Tom the Misunderstood

An impolite biography of Thomas Hardy that sets out to shred all the others.


By Martin Seymour-Smith.

Illustrated. 886 pp. New York:

St. Martin's Press. $35.

By James R. Kincaid

Imagine a storytelling tournament in hell, where hundreds of contestants are pitchforked into line and ordered to narrate, one after the other, the same tale: the interminable and uneventful life of Thomas Hardy. And you're last in line. I think that's how Martin Seymour-Smith sees himself in this new biography of Hardy, suddenly cast into the depths and forced to come up with something that will go on for nearly 1,000 pages. It is understandable that he regards this as a hard fate, even in hell, and that he spends much of his time spitefully going after the previous storytellers.

Between Mr. Seymour-Smith and Hardy stands a host of other biographers, critics, reviewers, commentators and professors. Rather than pretend they are not there or exist only as an occasional weed to be pulled, Mr. Seymour-Smith goes after them with the blunt fury of a grizzly whose cubs have been cuddled by tourists from Ohio. Calling "Hardy" a pugnacious book is like calling Saddam Hussein grumpy. One would think that Hardy's biographers -- Michael Millgate, R. L. Purdy, Robert Gittings -- along with Hardy's second wife, Margaret Thatcher, the current cinema and a host of publishers, reviewers, critics and Americans had, conspired to insult Mr. Seymour-Smith's family, ridicule his fashion sense and poison his dog.

It's not an unentertaining strategy he adopts, and this book really is massively enjoyable. As it sets about savagely refuting all other lives of Hardy, it slips in a very intelligent, oddly delicate story of its own. Mr. Seymour-Smith's Hardy lives a life that seems far more canny, flexible, good-hearted and certainly engaging than any we had been presented with before. Much as he detests (a feeble word here) those he detests, Mr. Seymour-Smith can be compellingly kind to those he admires; and he admires unto loving not only Thomas Hardy but his first wife, most of his friends and all of his pets. He -knows at least as much as anyone has ever known about Hardy, and he has, at core, a workable thesis: that Hardy pretty well knew what he was doing, that he spent the first part of his life struggling to be a poet. And the last part being one, that his first marriage was probably better than most of us manage (and far better than those #$&!!@š%'s Millgate and Gittings could ever comprehend) and that his second wife was a well-meaning, walking catastrophe.

When he remembers to write about Hardy, Mr. Seymour-Smith can guard down and allows Hardy to excite in him something other than stunned reverence. Hardy really strikes him as an amusing character, a lot more interesting than a "poetic soul" any day. For instance, he sees that Hardy's bouncy libido often came into conflict with his critical sensibilities ("The least sign of passion or sexual interest from a woman was enough to set him off into the belief that she must be capable of good writing") and with his sincere pursuit of virtue ("His attempt to have an affair with Florence Dugdale, not a notably virtuous undertaking, was something of a thorn in his side. It was not a thorn which he was at all anxious to pull out"). Best of all, he wryly notes that the man denounced by reviewers as a pornographer could not manage to engineer a commonplace affair: "The novelist had been better at this kind of intrigue ... than the man."

When he makes a case for a "more generous," less condescending treatment of Hardy, Mr. Seymour-Smith is deeply persuasive. His usual mode, unhappily, does not involve making any kind of case but simply issuing defensive pronouncements: he says the notoriously prickly Hardy was "always the first to admit to his 'inconsistencies,'" which is nonsense, and that he didn't mind criticism at all, not at all, unless it was "unintelligent" or "wrong-headed," which is like saying Vlad the Impaler was only angry with those who incited anger.

Placing himself, for some reason, with his back against the wall, Mr. Seymour-Smith is like Errol Flynn flashing two swords and fighting off entire armies: the abused novel "The Mayor of Casterbridge" is equal "for many" to "King Lear"; Hardy is not more adolescent than most but "less so"; his claim that he could have "full sexual intercourse" until the age of 84 is not a "boast" at all but plain truth (after all, he would know, wouldn't he?); his house is not, by damn, "'badly built,' as it has been called," but "solidly built"; Henry James may be critical but who is Henry James, we'd like to know, but a guy who "did not fully understand poetry: only enough to fear it"? Any more of you want to fight? Come on! Mr. Seymour-Smith's ready! Chickkkunnnnn!

Such bully-baiting hardly allows room for the relaxed and friendly view he has of "Tom" (as he thinks he has to call him), the writer whose view of nature's cruelty could rise to tragic heights but which was ordinarily, he says, a well-nursed and productive "grievance," one of those "indignations" which writers not blessed with unhappy childhoods badly need. He sees that Hardy could "frequently" be "a pain in the neck" to those living with him, his well-loved first wife especially. Mr. Seymour-Smith is very moving on Emma Hardy and is as kind as Hardy himself was toward the eccentricities she developed late in her life: she may have become "very queer and talked curiously," but "so," he reminds us, "does everyone's grandmother." "They never ceased to love each other," he insists, adding that the failure of their marriage to give them bliss was, first of all, what we all experience, and, second, necessary for Hardy: "Perhaps the very fact of her not being an ideal Victorian wife and helpmate gave Tom just the unhappiness he required to bring out the best in him."

