"A Good Horror Has Its Place in Art": Hardy's Gothic Strategy in Tess of the d'Urbervilles

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Thomas Hardy's enduring fascination with things loosely defined as "Gothic"--ruins, graveyards, ghosts, corpses, curses, ancient pagan rituals, and psychic phenomena (1)--is among the most intriguing yet least appreciated aspects of his life and art. As a boy, Hardy relished William Harrison Ainsworth's Old Saint Paul's (1841), a Gothic romance featuring a disguised noblewoman, a pair of grave robbers, and a seduced heroine who is first duped into a false marriage by a villainous aristocrat and then dies of the plague. The mature Hardy declared Ainsworth's shamelessly sensational novel to be "the most powerful literary influence of his boyhood" (Gittings, 200). As an adult, Hardy evinced a deep interest in the supernatural, the macabre, and the grotesque that shadowed both his reading and his writing. The former includes Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751), Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), and Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables (1851), (2) while the latter encompasses not only a large corpus of Gothic short stories but also Desperate Remedies (1871), a work that may be described as a "mixture of the sensation-novel [...] and the older form of Gothic romance" (Gittings, 200) whose "effects of melodramatic horror, especially those derived from the situations of physically or psychologically threatened heroines," (Millgate, 117) hark back to Collins's The Woman in White (1860).

While some reviewers in Hardy's own time were genuinely disturbed by the darker elements of his fiction, (3) contemporary critics typically view these features with condescension and seek to marginalize them. Drawing a firm distinction in Hardy's writing between "hard truth and wild Gothic poetry," David Cecil argues that in "his greatest work this streak of the grotesque does not dominate his imagination. The other strain in it, the sincere, truthful strain, keeps it in check" (56, 53-4). Likewise, Samuel Chew deplores Hardy's "sensationalism" and claims that "[s]uch [sensational] scenes are admissible in novels of another sort, but in general they are out of accord with the austere control exhibited by Hardy in other respects" (116-17). Even James Scott, a self-styled apologist for Hardy's use of the macabre, limits himself to "identifying the Gothic elements in Hardy's minor fiction" (364) and carefully qualifies his appreciation for Hardyan Gothic. "When Hardy too sedulously adheres to the precedent of the Gothic romances," Scott observes, "his perception is dulled and his imagination revels in a superfluity of incidents, which remain trivial even though they are exciting and captivating" (377). Among those few who have explored Hardy's Gothic sensibility, only Brigitte Hervoche-Bertho maintains that "[t]he Gothic is indeed a vital part of Hardy's artistic vision" (4) throughout his oeuvre.

Hardy would have had difficulty recognizing himself in the portrait most scholars paint of a novelist whose essentially realistic vision of life occasionally loses focus and degenerates into Gothic myopia. The author, who considered novel-writing to be a species of sorcery and imagined himself as a spellbinding Ancient Mariner-like figure (Florence E. Hardy, The Later Years, 15-16), summed up his feelings on the fantastic in 1901: "My interest lies largely in non-rationalistic subjects, since non-rationality seems [...] to be the principle of the Universe" (The Life, 309). This is the Hardy for whom I want to argue--the Hardy who believed that "[a] story dealing with the supernatural should never be explained away in the unfortunate manner of Mrs. Radcliffe" (Thomas Hardy, The Supernatural Tales, 2), the Hardy who, in defense of the grotesqueries of "Barbara of the House of Grebe," invoked Matthew Lewis's The Monk (1796) and declared in the Pall Mall Gazette that "[a] good horror has its place in art" (qtd. in Millgate, 316). Contrary to critical consensus, I believe the Gothic elements in Hardy's major novels are neither superfluous nor simplistic. …