Thomas Hardy

By Morgan, Rosemarie | Victorian Poetry, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Thomas Hardy


Morgan, Rosemarie, Victorian Poetry


Hardy had his own ideas about reception theory and was well aware that readers contribute to the production of meaning in a text, that their responses are conditioned by the interplay of literary textual elements and their own culturally determined expectations. But how assured was he of what later came to be called aesthetic distance, that the reception of a literary work evolves from generation to generation, often acquiring, in the process, bright new horizons and accruing to the literary text constellations of reconfigured forms? Despite his deep despondency following the (oftentimes) harsh critical reception of his novels Hardy does appear to have had some faith in aesthetic distance, in the changing attitudes of his reading public, once telling his feminist friend, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, that "we are educating them by degrees." On the other hand, her own unchanging attitudes in the face of his more radical ideas must have dispirited him. In their discussion on votes for women, he explains that he is in favor of enfranchisement because the tendency of the vote will be--he thinks--

   to break up the present pernicious conventions in respect of
   manners, customs, religion, illegitimacy, the stereotyped household
   (that it must be the unit of society), the father of a woman's
   child (that it is anybody's business but the woman's own, except in
   cases of disease or insanity), sport (that so-called educated men
   should be encouraged to harass & kill for pleasure feeble creatures
   by mean stratagems), slaughter-houses (that they should be dark
   dens of cruelty), & other matters which I got into hot water for
   touching on many years ago. (Letters, 3:239)

Fawcett evidently feels that "hot water" is just what she will get into if she publishes this viewpoint of Hardy's; or, as she tells him, apologetically, she fears "John Bull is not ripe for it at present."

Would that Hardy could have stepped into the twenty-first century and heard for himself the ideas presented at The Thomas Hardy Association's "Hardy at Yale" conference (June 2007) which actively demonstrated that "John Bull" is now very ripe indeed. Among the sixty-odd thought-provoking topics as contrasting as "The Humane Movement and Hardy's Poetry" and "Hardy's Progressive Conception of the Female Subject," or "Hardy's Landscapes of Desire and the Poems of 1912-1913," and "Hardy and the Science of Language," there was nothing to suggest that John Bull or Uncle Sam or the Yale Bulldog or, indeed, any representative, iconic or otherwise, of modern culture, was less than ripe and ready for the breaking up of "pernicious conventions in respect of manners, customs, religion" et al.

When Hardy abandoned the novel and gained renown as a poet his imaginative prose works benefited, retroactively, from the association and began to take on broader dimensions. In effect there was a symbiosis, for his first published volume of verse, entitled Wessex Poems and other Verses, (1898) also benefited, by association, from the microcosmic Wessex universe of his fiction. By the late 1890s "Wessex" was imprinted on the public imagination as an exemplary pastoral icon: the arrival, in the bookstores, of Wessex Poems, would have presented a familiar face, at first sight--undoubtedly a felicitous presentation given the psychological advantages of recognition, albeit momentary, for Wessex Poems would broaden the horizons of Wessex rather than remain within its established boundaries.

Simultaneously, with their passage through translation into foreign languages, the novels began to encompass a wider conceptual sphere. A prime example is to be found in the translation of Jude into German. This gave occasion for one German reviewer to describe Sue Bridehead as "the first delineation in fiction of the woman who was coming into notice in her thousands every year--the woman of the feminist movement--... the intellectualized, emancipated bundle of nerves that modern conditions were producing. …

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