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|Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)|
English poet and regional novelist, who depicted the county "Wessex," named after the ancient kingdom of Alfred the Great. Hardy's career as writer spanned over fifty years. His earliest books appeared when Anthony Trollope (1815-82) wrote his Palliser series, and he published poetry in the decade of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Hardy's work reflected his stoical pessimism and sense of tragedy in human life.
"Critics can never be made to understand that that the failure may be greater than the success... To have the strength to roll a stone weighting a hundredweight to the top of a mountain is a success, and to have the strength to roll a stone of then hundredweight only halfway up that mount is a failure. But the latter is two or three times as strong a deed." (Hardy in his diary, 1907)
Thomas Hardy's own life wasn't similar to his stories. He was born in the village of Higher Bockhampton, on the edge of Puddletown Heath. His father was a master mason and building contractor. With a certain pride the author once said, that although his ancestors never rose above the level of a master-mason, they never sunk below it. Hardy's mother, whose tastes included Latin poets and French romances, provided for his education. After schooling in Dorchester, Hardy was apprenticed to an architect.
While working in an office, which specialized in restoration of churches, Hardy supervided the removal of the remains of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin when a railway was run through part of the churchyard of of St Pancras Old Church. Some of the displaced gravestones he set around an ash tree that was later named after him. In 1874 Hardy married Emma Lavinia Gifford, for whom he wrote 40 years later, after her death, a group of poems known as Veteris Vestigiae Flammae (Vestiges of an Old Flame).
At the age of 22 Hardy moved to London and started to write poems, which idealized the rural life. He was an assistant in the architectural firm of Arthur Blomfield, visited art galleries, attended evening classes in French at King's College, enjoyed Shakespeare and opera, and read works of Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and John Stuart Mills, whose positivism influenced him deeply. In 1867 Hardy left London for the family home in Dorset, and resumed work briefly with Hicks in Dorchester. During this period of his life Hardy entered into a temporary engagement with Tryphena Sparks, a pretty and lively sixteen-year-old relative. Hardy continued his architectural career, but encouraged by Emma Lavinia Gifford, he started to consider literature as his "true vocation."
Hardy did not first find public for his poetry and the novelist George Meredith advised Hardy to write a novel. The Poor Man and the Lady, written in 1867, was rejected by many publishers and Hardy destroyed the manuscript. His first book that gained notice was Far from the Madding Crowd (1874). After its success Hardy was convinced that he could earn his living by his pen. Devoting himself entirely to writing, Hardy produced a series of novels.
Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891) came into conflict with Victorian morality. It explored the dark side of his family connections in Berkshire. In the story the poor villager girl Tess Durbeyfield is seduced by the wealthy Alec D'Uberville. She becomes pregnant but the child dies in infancy. Tess finds work as a dairymaid on a farm and falls in love with Angel Clare, a clergyman's son, who marries her. When Tess tells Angel about her past, he hypocritically deserts her. Tess becomes Alec's mistress. Angel returns from Brazil, repenting his harshness, but finds her living with Alec. Tess kills Alec in desperation, she is arrested and hanged.
Hardy's Jude the Obscure (1895) aroused even more controversy. The story dramatized the conflict between carnal and spiritual life, tracing Jude Fawley's life from his boyhood to his early death. Jude marries Arabella, but deserts her. He falls in love with his cousin, hypersensitive Sue Bridehead, who marries the decaying schoolmaster, Phillotson, in a masochist fit. Jude and Sue obtain divorces, but their life together deteriorates under the pressure of poverty and social disapproval. The eldest son of Jude and Arabella, a grotesque boy nicknamed 'Father Time,' kills their children and himself. Broken by the loss, Sue goes back to Phillotson, and Jude returns to Arabella. Soon thereafter Jude dies, and his last words are: "Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery, and life unto the bitter in soul?".
In 1896, disturbed by the public uproar over the unconventional subjects of two of his greatest novels, Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, Hardy announced that he would never write fiction again. A bishop solemnly burnt the book, "probably in his despair at not being able to burn me," Hardy noted. Hardy's marriage had also suffered from the public outrage - critics on both sides of the Atlantic abused the author as degenerate and called the work itself disgusting. In April, 1912, Hardy wrote:
"Then somebody discovered that Jude was a moral work - austere in its treatment of a difficult subject - as if the writer had not all the time said in the Preface that it was meant to be so. Thereupon many uncursed me, and the matter ended, the only effect of it on human conduct that I could discover being its effect on myself - the experience completely curing me of the further interest in novel-writing."
