The works of the English novelist, poet, and dramatist Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) unite the Victorian and modern eras. They reveal him to be a kind and gentle man, terribly aware of the pain human beings suffer in their struggle for life.
Thomas Hardy presented the spectacle of England from Napoleonic times to World War I and after. He revealed the changes that overwhelmed Victorian England and made it modern: the decline of Christianity, the shifts from reticence to openness in matters of sex and from an agricultural to a modern economy, and above all the growing sense of the disparity between the enormous universe and tiny man.
Hardy was born on June 2, 1840, in Higher Bockhampton in Dorset, which formed part of the "Wessex" of his novels and poems. A small baby, thought at birth to be dead, he became a small man only a little over 5 feet tall. He was taught by his father, a builder, to play the violin, and he often journeyed about the countryside playing for dances and storing up the impressions of rural life that make up so large a part of his work.
After attending local schools, Hardy was apprenticed in 1856 to John Hicks, an architect in Dorchester. At this time he thought seriously of attending university and entering the Church, but he did not do so. In 1862 he went to London to work. There he began to write poems and send them to publishers, who quickly returned them. He kept many of the poems and published them in 1898 and afterward. Back in Dorchester in 1867 working for Hicks, he wrote a novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, which he was advised not to publish on the ground that it was too satirical for genteel Victorian tastes. Told to write a novel with a plot, he turned out Desperate Remedies (1871), which was unsuccessful.
Meanwhile Hardy had begun to work for Gerald Crickmay, who had taken over Hicks's business. Crickmay sent him to Cornwall, where on March 7, 1870, he met Emma Lavinia Gifford, with whom he fell in love. Their courtship is recorded in A Pair of Blue Eyes and in some of Hardy's most beautiful poems, among them "When I Set Out for Lyonnesse" and "Beeny Cliff."
Hardy could have kept on with architecture, but he was a "born bookworm, " as he said, and in spite of his lack of success with literature he decided to continue with it, hoping eventually to make enough money to enable him to marry. For Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) he earned £30. The book was well received, and he was asked to write a novel for serialization in a magazine. In September 1872 A Pair of Blue Eyes began to appear, even though only a few chapters had been completed. Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), also serialized, was a success financially and critically. By then making a living from literature, Hardy married Gifford in September 1874.
Hardy preferred his poetry to his prose and thought his novels merely a way to earn a living. Certainly he was willing to write his novels to the requirements of magazines: a "thrill" in every installment and nothing to offend feminine readers. But his best novels—The Return of the Native (1878), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), and Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891)—were, at least in book form, much more than magazine fiction. The main characters were individuals moving before a chorus of rural folk and a backdrop of unhuman and uncaring nature. The people were dominated by the countryside of "Wessex, " Hardy's name for the area in south-west England where he set most of his novels, and the area is as vividly memorable as the people.
Even Hardy's best novels, however, were marred by a characteristically awkward prose and overuse of coincidence, as were the lesser novels: The Hand of Ethelberta (1876), a comedy of society; The Trumpet-Major (1880), about the Napoleonic Wars; A Laodicean (1881), written while sick in bed; Two on a Tower (1882), about an astronomer and a lady; and The Woodlanders (1887), about an unhappy marriage.
Good or bad, his novels brought Hardy money, fame, and acquaintance with the great. With his wife he traveled in Germany, France, and Italy; he built Max Gate near Dorchester, where he lived from 1886 until his death; he frequently dined out, meeting Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and others. Robert Louis Stevenson sought him out and visited him at Max Gate. It was a successful life and seemed happy enough, but he had a strained relationship with his wife.
Though Hardy's novels seldom end happily, he was not, he stated, a pessimist. He called himself a "meliorist, " one who believed that man can live with some happiness if he understands his place in the universe and accepts it. He ceased to be a Christian; he read Charles Darwin and accepted the idea of evolution; later he took up Arthur Schopenhauer and developed the notion of the Immanent Will, the blind force which drives the universe and in the distant future may see and understand itself. This notion is not very optimistic for any one man's life, but it does leave room for hope.
