Making Much of Thomas Hardy's Well-Beloved [Thomas Hardy, Claire Tomalin, Penguin, 486 pages]
THE POSTHUMOUS reputation of the English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) has continued to grow since his death almost 80 years ago. Nowadays, the author of Far from the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure is in the popular view a bona fide Victorian G.O.M. (Grand Old Man) right up there with Dickens and Thackeray. Meanwhile, to the cognoscenti and literary critics who still look down their noses a bit at the novels, he is known as the first great poet of the 20th century and, if the late Donald Davie is to be believed, the most influential of them all.
According to Claire Tomalin, the central event in Thomas Hardy's life was the death of his first wife, the former Emma Gifford, in November 1912: "This is the moment when Thomas Hardy became a great poet." Hardy was 72 years old at the time and already celebrated throughout the English-speaking world as both a novelist and a poet, and yet, in Tomalin's reading, "it was the death of Emma that proved to be his best inspiration."
This is not an observation that is original to her, but in her new biography, Thomas Hardy, she is determined to make more of it than anyone else has. As a result, her book is more a biography of a marriage than a man - as were her earlier accounts of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, Dora Jordan and King William IV, and Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens.
The trouble is that she has little to work with-except, of course, for the "Poems of 1912-13," about which she has some interesting things to say. But even these works that were written around the time of Emma's death don't have much to tell us about the marriage. The marriage has even less to tell us about the poems.
Like most married couples of the Victorian era, Thomas and Emma did not talk or write about their relationship, even to intimates, and poor Miss Tomalin is reduced to picking up what she can from a stray remark or, often, what was not found where it would be expected. Tomalin's interpretation often seems strained. Of Emma's diary of their honeymoon trip to Paris, for instance, she writes: "Emma was a naïve diarist, responsive to what she saw and fluent in a scatter-brained way. She makes you smile, sympathetically ... but from our point of view she fails to.seize her great opportunity-she might have been honeymooning with anyone, Hardy's presence being barely mentioned."
How inconsiderate of Emma not to have thought, in the course of observing French manners in the 1870s, of the difficulties her reticence about her marriage would cause her husband's biographer in the next century. Just look at what it makes her do when she comes to the point of having to describe the wedding:
[I]f Emma looked beautiful with the soft, sunny light on her wedding dress, if she even wore a special dress, these things went unrecorded. Their happiness at being together at last after four and a half years of being in love and apart must be assumed. ... Whether both of them, having defied their parents, had regretful thoughts for them on the day, and whether lovemaking, at last licensed, was awkward for them, as for most newly married innocents, we shall never know.
Indeed! Her guesses on the matter are, presumably, as good as mine. My heart goes out to her in her struggles with the mystery of the Hardys' marital intimacy. For instance, she tells us that 1899 was the year when the bicycle journeys Emma shared with "Tom" must have brought them closer together than ever. One long ride in August of that year "suggests camaraderie and shared enjoyment." But then on the same page, 1899 is mentioned as the year when Emma moved into her own bedroom in the attic.
At any rate, it's pretty hard for her to convince the reader that her scenes of bicycle rides offer many insights on the great poet. …