A contentious defense of the dour Thomas Hardy


Hardy

By Martin Seymour-Smith

St. Martin's, 896 pages, $35

Reviewed by Rosa Feld

An author whose most recent novel is

"Shapes Mistaken"

Readers tend to wince when biographers duel. Even worse, subjects tend to drown. Martin Seymour-Smith, the British critic who has previously undertaken encyclopedic critical projects in addition to individually handling the neo-Romantics of Victorian and Georgian English literature Kipling, Robert Graves - here has a major grudge. He has written a much too large book (without, at least in the U.S. edition, a single corroborating note attached) defending Thomas Hardy from the manhandling he believes the odd-duck Dorset genius got at the hands of his most considerable recent biographers Robert Gittings and Michael Millgate. They, according to Seymour-Smith, have made Hardy into a "kind of half-articulate if gifted oaf," and with the anxious solicitude of a protector of the misunderstood (Seymour-Smith throughout most of his book calls Hardy "Tom"-- a kind of arm thrown around the writer's shoulder) this work means to turn that around.

It is fitting that Seymour-Smith's disputatious and melodramatic book should concern Hardy. Opinion, now more than a century old, still can be divided.' What was Hardy? Exactly what minor key did his greatness play in? Was he foremost a novelist? A poet? A rube-like autodidact? A tragedian of power and philosophical clarity?

The bricklayer's son, the young Dorsetman who never made it to Oxford, the apprentice architect, the doggedly persistent tyro poet and finally novelist (and in his old age, poet once more), Hardy, like many another self-made person, perhaps shocked the wo rld because he seemed never quite to shock himself. Hardy's marriages take up a lot of room in recent biographies. (We want to know what everyone's marriage is like, of course, but a genius' especially.) In 1874 he married Emma Gifford, whom no one seemed to find suitable once her husband began to achieve fame, and then, still childless, he lost her to death -- occasioning the great memorial poems of 1912-1913, poems that seemed to miss her better than he had her. He went on in great age to marry Florence Dugdale, who proved congenitally dissatisfied, frustrated and not terribly happy with the moving poems of loss concerning Emma that continued to flow from Hardy's pen.

Sex was one of Hardy's bugbears, as it was always for the Victorians, but still Seymour-Smith finds it bad form for Gittings and Millgate to keep bringing it up. Hardy, he argues, has been a victim of posthumous mugging on his sexuality - or lack thereof. On admittedly rather thin evidence, Millgate plants the idea that Hardy's childlessness and sere marriages may have been due to a less than lusty nature, a wavering virility. And that, for this reason, he also fell hard for unattainable women other than his wives -- a pathetic mooncalf.

Seymour-Smith tips too far the other way, painting Hardy not only as a proto-feminist but also -- lamely - as a daring sophisticate treating such matters as lesbianism in the early novel "A Pair of Blue Eyes." He wants us to think that Hardy's Victorian pessimism was applied evenly to everything except sex, but how could that be?

Even so, Seymour-Smith does have some good, corrective points to make. Millgate turned Hardy's cannibalizing of his first stab at prose, "Desperate Remedies," into some kind of shady retro-fit job -- yet all writers rework their first material in one way or other, and not always for what at the time seems the purest artistic motive. Hardy as poet is also given his due here, where in Millgate the poetry is more or less only alluded to.

Yet finally Seymour-Smith's sprawling work of apologetics misses more opportunities than it takes. Hardy was no hypocrite (Seymour-Smith shrilly accuses his predecessors of suggesting Hardy was), but he wasn't an early Lawrence or a reborn Shelley, either.

His novels are agrarian but also more: They're tragedies of work. One of the keys even to Hardy's fascinating, confessional, yet always slightly repellent poetry is, again, effort his doggedly complex metrics and prosody. (Donald Davie made this plain some years ago in an excellent book, "Thomas Hardy and British Poetry.") This helps to explain the power of poems to a dead wife he was less than thrilled with when she was alive. Hardy's novels, filled with extraordinary effects of detachment (read the amazing opening pages of "The Return of the Native"), with "would have seen" s, with third-person observers not necessarily yet on the job, are a tip-off to his fantasy: to be a hard-working ghost.

Why then couldn't Hardy be the strenuous haunter of his own feelings and life as well? Seymour-Smith cannot grant Hardy any of this doubleness, and so he skates right by his most telling quote (which distractedly he includes twice): Hardy, in 1888, writing that "For my part, if there is any way of getting a melancholy satisfaction out of life it lies in dying, so to speak, before one is out of the flesh; by which I mean putting on the manner of ghosts, wandering in their haunts, and taking their views of surrounding things. To think of life passing away is a sadness; to think of it as past is at least tolerable."