Day 1101: Thomas Hardy

Cover for Thomas HardyThomas Hardy has long been one of my favorite Victorian writers, so when I learned that Claire Tomalin had written his biography, I set about getting a copy. Tomalin has made a career of writing interesting and readable but meticulously documented biographies of mostly literary figures and has become one of my favorite biographers.

Tomalin shows that Hardy was a contradictory man—shy but eager to socialize in intellectual circles, resenting early snubs but nevertheless a snob himself, an inner-living man who still welcomed all who came to see him. Hardy was the son of an uneducated builder and a house servant, both of whom encouraged him in his efforts to gain an education and better himself. But in those days this was difficult, and he never achieved his dream of a Cambridge education. Instead, he went to work at 16 in an architect’s office.

Above all else, Hardy became a writer who challenged conventional attitudes toward women, sex in literature, and religion. Almost from the beginning of his career, while still writing formula novels, he ran into trouble with editors wanting to censor his work. His publication of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, with its subtitle “A Pure Woman,” caused an uproar. Although I have read many of his novels, it was fascinating to read about them in terms of events going on in his own life.

What I had not read much of is his poetry. Hardy always considered himself a poet rather than a novelist, and at the height of his career, after publication of Jude the Obscure, he caused another furor by quitting his novel-writing career to concentrate on poetry. Tomalin is obviously a fan of his poetry, and although I am not much of a poetry reader, the snippets she reproduces are musical and beautiful, and the context she gives them fascinating.

Tomalin begins her book with the story of Hardy’s regret after his first wife’s death that they had grown apart. The story of that relationship, as well as that with his second wife, is also very interesting.

Tomalin has a gift for breathing life into her subjects so that you feel as if you understand them, at least a little. If you have any interest in Thomas Hardy, you’ll find this a compelling book.

Related Posts

Charles Dickens, A Life

Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Far From the Madding Crowd

Day 988: H Is for Hawk

Cover for H Is for HawkBest Book of the Week!
I never gave too much thought to what is involved in falconry until I read H Is for Hawk, a memoir by Helen Macdonald, English naturalist, writer, and Affiliated Research Scholar at Cambridge University. But Macdonald’s memoir covers more ground than just that. It is also an examination of what is revealed about the writer T. H. White in his nonfiction book Goshawk and a recollection and examination of Macdonald’s grief over the death of her father.

As such, H Is for Hawk has many layers. It is a literary work, both in its examination of White’s book and in its eloquent writing style. It is an unflinching memoir. It is also deep psychologically in its examination of the forces that drove White and that drive Macdonald. Finally, it is a journal of falconry.

I was deeply interested in the story of Helen and her hawk Mabel. I was particularly surprised by some details about the personality of the hawk. This book contains some beautiful, almost poetic descriptions of the natural world. It is certainly worth reading. Highly recommended.

Related Posts

The Rural Life

My Life in Middlemarch

The Bird: A Natural History of Who Birds Are, Where They Came From, and How They Live

Day 890: Charlotte and Emily

Cover for Charlotte and EmilyI have read two of Jude Morgan’s literary biographical novels but never felt I was really seeing the true character of the subjects. However, with Charlotte and Emily, Morgan seems to have found his subject.

Charlotte and Emily covers most of the Brontës’ lives, from the time they were children until Charlotte marries Arthur Bell Nicholls. By that time, all the other Brontë siblings have died.

Charlotte is the main character of the novel, although it is occasionally told from the point of view of Anne. Emily remains distant from the reader, harder to know.

Much of the novel is concerned with the focus of the entire family on the future of brilliant Branwell, the only son. The girls are sent for schooling so that they can be teachers and earn money to help educate Branwell. Although Charlotte wonders if she can become a writer and even tries sending poetry to Southey, the poet laureate, she is discouraged by both Southey and her father.

Of course, Branwell never finds a vocation and instead becomes a wastrel. Charlotte and Anne work doggedly as teachers, although they hate it. Emily gets herself sent home both from school and work.

I have read biographies of the Brontës, but this novel is the first I’ve read that gave me a sense of what their lives may have been like. I found it completely absorbing. If you are a Brontë lover, this is a book for you.

Related Posts


The Secret Life of William Shakespeare


Day 601: The Talented Miss Highsmith

Cover for The Talented Miss HighsmithI became interested in reading this biography after hearing about interviews with Schenkar, who called Patricia Highsmith a sociopath. Patricia Highsmith is, of course, the author of many mid-20th century thrillers, the most famous being Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. After reading the biography, I don’t really think Highsmith was a sociopath. I think she was fascinated with certain dark themes, but she strikes me as more of a social inept, perhaps partially on the autistic spectrum.

