Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man by Claire Tomalin

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Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man by Claire Tomalin

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of the Victorian novelist who gave up prose and became one of the most renowned of early 20th century poets.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 512 Date: July 2007
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0141017419

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I came to this biography having read three of Hardy's novels, two quite recently, and some of his poetry, but knowing very little about him as a person. Claire Tomalin has brought him admirably to life in these pages.

To summarise the basic facts of his career, Hardy was born in 1840 in Dorset, the county where he spent most of his life and which he immortalised in his fiction. After a few rejections, he established himself as a successful novelist and short story writer, but longed to devote himself to poetry, a move which was made easier by a rather hostile reaction to Jude the Obscure, the last of his stories. The subtitle of the book comes from one of his poems A Broken Appointment, with its line, Once you, a woman, came to soothe a time-torn man.

The writer looks at his literary career in great depth and with considerable insight, yet his personal life is in some ways almost as interesting as his career. He married Emma Gifford in 1874, but it was a childless union and the couple eventually drifted apart, in personal terms at least. Though they remained together throughout nearly forty years of marriage with apparently never a thought of separation or living under different roofs, they were leading almost separate lives by the end. In his fifties he fell in love with his secretary Florence Dugdale, who was thirty nine years his junior. Yet he was devastated when Emma died in 1912, and much of his poetry was inspired by or dedicated to her. It was a situation with which Florence, who became the second Mrs Hardy in 1914, was not surprisingly uncomfortable.

It is sometimes inevitable that dedicated writers become so deeply immersed in their work that they have little time for anything that takes them too far away from their desk, pen and paper (or equivalent). As a result, there are often large periods in their lives when there is little to record in the way of events apart from the completion and publication of one work after another, and the biographer has a considerable task in getting to the personality behind the name. To a certain extent, that is the case with Hardy. She admits that the biographer has a problem with him - namely, how to relate this dry, defensive man to the diffident but super-responsive presence felt in the poems and novels.

Give that basic fact, she has done well in portraying his character, and she has done well with the slightly contradictory aspects. Hardy was quite radical in his outlook, particularly until at least middle age, as his sympathy with impoverished rural families and a certain distaste for those who had inherited their wealth suggests. In his advancing years he moved more to the right. In principle, we read, he agreed in general with the cause of women's suffrage, a cause so dear to Emma's heart, although he was cautious about making any public pronouncements on the matter, and neither husband nor wife approved of the movement's more militant tactics. During his younger days he might have been less than dazzled by the prospect of a visit from royalty, but when told that the Prince of Wales (who had not read a word of his writing) was coming to call on him at home in 1923 he was delighted.

It goes without saying that her analysis of his fiction and poems is very thorough, and she portrays the critical storm which greeted the publication of the controversial (for its time) Jude the Obscure in 1895. At the same time she also has a good eye for the little anecdotes which enliven biography. It was interesting to read of his love of music, especially folk songs, hymns, and playing the violin as a child. I was particularly struck by the tale of the postman who delivered mail to the Hardys' house in the 1920s, told the venerable old man of letters that he enjoyed reading, was invited indoors to borrow two books, and was invited back later to sit down with him and discuss them before borrowing another two. (Hardy's own writings? – we are not told).

Towards the end Tomalin's account of Hardy's decline, to the last few weeks when he was too ill to write and knew the end was approaching, is particularly poignant.

If you have yet to read any Hardy, this book will certainly inspire you to do so. If you have, you will relish learning more about the man behind the prose and verse. I certainly did, and it has sent me back to his work for more.

For another biography of a contemporary author, you might also enjoy The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle by Russell Miller. For a fictional approach to Hardy's last days, have a look at Max Gate by Damien Wilkins.

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