By 1885 the Hardys had settled near Dorchester at Max Gate, a house designed by the author and built by his brother, Henry. With the exceptions of seasonal stays in London and occasional excursions abroad, his Bockhampton home, "a modest house, providing neither more nor less than the accommodation ... needed" (as Michael Millgate describes it in his biography of the author) was his home for the rest of his life.
After giving up the novel, Hardy brought out a first group of Wessex poems, some of which had been composed 30 years before. During the remainder of his life, Hardy continued to publish several collections of poems. "Hardy, in fact, was the ideal poet of a generation. He was the most passionate and the most learned of them all. He had the luck, singular in poets, of being able to achieve a competence other than by poetry and then devote the ending years of his life to his beloved verses." (Ford Madox Ford in The March of Literature, 1938) Hardy's gigantic panorama of the Napoleonic Wars, The Dynasts, composed between 1903 and 1908, was mostly in blank verse.
Hardy succeeded on the death of his friend George Meredith to the presidency of the Society of Authors in 1909. King George V conferred on him the Order of Merit and he received in 1912 the gold medal of the Royal Society of Literature.
Hardy kept to his childless marriage with Emma Gifford although it was unhappy and he had - or he imagined he had - affairs with other women passing briefly through his life. Emma Hardy died in 1912. At that time she had already withdrawn from her husband, and spent much of her time in a small room in the attic. In 1914 Hardy married his secretary, Florence Emily Dugdale, a woman in her 30's, almost 40 years younger than he. Their relationship had started from a fan letter she sent him. Nevertheless, the death of Emma made Hardy a great poet. Filled with sorrow and remorse for their estrangement, he recreated their love in his poems.
From 1920 through 1927 Hardy concentrated on his autobiography, which was disguised as the work of Florence Hardy. It appeared in two volumes (1928 and 1930). Hardy's last book was Human Shows Far Phantasies Songs and Trifles (1925). Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres appeared posthumously in 1928.
Hardy died in Dorchester, Dorset, on January 11, 1928. Eva Dugtale washed his body and prepared it for burial. Hardy's ashes were cremated in Dorchester and buried with impressive ceremonies in the Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey. According to a literary anecdote his heart was to be buried in Stinsford, his birthplace. All went according to plan, until a cat belonging to the poet's sister snatched the heart off the kitchen, where it was temporarily kept, and disappeared into the woods with it.
Hardy bravely challenged many of the sexual and religious conventions of the Victorian age. The center of his novels was the rather desolate and history-freighted countryside around Dorchester. In the early 1860s, after the appearance Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), Hardy's faith was still unshaken, but he soon adopted the mechanical-determinist view of universe's cruelty, reflected in the inevitably tragic and self-destructive fates of his characters. In his poems Hardy depicted rural life without sentimentality - his mood was often stoically hopeless. "Though he was a modern, even a revolutionary writer in his time, most of us read him now as a lyrical pastoralist. It may be a sign of the times that some of us take his books to bed, as if even his pessimistic vision was one that enabled us to sleep soundly." (Anatole Broyard in New York Times, May 12, 1982)
For further reading: Thomas Hardy by Claire Tomalin (2007); The Life of Thomas Hardy: A Critical Biography by P.D.L. Turner (1998); Thomas Hardy in Our Time by R.W. Langbaum (1995); Hardy and the Erotic by T.R. Wright (1989); Thomas Hardy by M. Millgate (1982); The Older Hardy by R. Gittings (1980); An Essay on Thomas Hardy by J. Bayley (1978); The Final Years of Thomas Hardy, 1912-1928 by H. Orel (1976); Young Thomas Hardy by R. Gittings (1975); Thomas Hardy: A Critical Biography by J.I.M. Stewart (1971); The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Handbook and Commentary by J.O. Bailey (1970); Thomas Hardy by I.Howe (1967); Thomas Hardy: A Critical Biography by E. Hardy (1954); Thomas Hardy by A.J. Guerard (1949); Hardy of Wessex: His Life and Career by C.J. Weber (1940) - See also: Wladyslaw Reymont, C.D. Lewis (The Lyrical Poetry of Thomas Hardy, 1953), Michael Innes, Francois La Rochefoucauld.