‘The reason why so few good books are written is that so few people that can write know anything.’ So said a man who, during a busy career, found time to add several fine volumes to the scanty number of good books. And in a vivacious paragraph which follows this initial sentence he humorously anathematizes the literary life. He shows convincingly that ‘secluded habits do not tend to eloquence.’ He says that the ‘indifferent apathy’ so common among studious persons is by no means favorable to liveliness of narration. He proves that men who will not live cannot write; that people who shut themselves up in libraries have dry brains. He avows his confidence in the ‘original way of writing books,’ the way of the first author, who must have looked at things for himself, ‘since there were no books for him to copy from;’ and he challenges the reader to prove that this original way is not the best way. ‘Where,’ he asks, ‘are the amusing books from voracious students and habitual writers?’
This startling arraignment of authors has been made by other men than Walter Bagehot. Hazlitt in his essay on the ‘Ignorance of the Learned’ teaches much the same doctrine. Its general truth is indisputable, though Bagehot himself makes exception in favor of Sir Walter Scott. But the two famous critics are united in their conviction that learned people are generally dull, and that books which are the work of habitual writers are not amusing.
There are as a matter of course more exceptions than one. Thomas Hardy is a distinguished exception. Thomas Hardy is an ‘habitual writer,’ but he is always amusing. The following paragraphs are intended to emphasize certain causes of this quality in his work, the quality by virtue of which he chains the attention and proves himself the most readable novelist now living. That he does attract and hold is clear to any one who has tried no more than a half-dozen pages from one of his best stories. He has the fatal habit of being interesting,—fatal because it robs you who read him of time which you might else have devoted to ‘improving’ literature, such as history, political economy, or light science. He destroys your peace of mind by compelling your sympathies in behalf of people who never existed. He undermines your will power and makes you his slave. You declare that you will read but one more chapter and you weakly consent to make it two chapters. As a special indulgence you spoil a working day in order to learn about the Return of the Native, perhaps agreeing with a supposititious ‘better self’ that you will waste no more time on novels for the next six months. But you are of ascetic fibre indeed if you do not follow up the book with a reading of The Woodlanders and The Mayor of Casterbridge.
There is a reason for this. If the practiced writer often fails to make a good book because he knows nothing, Mr. Hardy must succeed in large part because he knows so much. The more one reads him the more is one impressed with the extent of his knowledge. He has an intimate acquaintance with an immense number of interesting things.
He knows men and women—if not all sorts and all conditions, at least a great many varieties of the human animal. Moreover, his men are men and his women are women. He does not use them as figures to accentuate a landscape, or as ventriloquist’s puppets to draw away attention from the fact that he himself is doing all the talking. His people have individuality, power of speech, power of motion. He does not tell you that such a one is clever or witty; the character which he has created does that for himself by doing clever things and making witty remarks. In an excellent story by a celebrated modern master there is a young lady who is declared to be clever and brilliant. Out of forty or fifty observations which she makes, the most extraordinary concerns her father; she says, ‘Isn’t dear papa delightful?’ At another time she inquires whether another gentleman is not also delightful. Hardy’s resources are not so meagre as this. When his people talk we listen,—we do not endure.
He knows other things besides men and women. He knows the soil, the trees, the sky, the sunsets, the infinite variations of the landscape under cloud and sunshine. He knows horses, sheep, cows, dogs, cats. He understands the interpretation of sounds,—a detail which few novelists comprehend or treat with accuracy; the pages of his books ring with the noises of house, street, and country. Moreover there is nothing conventional in his transcript of facts. There is no evidence that he has been in the least degree influenced by other men’s minds. He takes the raw stuff of which novels are made and moulds it as he will. He has an absolutely fresh eye, as painters sometimes say. He looks on life as if he were the first literary man, ‘and none had ever lived before him.’ Paraphrasing Ruskin, one may say of Hardy that in place of studying the old masters he has studied what the old masters studied. But his point of view is his own. His pages are not reminiscent of other pages. He never makes you think of something you have read, but invariably of something you have seen or would like to see. He is an original writer, which means that he takes his material at first hand and eschews documents. There is considerable evidence that he has read books, but there is no reason for supposing that books have damaged him.
Dr. Farmer proved that Shakespeare had no ‘learning.’ One might perhaps demonstrate that Thomas Hardy is equally fortunate. In that case he and Shakespeare may felicitate one another. Though when we remember that in our day it is hardly possible to avoid a tincture of scholarship, we may be doing the fairer thing by these two men if we say that the one had small Greek and the other has adroitly concealed the measure of Greek, whether great or small, which is in his possession. To put the matter in another form, though Hardy may have drunk in large quantity ‘the spirit breathed from dead men to their kind,’ he has not allowed his potations to intoxicate him.
This paragraph is not likely to be misinterpreted unless by some honest soul who has yet to learn that ‘literature is not sworn testimony.’ Therefore it may be well to add that Mr. Hardy undoubtedly owns a collection of books, and has upon his shelves dictionaries and encyclopedias, together with a decent representation of those works which people call ‘standard.’ But it is of importance to remember this: That while he may be a well-read man, as the phrase goes, he is not and never has been of that class which Emerson describes with pale sarcasm as ‘meek young men in libraries.’ It is clear that Hardy has not ‘weakened his eyesight over books,’ and it is equally clear that he has ‘sharpened his eyesight on men and women.’ Let us consider a few of his virtues.