Cramming for Success - Thomas Hardy

Human character, we know, changed on or about December 1910, but it had already changed on or about December 1863, when Baudelaire published his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’. In the course of writing about the journalist-illustrator Constantin Guys, Baudelaire leaves the salon and goes out into the street, away from art criticism to urban digression. He mentions Poe’s story, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, whose narrator, recovering from a recent illness, sits in a London café and watches the human traffic through the window. Artists are like convalescents, Baudelaire adds: nervously alert, grateful for the slightest detail, omnivorously curious. And the convalescent is like the child, who sees everything as if for the first time, drunk on novelty. Inspiration, Baudelaire continues, ‘has some connection with congestion’. Guys is such an eternal child, and the urban crowd is his domain: ‘he watches the flow of life move by, majestic and dazzling … He gazes at the landscape of the great city, landscapes of stone.’ From this, comes a further generalisation: ‘Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable.’

I was often put in mind of ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ while reading Mark Ford’s study of Thomas Hardy. Ford doesn’t mention it (though he does refer to Baudelaire’s flaneurial poems), perhaps because that manifesto is too obvious, or too obviously theoretical: he prefers to build his case patiently, historically, in solid empirical sediments, beginning and ending with biography, a form often maligned or ignored in academic criticism. But Ford realigns our sense of Hardy, moving him from Wessex fields to London streets, and offering a transformed writer: less the time-torn pastoral tragedian than a painter of modern life.

Baudelaire describes a specifically urban modernity – crowds, congestion, contingency – and suggests that a specifically urban artist will be needed as its analyst. Still, he claims with grandly vague precision that this is only ‘half’ of art; without the counterweight of ‘the eternal’, art may sign away its epic prestige, surrendering its totalising power to what Lukács would later lament as the ‘kaleidoscopic chaos’ of modern narrative impressionism. Ford’s Hardy combines in this way – if complicatedly – the eternal and the modern. The ‘half a Londoner’ he brings into relief is the young man who left his native Dorset for London in the 1860s, and who laboured, during the next two decades, to conquer the city. Even after his permanent return to country life in 1881, he and his wife spent several months a year in the capital, an arrangement that lasted more than two decades. Ford makes the convincing claim that London turned Hardy into ‘a modern type’ (a tag the novelist bestowed on Clym Yeobright in The Return of the Native); in city life he discovered ‘deracination, thwarted idealism, distrust of established religion, sexual anxiety (or indeed helplessness), a heightened sensitivity to the complexities of class privilege and to the ruthless depredations of the economic system’, sensitivities he passed on to many of his characters. (Grace Melbury, in The Woodlanders, combines ‘modern nerves with primitive emotions’.)

While Baudelaire’s ideal artist quickens to the crowded urban scene with detective-like avidity, Hardy was a somewhat reluctant painter of modern life, both drawn to city life and repelled by it. He couldn’t really imagine or bear the idea of congested London without the idea of his childhood landscape as release. Out of that pulsation, Ford argues, was born ‘the concept of Wessex’: the rural scene, eternal but eternally threatened by overweening urbanism, the pastoral redoubt far from the madding crowd, where Hardy could ‘know some liberty’, as he puts it in his poem ‘Wessex Heights’. Ford reminds us that in the maps of Wessex that Hardy drew and which were first included in the 1895-96 edition of his fiction, there are no railways, despite the many appearances of trains in his work: in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, ‘modern life’ is described as stretching out its ‘steam feeler to this point three or four times a day’ and quickly withdrawing, as if what it found there was ‘uncongenial’. Wessex was where Hardy could stage his feeling for cosmic conservatism; a late formulation appears in ‘In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”’, written in 1915, which pits the Continental catastrophe of the Great War against the longer histories of the English countryside, peopled by ‘a maid and her wight’: ‘War’s annals will cloud into night/Ere their story die.’ If Hardy was half a modern Londoner, the other half had a weakness for the pastoral-oracular. The two halves changed shape, feeding and modifying each other.

He first visited London as a small boy, in 1849, two years after the opening of the Dorchester to Southampton railway line. But the family’s relationship with the city went back to Hardy’s mother, who as a young servant in the household of the vicar of Stinsford had spent several months in London, where her employers decamped annually for the ‘season’. It is one of several breathtaking inversions in Hardy’s life: the eminent author made a habit in later life of spending the same period each year in the capital, where he would stay in areas like Kensington and Marylebone, and see his friends at the Savile Club. (Better still: when the Prince of Wales visited Max Gate in 1923, Hardy may have reflected with some complacency on the fact that he had bought the land on which his house was built from the prince’s grandfather.) Ford is alive to the long arc of Hardy’s class triumph, a journey which undulated with social anxieties and uncertainties. For instance, the city may have offered Hardy various possibilities of erotic fantasy, but his elderly infatuations were largely unrequited; and as if to ensure that such encounters would remain so, he tended to affix himself to married women of ‘superior social status’, as if, Ford suggests, understanding himself to be fulfilling his mother’s thwarted metropolitan ambitions.

During the 1860s and 1870s, he made several runs at that triumph. In 1862, as Hardy’s own account blazons it, he ‘started alone for London, to pursue the art and science of architecture on more advanced lines’. He took lodgings off the Kilburn High Road, where he lived for a year, before moving to Westbourne Park Villas, ‘a street parallel to the Great Western Railway line running west out of Paddington’. Though he was working in an architect’s office near Trafalgar Square (for a salary of £110 a year), he was really cramming for literary success. The new arrival took all the opportunities he could to educate himself: he read Mill, Darwin and Comte; took lessons in French at King’s College; studied paintings in the great galleries, went to the opera, read the Saturday Review. (Hardy never stopped this process: his late notebooks refer to Einstein and T.S. Eliot.)

The biographical contours are familiar, but Ford makes them vibrate in interesting ways. Hardy’s literary career is usually broken into two phases: the major novels (roughly, 1886-95), and then the renunciation of novel-writing after the scandalous success of Jude the Obscure, followed by the rinsing purities of the later poetry. It is hard to tell the story without a note of correction or improvement – the great marketed melodramas making way for the quieter refinements of the verse. But Ford reminds us that Hardy’s first and greatest desire was to write poetry, and that his poetic career started in London, with early work like ‘Dream of the City Shopwoman’, ‘Coming Up Oxford Street: Evening’, and ‘From Her in the Country’. As with many writers before and since the intensity of his literary ambition was at war with more dutiful desires, like pleasing his parents and securing the little bourgeois castle of job, income and spouse. He dramatised this struggle in ‘Coming Up Oxford Street: Evening’, which describes the sun moving through the city, its gaze falling on ‘watered track’, on sheets of glass, on doors, and on ‘ladies who rouge and whiten’; then the poem pictures a lonely ‘city-clerk’ (Ford calls him Hardy’s ‘hapless doppelganger’) walking along Oxford Street, dazzled by this urban sun but not warmed by it, a man who ‘sees no escape to the very verge of his days/From the rut of Oxford Street into open ways’.

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