I cannot keep myself from adding that Mr. Seymour-Smith at one point says of Tom and Emma, "They had now been married for more than 16 years, and their relationship was frayed at the edges. Whose are not, after 16 years?" Well, I read that sentence exactly one day after the anniversary of my marriage. My 16th anniversary. And I can say without dithering that, as for fraying, not a bit. My wife agrees. I have noticed, though, that she is becoming very queer and talks curiously.

Mr. Seymour-Smith would take a kind view of her (as I am trying to do) and of me, me not being Robert Gittings -- who, possessed of "a sick and envious mind," spreads "vituperative rubbish" and says things "as foolish" as they are "ignoble" "as comic" as they are "unscrupulous." Nor am I Carl Weber, "a boorish vulgarian"; nor Leslie Stephen, a "child"; nor R. H. Hutton, cursed with "miserable literal-mindedness"; nor Mowbray Morris, "cowardly, lustful and disingenuous"; nor Michael Millgate, especially not Michael Millgate. There are some things about Mr. Millgate's previous work (biographical and editorial) on Hardy that Mr. Seymour-Smith admires, maybe three things; but there are several thousand things he does not. He seems to feel the call to tell us about all of these, feels this so strongly that he often turns the book over to Mr. Millgate. We come to recognize as symptomatic of the disease gripping Mr. Seymour-Smith the following sequence: Millgate suggests/thinks/says/absurdly asserts. ... But this won't do/is preposterous/grossly overstates/is bewildered, patronizing, grotesque, astonishing and little short of absurd.

To give you some idea of the extent of this sort of thing, I have compiled some statistics. I felt it was my duty. Here they are: the book's index lists 31 references to Florence Hardy (second wife), 68 to Emma (first wife) and 80 to Mr. Millgate. Eighty is tops for any person listed there, by the way, though, to be fair, Tom doesn't get an entry. There is, I think, more about Tom in the biography than about Michael Millgate. More statistics: Mr. Seymour-Smith pauses very often to record quite graciously his debt to and admiration for other commentary. He does this, by my count, 44 times. It is not surprising, then, that he records disagreements, usually at great length (sometimes four or five pages) and always with high passion. He allows himself to do this 409 times, including some general sneers at those not specifically named (sometimes called "critics" and sometimes, I think, really Michael Millgate). Once he even has a go at Hardy, whose self-knowledge cannot hold a candle to what Mr. Seymour-Smith knows about him.

There are other distractions for readers who thought they wanted to read about Hardy. The literary criticism tends to be crudity -- "'Tess' is written from a feminine part of Tom" -- surrounded by fluff: "True tragedy demands poetry, and cannot be attained without it.' When things get tight, the author says that the work under review is ineffable: we now approach "that level of writing where critical exegesis had better simply point to the text or keep its peace." When he isn't keeping his peace, Mr. Seymour-Smith is comically certain about what literary works mean and what they don't, and predictably homicidal about anyone who thinks otherwise.

There is, further, very little here on social context. Mostly it got crowded out by Mr. Millgate, which perhaps is not a bad thing, since what we do receive is mostly a rehearsal of caricatures about Victorian prudery and hypocrisy, along with wild eccentricities like this one: "Harrow was at that time more like a paedophilic brothel than a place of education." There is room, though, for the insertion of some miscellaneous views and crotchets: on the flabbiness of modern education, on the "Thatcherite" mentality, on how much slower postal deliveries are these days, on the decay of the cinema and on the curious fact, noted by Mr. Seymour-Smith and nobody else, that writers learn to read as children "either very early or very late."

Still, he can be extremely readable, even when he is, like my wife and your grandmother, talking curiously and saying queer things. I think he is very unfair with Florence, but also irresistible: Florence, whose own writing, he says, was "never much less than competent" and who was "cloying and treacherous," complaining, humorless and so insincere at heart that she could not even "understand sincerity," nonetheless had one talent: feeling sorry. She could feel sorry at the drop of a hat and, lacking an external object, "would feel systematically sorry for herself." "She well knew how and when to grizzle, grouse, sulk and whinge" about a host of grievances, all invented, and "did not really like" her husband, who had done the unforgivable: he forced her to see that she was horribly unsuited to be what she had directed her whole life to being, the wife of a genius. For Florence, every day was "the kind of day she lived for -- and did not, therefore, enjoy at all."

But, as Mr. Seymour-Smith would say, this won't do. All the same, it does, somehow, do. It is a raucously indecorous portrait in an equally brawling and impolite biography -- great fun, if you're out of Mr. Seymour-Smith's reach and lucky enough not to be the author of a previous and therefore competing and therefore criminal biography. I hope that anyone reporting this review to Mr. Seymour-Smith will tell him that I agree with every word he says and that I think all other Hardy biographers and critics and academics and Hollywood types and those responsible for slow postal deliveries (intolerable!) should just be taken out and shot.