How Thomas Hardy became everyone’s favorite misanthrope

One Sunday morning in the middle of the nineteenth century, at a church in the Dorset village of Stinsford, a boy named Thomas Hardy had an experience that, more than sixty years later, he remembered as causing him “much mental distress.” As the boy watched the priest deliver the sermon, Hardy recalled in his autobiography, “some mischievous movement of his mind set him imagining that the vicar was preaching mockingly, and he began trying to trace a humorous twitch in the corners of Mr. S—’s mouth, as if he could hardly keep a serious countenance. Once having imagined this the impish boy found to his consternation that he could not dismiss the idea.”

 If the Reverend Arthur Shirley, whose name Hardy courteously omitted, had noticed his young parishioner’s amusement, he would not have recognized it for what it was: the first scratching of the seismograph that, within the boy’s lifetime, would register the death of God. Hardy’s “merriment,” as he quietly but unmistakably shows, was the product of his dawning sense that nobody, not even the priest, could possibly take the church service seriously. There seems to be a straight line, if not a short one, from Hardy’s “consternation” to the madness of the stranger who, in Nietzsche’s famous parable, barges into churches to sing a requiem: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?”

In another country, or with another temperament, the boy who laughed in church might have developed into a prophet who, like his German contemporary, went sneeringly without honor. But Thomas Hardy managed to spend a lifetime attacking and deriding the established values of Victorian England, only to end up as the establishment’s favorite writer. In 1895, when he published his great novel “Jude the Obscure,” with its punishing assault on conventional views of marriage, sex, and class, the newspapers reacted almost as furiously as they had to the trial of Oscar Wilde a few months earlier. “HARDY THE DEGENERATE,” ran the headline in the World; the Pall Mall Gazette went with the inevitable “JUDE THE OBSCENE.” Yet when he died, thirty-three years later—after embarking on a second career as a poet, and creating a body of work at least as important as his fiction—all was more than forgiven. Contrary to his own wishes, he was given a state funeral at Westminster Abbey, where his ten pallbearers included the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, and the heads of Cambridge and Oxford colleges, as well as Rudyard Kipling and A. E. Housman. But even then Hardy managed to elude the clutches of the great and the good: his body had already been cremated, and the coffin carried with such pomp contained nothing but a handful of ashes.

Not everyone was blind to the doubtful taste of giving such an outspoken atheist a Christian burial. Claire Tomalin, in the epilogue to her new biography, “Thomas Hardy” (Penguin; $35), quotes a letter that the beleaguered Dean of Westminster wrote to Hardy’s local vicar, R. G. Bartelot, after receiving “furious protests” against the burial, “on the ground that his teaching was antichristian.” Could Bartelot reassure the Dean of Hardy’s “essential Christianity”? He could. “At heart,” the vicar replied, he was “a Christian and a Churchman.” It makes you wonder whether either of these clergymen had ever opened one of Hardy’s books—for instance, his 1909 collection of poems, “Time’s Laughingstocks and Other Verses,” with its ode “To Sincerity”:

Life may be sad past saying, Its greens for ever graying, Its faiths to dust decaying; And youth may have foreknown it, And riper seasons shown it, But custom cries: “Disown it: “Say ye rejoice, though grieving, Believe, while unbelieving, Behold, without perceiving!”

Hardy knew his countrymen’s capacity for respectable self-delusion, for the kind of mendacity that considers God’s foe “essentially Christian.” Indeed, he was not so much interested in persuading honest believers to abandon their beliefs as in shaming an already agnostic century into admitting the depths of its uncertainty. His novels, and especially his poems, describe a world from which God has already absconded, and for good. Because this is still the world we inhabit today, he remains one of the most vital and relevant of English writers—more modern, in some ways, than the modernists who succeeded and disdained him.

No one who knew Hardy as a child in the tiny village of Higher Bockhampton suspected that he would grow up to be a writer, much less a great writer. For one thing, he did not belong to the class that almost always produced great writers in England—the professional or clerical middle class, which could afford to send its sons to university. According to tradition, the family name had been the more aristocratic “le Hardy” centuries before, and Hardys had once been notable landowners in Dorset. But, like the ancient d’Urbervilles, in “Tess,” who have degenerated into poor Durbeyfields, the Hardys had come down in the world. Hardy always took care to point out that his father and grandfather were not laborers but master masons, skilled craftsmen with employees of their own. Still, his father did business in a very small way, and his mother, Jemima, had been a domestic servant before she got pregnant and married in a hurry—the wedding took place just over five months before Thomas was born, on June 2, 1840. The Hardys were the kind of people that Jane Austen would never have allowed into her parlor.

Given this background, Hardy’s career could easily be read as a great Victorian success story, a parable of self-help in a functioning meritocracy. It is a story that Tomalin tells briskly and accessibly, though, as she acknowledges, it has been told many times before—most comprehensively by Michael Millgate, whose standard biography was reissued in an expanded edition in 2004. (It will be told again next month, when Yale publishes “Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life,” by Ralph Pite—a more literary alternative to Tomalin, who uses Hardy’s work mainly to illustrate his life.) The story was first told by Hardy himself, in two autobiographical volumes that were edited by his second wife, Florence, and published under her name. For most of the events of his early life, it is Hardy’s version that all biographers have to follow.

Tomalin, like Hardy, sees his mother as the most important influence on the withdrawn and bookish boy. Thanks to Jemima, who dominated her charming, unambitious, music-loving husband, Thomas was sent to the best school in the neighborhood, in the nearby county town of Dorchester. By the age of sixteen, he had received a grounding in Latin and mathematics—if not quite enough to qualify for admission to Oxford or Cambridge, which the family could not have afforded in any case. Instead, Jemima arranged to have her son apprenticed to a local architect. If she had her way, he would be not a mere builder, like his father, but a professional man.

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