At home in his socks - Thomas Hardy

Some 30 years ago Claire Tomalin reviewed Robert Gittings's landmark biography of Thomas Hardy. This established the familiar glooming outline of the great Wessex writer we still know and, with some anxious reservations, still love. Here was the sensitive novelist who turned out to be a neglectful husband; the tender confessional poet who cunningly "falsified" his own biography; the twinkling public man who notoriously believed in a malignant universe. "The biographer's problem with Hardy," Tomalin wrote, "is how to relate this dry, defensive man to the diffident but super-responsive presence felt in the poems and novels." There has been a great deal of scholarly work since Gittings, notably Michael Millgate's fine edition of the Letters, recent studies by Paul Turner (1998) and Ralph Pite's The Guarded Life (2006).

But there is a sense in which the problem, the deep divided mystery of Hardy, remains. One is fascinated to see if Tomalin, who wonderfully "saved" Samuel Pepys's rackety reputation in her recent prize-winning biography, can work the same magic for Hardy. It is intriguing that her subtitle - The Time-torn Man - comes from a Hardy love-poem, where the full line reads: "Once you, a woman, came to soothe a time-torn man."

Tomalin's skilful handling of narrative time announces both her originality and her immense experience as a biographer. It is subtly shaped away from conventional "plodding" chronology (as Virginia Woolf once mocked it). She opens not with Hardy's birth in 1840, but with the death of poor, neglected Emma Hardy in 1912, and the startling declaration: "This is the moment when Thomas Hardy became a great poet."

The intensely upsetting scene that follows - the body heaved down from the attic, the coffin placed at the foot of Hardy's bed for three days - is used to show the sudden astonishing release of Hardy's great elegies for Emma in the Poems of 1912-13, which are compared to Milton's Lycidas. From then on it is clear that Hardy's poetry and his marriage will be used to transform the familiar story.

The exact nature of that marriage is one of the most notorious problems in 19th-century biography, more fraught than Carlyle's, more anguished than Dickens's. No love letters remain between Emma and Hardy, except two fragments copied by Hardy into his notebooks. In one she wrote prophetically "Your novel seems sometimes like a child, your own and none of me." Otherwise there are no letters at all from Emma before 1890, when she was 50 years old and the marriage was already deeply in trouble. There are none because she burnt them all in the garden at Max Gate.

Most earlier biographers here suffer from prolepsis - anticipation: the marriage was doomed from the start. Yet Tomalin produces an unforgettably fresh and vivid chapter about their first meetings in Cornwall, entitled "Lyonnesse" (after his famous, chant-like poem). Her exuberant presentation of Emma, with her mass of golden hair, her horse-riding along the dangerous edge of Beeny Cliff, the tender walks and the seductive picnics, brilliantly establishes the lasting power of the romance for Hardy which illuminates the whole biography.

She boldly describes Hardy's erotic drawing of Emma on all fours searching for their lost picnic wine-glass in the waterfall. "She is deliciously dressed, hatted and curled, with her bottom sticking up, her sleeves rolled and her breasts clearly outlined."

She gives barometric care to tracing the fluctuating emotional rhythms between writer and wife. "The shifting feelings in a marriage ... are as complex and unpredictable as cloud formations." No other biographer has done this so well. Tomalin enters deeply into the marital weather, does not take sides, but feels from the inside. When fame comes after 1880, and the marriage slowly begins to fall apart, Tomalin recognises the pain on both sides. You can almost feel her struggling to keep them together. "He preferred silence to quarrels, which might have cleared the air and sent them into each other's arms."

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