Hardy was increasingly displeased by the restrictions imposed on his novels by the magazines. In the book version of Tess he restored several chapters cut out of the serial, and the book was attacked as immoral. In Jude the Obscure (1895) he did the same; there was an immense outcry. The story of a young man torn between the urgings of sex and the desire to go to the university, Jude presented the woes of marriage with a frankness not known till then in the Victorian novel. It is poorly constructed and too bitter to be one of Hardy's best novels, but it may be his most famous, because its reception was a main cause of his turning from novels to poetry.
Poetry and Drama
Collecting new and old poems, Hardy published Wessex Poems (1898) and Poems of the Past and Present (1902). Then he began to publish The Dynasts, an immense drama of the Napoleonic Wars which depicts all the characters, even Napoleon, as puppets whose actions are determined by the Immanent Will. The drama is commented on by "phantasmal Intelligences, " who explain the workings of the Will. The "epic-drama" evolved into 19 acts and 130 scenes; it was published in three parts in 1903, 1905, and 1908. Meant to be read, not acted, it is frequently called Hardy's masterwork. Certainly it unites all his thoughts on the human condition in a vision remarkable for its scope.
Meanwhile Hardy continued to publish his shorter verse in Time's Laughingstocks (1909). His most famous single volume of poems, Satires of Circumstance, appeared in 1914. It revealed the extremes of Hardy's emotional range in the short, bitter poems referred to in the title and the longer poems about his first wife, who died in 1912. Any bitterness in their relationship had disappeared in the nostalgia with which he viewed their courtship and married life. Selected Poems (1916), Moments of Vision (1917), Late Lyrics and Earlier (1922), and Human Shows (1925) were published during the remainder of his life. Winter Words (1928) was published after his death.
Because in most cases Hardy published his poems years after he wrote them, the dates of composition can be determined only by his references to them in The Early Life of Thomas Hardy or The Later Years. Thus it is difficult to show Hardy's growth as a poet. In fact, he hardly grew at all. The last poems are remarkably similar in diction, meter, and feeling to the earliest. Because of this, his poems are customarily divided into three groups: naturalistic poems, or little slices of life; love poems, almost all about his first wife; and theological poems, about the workings of the Immanent Will. In the last kind, Hardy's macabre sense of humor is allowed full play.
In almost all his poems Hardy uses Victorian diction, regular meters, and neat stanzas. These cause him to be called a Victorian poet. But he also uses everyday words. These, with his bleak view of the human condition and his fusion of humor and pity, rank him with the moderns.
In 1914 Hardy married Florence Emily Dugdale, who had been his secretary for several years. He continued to receive famous visitors at Max Gate and to go to London for special occasions. He died on Jan. 11, 1928. His heart was buried in the churchyard at Stinsford, his ashes in Westminster Abbey.
Further Reading on Thomas Hardy
The Early Life of Thomas Hardy, 1840-1891 (1928) and The Later Years of Thomas Hardy, 1892-1928 (1930) were written mainly by Hardy rather than by the ostensible author, Mrs. Florence Emily Hardy. The life story is retold and Hardy's work interpreted by Carl J. Weber in Hardy of Wessex: His Life and Literary Career (1940; rev. ed. 1965). The true story of Hardy's relationship with his first wife appeared only in 1963 in "Dearest Emmie": Thomas Hardy's Letters to His First Wife (1963) and in Hardy's Love Poems (1963), both edited by Weber.
There is considerable critical material on Hardy. Albert J. Guérard, Thomas Hardy (1964), and Irving Howe, Thomas Hardy (1967), are astute studies of all of Hardy's work. Virginia Woolf's essay in The Second Common Reader (1932) bears the mark of greatness in its estimate of the novels.
John Crowe Ransom's comments on Hardy's short poems in Poems and Essays (1955) and Selected Poems of Thomas Hardy (1961) are indispensable. Harold Orel interprets The Dynasts in Thomas Hardy's Epic-Drama (1963). Excellent introductions to the historical background of Hardy's work are G. M. Young, Victorian England: Portrait of an Age (1936; 2d ed. 1953), and David Thomson, England in the Nineteenth Century (1950).