Thomas Hardy's life could have made a novel: a poor provincial boy rises to unthinkable eminence by dint of talent and sheer hardwork, overcoming every obstacle placed in his way. But people havestopped writing novels like that, and one of the reasons is Thomas Hardy. Hardy changed his life by changing the way novels werewritten, discarding their familiar patterns and their reflexive optimism. He is the father of some of English modernism's mostradical discoveries, and the grandfather, through Faulkner, of muchof what has mattered in global fiction since World War II. Andthen, well into his fifties and at the peak of his success, he gaveup writing fiction altogether, launching the most improbable majorcareer in English poetry. Divided between two genres, his careerwas also divided between two centuries, and fittingly so, since hiswork is everywhere marked by the transition from the Victorian tothe modern age—from faith to skepticism, from prudery to frankness, from belief in progress to despair before an indifferent universe. Indeed, his imaginative power and his iron clarity wereinstrumental in bringing that transition about. Hardy belonged tothe generation that grappled with the death of God before it had hardened into its own easy orthodoxy. The boy born into rural Dorset in the first years of Queen Victoria's reign is still in many ways more modern than we are.
Claire Tomalin's new biography gets in pretty much everything that matters about Hardy's story and does it with impressive economy,wit, and grace. Tomalin, the author of seven previous biographies,including lives of Jane Austen and Samuel Pepys, is building hereon the work of Michael Millgate, the dean of Hardy studies. Millgate's biography, recently republished in a revised edition,will remain the scholarly standard; but Tomalin does so much sowell precisely because she does not try to supplant Millgate, thus relieving herself of the obligation to be comprehensive. Millgate marches chronologically through the details of Hardy's life,whereas Tomalin permits herself to step back and appraise wholeperiods at once, giving a stronger sense of its larger movements.Her lifetime of work in the nineteenth century enables her to evoke conditions and contexts—what London smelled like, what itsliterary world felt like—with a swift hand. Her lifetime of writing biographies gives her the imaginative power to draw scenes colorfully and intuit motives convincingly. Details are cunningly chosen; important ancillary characters get mini-biographies oftheir own. Tomalin's style is simple, terse, and at times even grand, with flashes of humor and mordant wit. Her biography is poetry to Millgate's prose, but if Hardy's own poetry, as Pound said, was made possible by his prose, Tomalin's was made possible by Millgate's.
THE DOMINANT SOCIAL FACT of the world into which Hardy was born was class, and it remained in many ways the dominant social fact of his entire life. In the Dorset of 1840, the year of his birth, the traditional structure of rural society was still largely intact. In Tomalin's words, this remote and backward county remained a place where "those who owned the land and those who worked it were hardlythought of as belonging to the same species." Hardy's family was poor, but they were not indigent, a distinction of enormous importance both to them and to him—as was every one of the infinitesimal gradations of the English class system, to everyone. Not long before Hardy's birth, a local boy, hanged for merely witnessing an act of political vandalism, had to have weights hung from his half-starved body to force his neck to break. But Hardy's father was a self-employed builder—a step above the laborers, a step below the farmers, a whole Jacob's ladder below the gentry.
Still, if the class system in Dorset remained largely untouched by modernity, it had begun to relax just enough to allow Hardy's formidably strong-willed mother to dream of a better life for her bright, sensitive, bookish son. It was she who insisted that he get an education. By sixteen, he was apprentice to an architect in the nearby town of Dorchester—and finding himself the target of a sermon back home in which the local vicar preached against the presumption of members of the lower orders who aspired to join the professions. It was a slight that Hardy never forgot, and he went on to make novel after novel out of the drama of thwarted ambition.The opportunity for self-improvement made Hardy's life possible,but the resistance that he encountered gave it its texture. His career, his art, his consciousness— all are unthinkable outsidethe context of an entrenched class system that had begun to give ground, but only an inch at a time.
As with many self-made men, the amount of effort that went into Hardy's self- creation is enough to make one weep. He never intended to become an architect; architecture was just a way toearn a living until he could pursue his true passion, poetry. His plan was to go to university, find a living as a parson, and writein his hours of leisure, as many clergymen did. But he as yet had nothing like the education, nor his father anything like the money,that would have made university possible. So he kept swotting away on his own, as Jude Fawley was to do in his last novel: at his books by 5 a.m. to get in three hours of reading before heading off on the long daily walk to Dorchester, adding Greek to his continuing study of Latin.