Highsmith was certainly a complex person of many contradictions. She was a lesbian misogynist, as contradictory as that sounds, who was a great womanizer in her younger years and was seldom faithful to any of her lovers. She was an outspoken anti-Semite who had Jewish lovers and a lot of Jewish friends. Known in later years as a recluse, she visited her neighbors every evening and corresponded with many people, as well as making an appearance whenever invited.

She certainly was a damaged person. She had a love-hate relationship with her mother for her entire life, blaming her for abandoning her briefly when she was young and for not divorcing her stepfather. She was a woman who always thought she should actually have been a man. A heavy drinker and smoker, she barely ate any food for years and was probably anorexic.

Her life was an interesting one. She did not seem to be a likable person and frequently behaved very badly. Yet, she had many sincerely devoted friends.

I was interested in this book but had some issues with its structure. Schenkar explains at the beginning that a chronological approach wouldn’t do Highsmith justice, so she approaches Highsmith’s life sort of organically. The problem I found with this approach was that after awhile I could not figure out what organizing principle is holding some of the chapters together. Sometimes they just seem to follow a stream of consciousness approach. It makes the information conveyed very repetitive and chronologically impossible to follow. Schenkar helpfully provides a chronology at the back of the book, along with about 100 pages of supplementary material, but by then I was exhausted and had no interest in exploring any of it.

Finally—this is a small quibble—I got irritated by Schenkar’s chapter naming. The table of contents shows only nine chapters in this very long book, but there are really forty-nine. That is because she actually names them Les Girls Part 1, Les Girls Part 2, and so on. Perhaps I’m being unfair, but I could just imagine Schenkar’s editor telling her she couldn’t have a 150-page chapter, which is the length of Les Girls, Parts 1–14. Such an approach does not strike me as being very imaginative.

Day 522: Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)

Cover for VeraBefore I start on my review of Véra, I just wanted to comment on the death of Mary Stewart, which I just heard about. I have been reading and re-reading Mary Stewart’s books since I was a young girl. Not only did she write some of the best romantic suspense stories ever, but she also wrote a much-praised historical-fantasy series about Merlin. Her works were well grounded in their settings and beautifully evoked places (some of which we will never see again, such as 60’s Damascus and Beirut). To my surprise, my post about her book This Rough Magic continues to be one of the most visited on my site. We are going to miss Mary Stewart. I have re-read Stewart’s books so many times that I can write reviews of them from memory. I’ll post another one soon.


I’ve read two biographies now by Stacy Schiff, and both of them are about elusive women. Cleopatra was elusive because most of the information about her life is available only from prejudiced sources. Véra Evseevna Nabokov was elusive because she wanted to be.

Véra considered Nabokov to be a genius and his work to be of sole importance. She never publicly acknowledged her own contribution to it. Even the subtitle of this biography reflects the way she presented herself, always as Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov.

I don’t know a lot about Nabokov. I have read only one of his books, Lolita, but I found it astounding. Despite my dislike of the subject matter, reading it was an amazing experience, and I found the use of language astonishingly beautiful. But you do not need to be familiar with Nabokov’s oeuvre to find this biography, which won the Pulitzer, fascinating.

The Nabokovs had a truly collaborative relationship even though they never publicly acknowledged it. Although Véra denied helping him write, he often called her his first reader. Visitors heard her tell him to reword phrases or even remark, “You can’t say that!” For years, she typed up his manuscripts from his note cards or his dictation. She oversaw the translations of his work into different languages, even laboriously correcting them in the several languages she spoke. She was exacting about the use of words. She took care of all Nabokov’s correspondence, even to friends and family, as well as his business and financial affairs. She was the gatekeeper for interviews and visitors. She also drove him everywhere (and carried the luggage). Her entire married life was dedicated to providing him time and peace to write.

In areas even more directly affecting the success of his literary career, it was at Véra’s suggestion that Nabokov begin to write fiction in addition to poetry. Once the Nabokovs emigrated to America, Véra convinced Vladimir to begin writing in English. She pulled the manuscript of Lolita out of the fire on three different occasions, and it became his most famous work. Students taking his classes at Cornell were bemused by his “assistant,” who provided quotations or page references just when he needed them, drew complex diagrams on the blackboard, and erased it after class. Véra also taught his literature and language classes for him on many occasions and was acknowledged as a better, more systematic Russian language teacher than her husband.

