Thomas Hardy, Alice Munro, and the Question of Influence

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Near the beginning of Alice Munro's "Carried Away," from her 1994 collection, Open Secrets, a soldier writes a letter to the town librarian, Louisa, asking her to write and send a photograph. In her reply Louisa writes: "I had a great deal of time to read and my favorite authors are Thomas Hardy, who is accused of being gloomy but I think is very true to life--and Willa Cather" (6). Ildiko de Papp Carrington picks up on the idea of Victorian writer Thomas Hardy's gloom and how it relates to Munro's story in "What's in a Title?", writing that Munro "suggests the nature of her plot by a self-reflexive allusion to Thomas Hardy"; accidents are a major source of gloominess in Hardy's writing (556). Carrington finds a second connection between the two writers by identifying the Tolpuddle Martyrs, mentioned near the end of Munro's story, as a group who were transported from Hardy's part of England to Munro's part of Canada for their role in labor unrest (559). Carrington, however, overlooks the implication of the phrase "very true to life": Munro's Louisa considers Hardy's writing "very true to life" because her life is a variation on the life of Ella Marchmill, a character created by Thomas Hardy. Munro's allusion to Hardy evokes not only Hardy's use of accidents and the Dorset connections with the Tolpuddle Martyrs that Carrington notes, but also points to a particular story by Hardy: the story Munro tells in "Carried Away" is remarkably like the one Hardy tells in "An Imaginative Woman," published in April 1894 in the Pall Mall Magazine.(1) Studying specific borrowings from "An Imaginative Woman" in "Carried Away" reveals Munro's conversation with Hardy in one story. Looking at the more general kinship of vision between Munro and her British predecessor helps place her work in the British literary tradition while clarifying some of the distinctively contemporary and Canadian aspects of her art.

Hardy's "An Imaginative Woman" introduces the reader to Ella Marchmill, wife of a thriving industrialist and mother of three children, vacationing with her family at Solentsea in Upper Wessex. She finds that her room has just been vacated by a poet she has admired, and with whom she feels a coincidental connection: one of her poems appeared in conjunction with one of his in a magazine. Left much alone (the children are cared for by servants and her husband pursues an active vacation style that does not include her), she imagines more and more connection between herself and the elusive poet she longs to know personally; however, through various accidents, Ella misses meeting him each time their paths nearly cross. In a muted Victorian bedroom scene, Ella and her husband procreate their fourth child, with the photo of the object of her fantasies under the pillow. She begins a correspondence with the poet under her pen name, John Ivy. The poet, despondent over harsh critical reviews and the lack of a woman to love him (ironically, since he believes Ella to be a man), commits suicide; Ella dies after childbirth. Her husband comes to believe the fourth child to be the poet's, which the narrator explains in terms which impart a sense of folk superstition or perhaps the supernatural to the reader: "By a known but inexplicable trick of Nature there were undoubtedly strong traces of resemblance to the man Ella had never seen; the dreamy and peculiar expression of the poet's face sat, as the transmitted idea, upon the child's, and the hair was of the same hue" (330).(2)

Munro's story builds on Hardy's story. Some of the changes Munro introduces reflect the more recent timeframe of her story. For example, whereas Hardy's nineteenth century heroine depends on her husband economically, Munro's more contemporary heroine has a job that makes her financially independent. Yet the two stories share the tale of a love affair carried on in the mind of a sensitive woman contrasted with the woman's actual marriage to a manufacturer. Both stories privilege writing and imaginative closeness over physical contact. …