his papers that Florence supervised after his death in 1928 (at the fine age of 87), and itself severely tampered with by a now neurotic and jealously minded woman. No Hardy biographer can sidestep it completely: He or she must perform a complicated pas de deux with its wily formality and coldness, its euphemisms and ellipses. It is, in fact, the perfect saboteur, for all lives of Hardy have to be measured against their own treatment of this primary source that is already a gloss on itself.
This latest biography is over 800 pages long. It is not scholarly, or at least eschews the usual trappings of that ilk such as footnotes, appendices and exhaustive bibliographies. It berates professors for . . . I’m not quite sure what. Like Hardy’s dog Wessex with visitors’ ankles, it just goes for them, especially when they have assumed something about Hardy that Seymour-Smith knows is not true. How does he know it? He just knows it, waving “not a shred of evidence” around like a placard or producing his own shreds, making much use of that apologia it is likely that , and referring to his hero as Tom, “as Hardy called himself with his intimates.” So Seymour-Smith is an intimate. Not much disillusion there.
But what does Hardy do in these 800 pages? Not much of biographical note, aside from his writing. The most dramatic incident in his life was his birth: Cast aside as dead by the doctor, he was saved by the country nurse, according to himself. Fitting, of course, that the animator of so many unrecorded lives far from the madding crowd should have been given life by one of that kind--one of his kind, let it be said: while not of the laboring class like John Clare’s, Hardy’s family were true working country people, albeit self-employed. After a conventional but sound local education and much invaluable time spent accompanying his father on the fiddle at village dances, Hardy apprenticed himself to an architect, fell in love with a liberal-minded archdeacon’s daughter, wrote his first fiction, married. After the furor caused by “Jude the Obscure” (Victorian society was shocked by the book’s flagrant attacks on its most sacrosanct institutions: Church, Marriage and so forth), Hardy abandoned fiction for his first love, poetry. His two marriages--the first long and latterly miserable, the second brief and wholly miserable--were bereft either of dramatic incident or, alas, children. The biographer’s lifeline--extra-marital affairs--were scarcely consummated in Hardy’s case, relegated mostly to letters and the tea-table. So the facts. They are itemized by Seymour-Smith with contented precision, while he emphasizes throughout the intellectual strengths of a writer too easily dismissed as--in a typically over-defensive description--"a fundamentally stupid old peasant.”
Seymour-Smith’s vigour is most sharply exercised on disproving Hardy’s impotence, in keeping with the present craze for pulling back the sheets. This knotty problem is only important if it was responsible for Hardy believing the universe to be a mistake, the planet to be (in Tess’s words) “blighted,” and wishing (as he did frequently) that the good nurse had not, in fact, slapped his newborn bottom back in 1840. There was, of course, the vast brooding presence of Egdon Heath beyond the cottage porch of his childhood as a suitable backdrop. Seymour-Smith makes less of this than he might. In fact, there is astonishingly little on Hardy’s “Wessex” in this book, as there is little on his interfering and assertive mother, Jemima. More is made of Hardy’s love of the late paintings of Joseph Mallord William Turner (evident in, say, the description of the Vale of Blackmore toward the beginning of “Tess”) than in what most regard as his chief strength: the depiction of a particular landscape and its people, and the profound relationship between the two. Not even the vaguest image of Dorset can be garnered from this book.
So jottings from Hardy’s notebooks come as sudden gusts of fresh country air in the rather fuggish prose--as when, in May, 1877, Hardy notes that he sometimes “looked upon all things in inanimate Nature as pensive mutes.” The philosophical implications aside, how that immediately conjured, to my mind, the gnarled inwardness of an English wood, down to the knots in the bark! But why is that “pensive” in relation to “mute” so visually active, so much the concentrated essence of a life’s master? Should we begin to treat Hardy as we treat Melville--as a self-conscious prose stylist and ironist, rather than the reluctant novelist in earth-soiled hobnails earning out his time to the day he can scale the higher art of poetry? Seymour-Smith more than gestures in this direction.
The “other side of Tom,” however, the one full of love, lust, hope and so forth--obstinately refuses to wriggle into sight in this biography, despite that chummy nomenclature and Seymour-Smith’s best efforts to wrench him free of previous ill-disposed “academic” biographers. A couple of references to Hardy’s authentic countryman’s habit of urinating as he walked and chatted gave me hope. Hardy’s surface contradictions--the churchgoing quasi-gnostic, the countryman residing in a suburban villa, the remorseful skirt-chaser, the shocking smasher of Victorian values feted as the grand old man of English letters, the stiff-mannered creator of the likes of Tess and Sue Bridehead and Eustacia Vye--are mere eddies on a tortuous gloom Seymour-Smith wades against (rather than into) with heroic but unpersuasive tenacity. Florence Hardy’s huge bonfire of her late husband’s papers (“she raked the ashes to be sure that not a single scrap or word remained,” according to the gardener) provides a fitting sting in this big but ultimately coniferous and, in the end, suffocating biography’s tale.