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Thomas Hardy: the ambivalent unbeliever

by
16 April 2021

Rod Garner concludes his trilogy with a reflection on the complex personality of Thomas Hardy

World History Archive/Alamy

A portrait of English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) in his study at Max Gate, Dorchester

A portrait of English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) in his study at Max Gate, Dorchester

IN 1891, as the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy was checking the proofs of his latest book, Tess of the D’Urbevilles, he paused to write a note of condolence to another writer, Henry Rider Haggard, whose ten-year-old son had just died. Expressing sympathy, Hardy continued: “Though to be candid, I think the death of a child is never really to be regretted, when one reflects on what he has escaped.”

As much as anything he wrote before or after, this terse and insensitive remark consolidated Hardy’s reputation as a pessimist who viewed the world as “a blighted star” and human life as shot through with cruelty. His late novels divided families, readers, and critics. After reading Tess, Robert Louis Stevenson’s verdict on the book was, in his own words, “spewed from my mouth”.

Four years later, the Bishop of Wakefield was so incensed by Hardy’s relentlessly bleak novel Jude the Obscure that he threw the book on the fire and persuaded W. H. Smith to remove it from their circulating library. Unmoved by this ecclesiastical censure, the public devoured the tale: within three months of publication, it had sold 20,000 copies.

 

ACCOUNTING for Hardy’s belief in a malign or indifferent universe is one of the many paradoxes that his life presents. He was a socialist of the champagne variety who eventually became rich and famous, travelled extensively, and enjoyed the delights and diversions that London and Paris had to offer.

He was a driven, inattentive husband, locked in a childless and silently decaying marriage, who, after his first wife’s death, produced astonishing poems of love and regret, regarded by his recent biographer, Claire Tomalin, as “among the most original elegies ever written”.

Hardy was a believer and an unbeliever. An intermittent churchgoer throughout his life, he was well versed in the Prayer Book and the Psalms. He “cherished the memory of belief”: the old parish rituals that endured through the flux of time; the “afternoons of drowsy calm . . . while we stood psalming there”. In his youth, he contemplated the possibility of taking Holy Orders: a step too far, as he came to realise, and reserved for a quite different class of gentlemen.

Still eager to learn, and studying Greek in his spare time, he was influenced by the new thinking of radical philosophers and reformers such as Comte and Mill. Science engaged him, as did Darwin’s revolutionary On the Origin of Species. Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach”, with its poignant and melancholy evocation of a world of a faith which was passing away, reflected Hardy’s own loss of religious certainties.

On his deathbed, in the darkness of midwinter, he requested that the story of Christ’s nativity should be read to him. Afterwards, he pointed out that there was no evidence to support its veracity.

 

HARDY’s own birth, in 1840, was a distressing affair. He was so lifeless and tiny that the midwife thought that he was dead, and certainly did not expect him to survive. In early childhood, he remained physically frail, and had a tendency towards solitude and a desire not to grow up. At 12, alongside his love of dancing, music, and books, he developed a passion for languages and bought himself a Latin primer. Although he grew stronger, he endured bouts of depression which, in later years, caused him to go to bed “wishing to never see daylight again”.

His childhood represents one possible source of his conflicted inner self. Although he was loved by his parents, they had been forced into marriage reluctantly, six months before his birth. His mother was intelligent and ambitious; she did not believe in marriage, and had entertained thoughts of a future other than the obscurity of rural domesticity.

Looking back, it is feasible that Hardy came to see himself as both an unwanted child and an impediment to his mother’s hopes of a more exciting and stimulating life elsewhere.

What is clear is the impact of failure and humiliation on his life before his talent was eventually recognised and rewarded. Along the way, he struggled with the rejection of manuscripts; the demand that they be revised or cut, to avoid giving offence to prudish readers; the scorn and small-mindedness of reviewers and critics; and the sense, sometimes overwhelming, that — like the anguished and unforgettable characters of his tragic stories — he was for ever barred from advancement by a rigid class system, and the suffocating morality of his superiors.

He never forgot the limitations of his humble beginnings, and the years apprenticed to architects, when, all the time, he wanted to write — and did so often in dingy lodgings, beyond midnight. Many of his poems revisit the griefs and hurts of the past. The pain that they inflicted was never quite healed.

But Hardy’s wounds were largely concealed from his public. He rejected his reputation for pessimism, insisting that he was a realist with an unflinching eye for life’s many ironies. Visitors found him, in advanced old age, affable and vigorous, still writing every day and continuing to read widely.

To the end, he remained the ambivalent unbeliever, leaning on a coppice gate and hearing, in the sound of an ageing thrush, “some blessed hope, whereof he knew, and I was unaware”. And, in his most celebrated poem, “The Oxen” — published in The Times in 1915, when he was 75 — he still yearned, as in the days of his childhood, to go to the crib on Christmas Eve and see the oxen kneel, “hoping it might be so”.

 

Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian.

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