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Thomas Hardy: An Authorized Record

ISSUE:  Autumn 1930

The Early Life of Thomas Hardy, 1840-1891. The Later Years of Thomas Hardy, 1892-1928. By Florence Emily Hardy. New York: The Macmillan Company. Each, $5.00.

With the newly-published “Later Years of Thomas Hardy,” Mrs. Hardy completes the account of her husband’s life which she began two years ago. Her books are as unpretentious, as unsophisticated as the character of the man of whom she writes. They are, indeed, a “record” rather than a “biography,” innocent of any trace of biographical art, and quite without any literary merit of their own. Nevertheless, Mrs. Hardy has performed an invaluable service. She was too close to her husband to attempt an “interpretation” of him. That may safely be left for later writers. What she has done is the thing that needed to be done first and that she only could do. She has provided the material upon which all future studies must be based.

There emerges from her pages the image of an extraordinarily sensitive, extraordinarily humane and thoughtful man, a man marked by such sincerity and earnestness as one might expect to find in the Bible or “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” but which seldom turns up in a great modern novelist and poet. Hardy said of himself that he was a child till he was sixteen, a youth till he was five-and-twenty, and a young man till he was nearly fifty. In the best sense he was childlike till he was eighty: he never lost the humility, the sweet singleness that the Highest Authority we have in these matters judged fundamental to all truly spiritual character. And his art, for all its fine maturity, retained something of the same simplicity: he was a fine artist but there was nothing “arty” about him. He thought the happiest results often came through accident, and he liked big, imperfect things much better than he liked small designs flawlessly worked out. After he read Henry James’s “The Reverberator,” he decided that was the kind of novel he did not want to write. His poems have rough spots in them, but they are there because he deliberately put them there: he had a horror of absolute regularity. A long poem, he believed, should not be “poetical” all the way through. Though William Morris is not mentioned in these volumes, Hardy admired the spontaneous and the unsophisticated in art quite as much as Morris did.

Yet he appreciated the value of his work. And he was, it seems, much more sensitive to criticism than a man who really understands the significance of what he is doing ought to be. Heaven knows that in his case criticism was stupid and uncomprehending, even more than it usually is. Having read The Spectator’s review of “Desperate Remedies,” having digested Jeannette Gilder’s hysterical strictures on “Jude the Obscure,” having actually been compelled to dismember “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” in order to secure magazine publication at all, Hardy might well have been pardoned had he concluded that all reviewers are mad. But he did worse than that. For while it is true that in his heart he had always been a poet and not a novelist, still the fact remains that it was the press reception of “Jude” that caused him to abandon fiction when he did. “A man must be a fool to deliberately stand up to be shot at.”

His humanity shows most attractively in his sensitiveness to the suffering of animals. Hunting he regarded with abhorrence, as he did the habit of confining pet birds in cages. The sight of animals being taken to market caused him acute suffering. When W. T. Stead asked him to contribute to an anti-war symposium, he replied, characteristically, that a beginning might be made “by covenanting that no horses should be employed in battle except for transport.” E ren Darwinian evolution only deepened his sense of pity, seemed indeed to give a scientific basis for it: “Few people seem to perceive fully as yet that the most far-reaching consequence of the establishment of the common origin of all species, is ethical; that it logically involves a readjustment of altruistic morals by enlarging as a necessity of lightness the application of what has been called ‘The Golden Rule’ beyond the area of mere mankind to that of the whole animal kingdom.”

Though Hardy’s religious views gave pain to many of his readers, few men have been more thoroughly Christian in spirit than he was. He was reared in a Christian atmosphere, and whatever happened later to his mind, his heart never changed, any more than George Eliot’s did. In 1890 he wrote: “I have been looking for God 50 years, and I think that if he had existed I should have discovered him.” Yet he insisted that he was never “a clamourous atheist,” but rather “a harmless agnostic.” When he was invited to join a rationalist society, he firmly declined, as he did also later when the ubiquitous—and “clamourous”—Joseph McCabe proposed including him in a biographical dictionary of modern rationalists. He was strongly provoked by those who insisted that the Aeschylean close of one of his most popular novels—‘ “The President of the Immortals had finished his sport with Tess”—must be an expression of his personal philosophy. He had no system, he would insist, “only a confused heap of impressions”—and as a poet he was drawn profoundly towards belief: there was nothing of the iconoclast in him. Sometimes he feared that humanity had grown beyond Nature. “It may be questioned if Nature, or what we call Nature, so far back as when she crossed the line from invertebrates to vertebrates, did not exceed her mission. This planet does not supply the materials for happiness to higher existences.” When Alfred Noyes accused him of teaching by implication “that the Power behind the Universe was an imbecile jester,” he replied, “My imagination may have often run away with me; but all the same, my sober opinion —so far as I have any definite one—of the Cause of Things, has been defined in scores of places, and is that of a great many ordinary thinkers: that the said Cause is neither moral nor immoral but unmoral: ‘loveless and hateless’ I have called it, ‘which neither good nor evil knows’—etc., etc.—(you will find plenty of these definitions in ‘The Dynasts’ as well as in short poems, and I am surprised that you should not have taken them in).” Hardy’s religious life may be pronounced unsatisfactory, like that of all men who have to live in one age while their heart is in another, but it is a serious mistake to regard him as in any sense hostile to religion.

In closing, a word should be said concerning the unusual physical beauty of these books. For example, even one photogravure is rare in a five dollar book these days. These two volumes have eleven between them, as well as numerous facsimiles and half-tones. They arc books that it is a joy to own.


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