About ten years ago the experimental novelist Tom McCarthy gave an interview in which he mocked Thomas Hardy, author of Victorian classics Far From The Madding Crowd and Jude The Obscure, as sentimental claptrap: ‘Wessex, country fairs and all that c**p.’
Paula Byrne’s new doorstopper of a biography reminds us how Hardy’s sexually candid novels scandalised 19th-century readers, railing against the strait-laced conventions of the day by portraying ordinary lives crushed under the weight of religious and social norms.
His best known novel, Tess Of The D’Urbervilles — no less powerful today — describes the agonisingly unjust punishment meted out to a guileless young milkmaid driven to murder by her brutal treatment at the hands of a lecherous playboy aristocrat.
Far from the madding crowd: Gemma Arterton as Tess
Byrne shows us how the roots of the heart-wrenching story lay in Hardy’s teens in mid-Victorian Dorset, when he bunked off work as an architect’s apprentice in order to witness the hanging of Elizabeth Martha Brown, who killed her violent husband with an axe.
The spectacle, which Hardy never forgot, fuelled a lifelong sympathy for the downtrodden that had been instilled early on by his mother, Jemima — a tough-sounding servant who avenged her sister’s domestic abuse by marching into her brother-in-law’s home to beat him ‘until he begged for mercy and swore that he would not hurt his wife again’.
Reviewers of Hardy’s early novels at first assumed that he himself was a woman on account of what one called his novels’ ‘close acquaintance with the mysteries of the female toilette’.
One young female reader of Tess sent him a fan letter awestruck by what she called his ‘complete understanding of a woman’s soul’.
Yet for all that women admired Hardy for how he portrayed them in his work, his off-page relations with them seldom ran smoothly.
After the death of his first wife, Emma, Hardy discovered a notebook in which she had privately recorded what she thought of him.
‘He understands only the women he invents — the others not at all.’ Such was her damning verdict.
They were married for more than 40 years but their different social backgrounds — he was the class-crossing son of a builder, she was a solicitor’s daughter — were a constant source of aggravation.
She apparently barred his family from visiting the purpose-built villa where they lived in Dorset.
Towards the end of her life she was drinking and taking opium for chronic back pain as well as suffering from schizotypal personality disorder, or so Byrne speculates.
Hardy with Florence
Things certainly took a dark turn when she believed Hardy was the spitting image of the notorious killer Dr Crippen, hanged for murdering his wife in 1910 after he embarked on an affair with Ethel Clare Le Neve, the young typist he moved into his home.
On her mind, perhaps, was a brewing ménage à trois involving her own husband’s young typist, Florence Dugdale, whom Hardy moved into their home after meeting her in 1902, when she was 26.
When Emma asked Florence if she’d ever noticed her employer’s resemblance to Crippen, was it a leading question? Either way, Florence made her excuses and left the room before Emma could ask ‘if I didn’t think I resembled Miss Le Neve’.
Whatever the awkwardness of the set-up, it didn’t stop Florence becoming the second Mrs Hardy shortly after Emma’s death in 1912 — yet she too would soon have grounds for jealousy.
Hardy, now in his 80s, developed a maddening crush on teenage actor Gertrude Bugler, cast as the lead in a stage version of Tess (floating around on YouTube there’s a magnetically captivating ITV interview with Bugler, recorded in 1990, two years before she died, in which she remembers Hardy as ‘a quiet, smiling old gentleman’).
More worrying for Florence was the spectacular outpouring of elegiac love poetry that Emma inspired in Hardy after her death.
The speaker of At Castle Boterel (1913) looks back at his time with a lost love and declares: ‘ . . . was there ever / A time of such quality, since or before . . . I shall traverse old love’s domain / Never again’. Ominous words to read from your husband.
Hardy’s verse rivals his fiction as his enduring achievement — the war poet Siegfried Sassoon, a friend in later life, believed he was the writer of his day nearest to Shakespeare.
His career was built on youthful drive: as an apprentice, he rose daily at 5am to read three hours of Greek and Latin before work.
He ended his life as a metropolitan celebrity courted by the great and the good, even if hoity-toity peers such as Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson did bitch about his books behind his back.
His arrival on the London literary scene in the mid-1870s widened his romantic horizons at just the moment he pledged to marry Emma.
A friendship with Anne Thackeray, daughter of Vanity Fair author William, might have been something more; ditto, a collaboration with Helen Paterson, a talented watercolourist who was admired by Vincent Van Gogh and who illustrated Hardy’s early hits.
Byrne’s bite-sized chapters, each named after a woman in Hardy’s life — the ones he wrote about as well as the ones he knew — are a neat way to structure this great big womb-to-tomb narrative, generously cushioned by plot summaries of the novels.
But in truth, Byrne struggles to come up with real dirt here.
The one thing Hardy could never forgive himself for (or so he told a friend before his death in 1928) was a quarrel with a girl he fancied as a young schoolboy; he pushed her into a stove, burning her hands.
The anecdotes, more than the arguments, are what keep us reading.
I found myself stifling a laugh when Byrne reports somewhat solemnly that Hardy was ‘susceptible to feminine beauty’.
I bet he was! Because writers are made of flesh and blood, not ink.