NBCC Awards Finalists in Biography: Claire Tomalin’s “Thomas Hardy”


This is the eleventh in a series of blog posts by NBCC board members covering the finalists for the NBCC awards. The awards will be announced on March 6, 2008, at the New School.

Claire Tomalin,“Thomas Hardy,” Penguin Press.

For “Thomas Hardy,” the master biographer Claire Tomalin chose as her subject a writer whose life and work embodied the tumult and conflict of 19th and early 20th century English life. 

The son of lower-class parents, Hardy rose to the pinnacle of British arts & letterdom—his remains are buried in Westminster Abbey. He wrote pessimistic stories that consigned many of his characters to hopelessness and ruination; these same novels enthralled the English public for their lyrical evocation of a vanishing rural England.  Hardy was an atheist, but possessed an almost religious veneration for the Dorset countryside of his childhood. An acclaimed novelist, he considered himself primarily a poet. He fell out of love with his first wife, but after she died he spent the rest of his life commemorating their love in his poetry. Author of lit class staples “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” “Far from the Madding Crowd,” “Return of the Native,” and “Jude the Obscure,” Hardy was born in 1840 in a Dorset village with the Monty Pythonesque name of Higher Bockhampton. His father was a builder; his mother a domestic servant. His mother arranged an education for her son that lifted him out and away of village life, but Hardy remained steeped in the folkways and natural beauty of Dorset. His unparalleled feel for the Dorset countryside is what impelled many English readers to stay with him, even as they gasped at the grim audacity of his plots.

Hardy became an architect, working (ironically, given his later falling out with religion) on church restorations. On one trip to restore a village church in Cornwall, he met his future wife Emma. They courted for four years and finally married, without his parents’ permission and Emma’s relative’s approval.As a young writer, Hardy had to pay to have his first novel published, but soon editors of periodicals were seeking him out; he allowed his novels to be serialized (and to some extent bowdlerized) in periodicals, but he always worked to restore his original vision when the novels were published as volumes. As his career blossomed, his relationship with his wife withered. Emma, estranged from her own and her husband’s family, childless and trapped in the conventions demanded of a Victorian lady, became eccentric, judgmental and embarrassing to Hardy’s ambitions.

Why were Hardy’s naturalistic novels embraced by the reading public? Tomalin writes that reading “Jude the Obscure,” in which the title character’s children hang themselves, is “like being hit in the face over and over again.”  The critic Adam Kirsch, in a review of “Thomas Hardy” in The New Yorker, speculates that part of Hardy’s appeal was the English reading public’s yearning for their vanishing past. “By the end of Hardy’s long life, many of these ways—the folk magic, the bawdy parades,the ballads,the harvest-home dinners—had disappeared. When ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ was published, the reviewer for the Spectator recognized that Hardy was writing about a world from which his readers were already exiled: ‘A book like this is, in relation to many of the scenes it describes, the nearest equivalent to actual experience which a great many of us are ever likely to boast of.’”

Emma and Hardy became almost completely estranged, living in separate rooms in the same house. But after her death he mourned her and their love through poetry and abandoned the novel form. Kirsch notes that his best work, even in novels, always possessed a poetic sensibility: “What one remembers is not dialogue or the evolution of a character but brilliantly orchestrated scenes, detached and nearly emblematic in their simplicity.”

Hardy lived into his late 80s, and wrote “terrific” poetry until almost the very end , Tomalin writes. Here’s a poem Hardy authored late in life, the eerie “Night-Time in Mid-Fall” in which, Tomalin writes, “conditions resemble a storm scene in Shakespeare:”

The streams are muddy and swollen; eels migrate
          To a new abode
Even cross, ‘tis said, the turnpike-road;
(Men’s feet have felt their crawl, home-coming late):
The westward fronts of towers are saturate,
Church-timbers crack, and witches ride abroad.

Tomalin’s achievement is her sensitive weaving together of the life of the man and the work of the writer, writes Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post: “What matters most about Tomalin’s biography is the care with which she traces all of Hardy’s writing to its roots in his own life. Her study reminds us that though a knowledge of a writer’s life is unnecessary to an appreciation of his or her work, that knowledge can help us understand that work and its sources.”

—Mary Ann Gwinn Seattle Times book editor, NBCC board member

Adam Kirsch’s review of “Thomas Hardy” by Claire Tomalin in the New Yorker.

Jomathan Yardley’s review in the Washington Post.