I was irrationally worried when I started reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Thomas Hardy. You see, Hardy is my favorite writer, and I didn’t want to find out he was terrible, that he kicked puppies or something. Generally, I don’t mind reading books my people I don’t like much, but still, the idea that my favorite author could be a puppy-kicker … it made me nervous.
In Tomalin’s telling, I’m happy to report, Hardy is not a perfect man, but he was a generally decent man. The UK edition has the subtitle, “The Time-Torn Man,” a phrase the speaker uses to describe himself in Hardy’s poem “A Broken Appointment.” The poem refers to a lovers’ meeting that didn’t happen, and Tomalin says that it is commonly believed to be about his love for a woman named Florence Henniker. Henniker is one of several women for whom Hardy suffered love or lack of it. And, in a way, all of his love affairs seem “time-torn” because there is often love, but it is torn away by time or the time when it could be shared is torn away.
Tomalin begins her biography with the death of one of the principal women in Thomas Hardy’s life, his first wife, Emma, before moving back to tell his story from the beginning. Thomas and Emma’s marriage had been troubled toward the end, with Emma moving into the attic and having no more to do with Thomas than she had to. Tomalin writes with compassion about the growing discontent that followed what seemed a lively and romantic courtship in which the couple held strong to their love despite their families’ disapproval. She notes the reasons each one might have had to be unhappy and never quite comes down on one side or the other. But she does show that there was love there—or something like love.
Other women are part of the reason for the marriage’s faltering. Hardy enjoyed flirting with the pretty women who loved his books, yet he also seemed to continue to seem attached to Emma. After her death, he wrote poem after poem expressing his regrets and sadness, yet, as Tomalin tells it, Emma rejected him as much as he rejected her. His second marriage is tainted by his memory of Emma, although, again, there is love, both before and after the marriage.
Tomalin’s ability to see more than one point of view is one of the strengths of this biography. Tomalin does an admirable job of sticking to the known facts as much as possible, even including a robust notes section (with endnote numbers in the text!). Her choice of facts will perhaps reveal her biases to those more aware of whatever controversies exist surrounding Hardy’s life story, but she doesn’t appear to have an agenda, and it’s clear when she’s speculating. Speculation of the type Tomalin engages in, considering why Emma might have been unhappy, for example, can be useful in a biography, but I don’t have much interest in biographies built entirely on speculation. With Tomalin, I always felt I was in good hands.
For me, the most interesting parts of the book were the chapters describing the novels—I think I just like thinking about Hardy’s novels! Tomalin puts his books in context of the time, commenting on how he compared to his literary peers and how his work was received. It’s clear that she loves his novels, and her insights reminded me of love much I love these books, even though I take issue with her complaints about the final words of Jude the Obscure, which I think are meant to convey a feeling experienced by this character in this moment, not a universal fact.
The trouble with reading this book is that now I want to continue in my project of reading all Hardy’s novels—and I want to reread Far from the Madding Crowd and The Mayor of Casterbridge. A steady diet of Thomas Hardy couldn’t possibly be a bad thing, could it?