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Hardy: A Biography

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Author: Martin Seymour-Smith
Genre: Biographies & Memoirs
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Date Published: 1004
1 review about Hardy: A Biography

Hardy: A Life by letters

  • Nov 10, 2010
  • by
If you run out of door stops, this 885-page heavyweight will stand in nicely. Although Seymour-Smith assumes that only readers of all Hardy's books will read his biography, I have only read Tess (and seen the excellent Polanski movie, and named our first daughter after her), but was still attracted to this biography by the back-cover blurp calling it "the greatest biography of the twentieth century."

Well, with praise like this, it must be something. It is something dense, and not quite as alive as I'd hoped based on the praise. Seymour-Smith is very knowledgeable about the subject of Hardy's life and his literature, and in fact tells the story of his life primarily through his literature, proceeding from book to book, with capsule literary critiques of each (along with Hardy's response to his contemporary critics). It really is a life by letters, which perhaps tells us more about the letters than the life.

Which is perhaps the way Hardy would have wanted it. He was a solitary man, not given much to socializing, who was apprenticed to be an architect, and served in the profession for a few years as a young man as he struggled to achieve a career in his first love--poetry. Finding the opportunities for paying jobs in that field few, he turned to prose to make some money in the literary field as the man of letters he saw himself to be--and turned out some of the most critically-acclaimed novels in the English language--in addition to Tess, Jude the Obscure, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Return of the Native, and Far from the Madding Crowd have provided the meat of college English-lit curriculum since. Not always immediately popular, and often critically panned for his "immoral" content, Hardy was none-the-less a "serious" writer--and knew the expectation that tag placed on him: "As Hardy knew full well, the 'serious popular' novel had, paradoxically to possess the readability of the junk novel." (p. 216) Which raises the question, since it must be just as readable as the best-seller dwellers, of what distinguishes the "serious" novel? In Hardy's mind, it was that commitment to telling the story truthfully, even if it violated the moral standards of the Victorian era in which he wrote. So he tantalizingly subtitled Tess "A Pure Woman"--by which Hardy, as Seymour-Smith points out, may have been meant not in the sense of moral purity, but of unalloyed womanhood, in which sense Tess acted, through the tragedies of her life, as all women "purely woman" would have acted.

Hardy's religious beliefs also grated on the Victorian nerve. Although a lifelong churchgoer, as a mature man Hardy questioned tenets of faith, and sometimes declared himself agnostic. Seymour-Smith quotes from a letter: "To think of life passing away is a sadness; to think of it as past is at least tolerable:" (p. 397) a sentiment that would violate Victorian principles of religiosity and optimism, but sound, from my stage of life, like a reasonable response to the struggles of a hard day.

As a writer, Hardy worked always to be his own man--beyond the reach of critics and financially independent so that he could return to his real calling, which was still poetry.

"If I print them [the poems] I know exactly what will be said about them: 'you hold opinions which we don't hold: Therefore shut up.' Not that there are any opinions in the verses; but the English reviewers go behind the book & review the man." (p. 632).

As it appears in these quotes, Hardy could be gloomy, and prickly, but Seymour-Smith also tells of a satisfied man with a long and full life. The biography is at its most sympathetic in telling of Hardy's domestic situation--his long marriage to first wife Emma, his attempted dalliance in middle age, and his second but less-happy marriage to his late wife's secretary. Note that both Hardy's dalliance and his second wife would be named Florence but are not the same woman, a point that Seymour-Smith doesn't make clear for quite a while and left me confusedly assuming they were the same woman.

In the end, the biography, while worthy, left me just a little flat and wishing for more life than letteres. Worth the commitment for Hardy fans, but not for casual readers.

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