Véra never seemed to resent this role she had taken on; she fostered it. But she was in no sense a nonentity. In correspondence she was much more direct than her husband. Although they tended to share correspondence—he would start a letter, perhaps; she would finish it; he would sign it—she was always left to impart the hard news—the refusal of contracts, the dictation of terms, the correction of translations. Many people believed that she was a dragon who was screening Nabokov’s mail or keeping people away from him, but she was doing what he wanted.

The couple was seldom seen apart. Although Nabokov had an affair early in their marriage and liked to flirt with women, he dedicated almost all his books to Véra. They had an extraordinary marriage, and this is an extraordinary, surprisingly entertaining book.

Day 479: Jane Austen: A Life

Cover for Jane Austen: A LifeIn Jane Austen: A Life, noted biographer Claire Tomalin has handily accomplished a difficult task. Because most of Jane Austen’s letters and papers were destroyed by well-meaning relatives, very little first-hand information about her life is available. As a 19th century unmarried woman, her experience was circumscribed, so the events of her life are ordinary ones. Descriptions of a life like this could be thin and lifeless, but Tomalin manages to provide us with a biography that is full of interest and lively and creates a convincing idea of Austen’s character.

From records, letters, the remaining few of Austen’s papers, and accounts of her by relatives, friends, and neighbors, Tomalin reconstructs the story of not only Austen’s life but of those who were important to her. Tomalin acquaints us with the members of Austen’s family and the bustling environment in the Steventon Rectory, where Jane’s father ran a small boys’ school. She describes friendships and visits to neighboring families. Even though Austen never used her own neighborhood in her books, it is easy from them to imagine the daily social calls and the housewifely tasks with which she and her female relatives were engaged.

It is not too hard to imagine the relationship between Jane and her sister Cassandra as close to that of Lizzie and her sister Jane in Pride and Prejudice, although Tomalin never mentions that either of these characters were based on real people. Still, the two sisters were extremely close.

Unlike Lizzie and Jane, though, both Jane and Cassandra were disappointed in love, Cassandra because her fiancé died, and Jane because her suitor needed to marry a woman with money. Tomalin makes the points that a married Jane Austen would probably have been too busy or too distracted to produce a body of literature and that later in life she seemed to understand some of the benefits of remaining single. As to the first point, it is certainly true that being removed without warning and against her will from Steventon because of the retirement of her father, and her family’s failure to settle anywhere for ten years afterward, completely cut off Austen’s literary production for that time period.

It seems that Austen’s status as a spinster with no money of her own gave her no control at all in her life about such questions as where she would live and even in one case when she could return home from a family visit. That is, she had no control until her late thirties, when she began to publish her novels. Even then, she ultimately earned very little money from them but enough to give her a small amount of autonomy.

Although most of the events of Austen’s life were relatively small, Tomalin’s book provides an absorbing account. I did not always agree with her interpretations of Austen’s novels, but I feel that this book allows me to know Austen and her family and friends a little better.

Day 461: My Life in Middlemarch

Cover for My Life in MiddlemarchMy Life in Middlemarch is a difficult book to categorize and an unusual effort. It is part memoir, part literary criticism, part literary history and biography, part thoughtful examination. Its focus is on George Eliot’s greatest novel, Middlemarch.

New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead muses about what the novel, her favorite as it is mine, has meant to her during different periods of her life, how different parts of the novel and different characters have spoken to her and how her sympathies with characters and comprehension of the novel’s themes have changed as her life was in its varying stages. She also examines events in Eliot’s own life—how they and the people she knew may have contributed to her works.

This book is about all things Middlemarch. Mead visits the towns and homes where Eliot resided and places where she may have set the novel. She reports on the ways that literary criticism of the novel changed over time—how it was immediately popular and then fell out of favor in later years to be rehabilitated, partially by the appreciation of Virginia Woolf. The book provides interesting insights into the novel and into Eliot’s life and possible thought processes as she wrote the novel.

http://www.netgalley.comFor those who have not read Middlemarch, the book still may hold some interest, but a lot will be lost. To those who have read and loved it, you will probably, like me, be compelled to pick it up again and reread it. I’ll be doing that soon.

Day 392: The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime

Cover for The Invention of MurderJudith Flanders, a British journalist and history writer specializing in Victorian times, has written an entertaining and exhaustive book showing how the Victorian fascination with murder grew and forced improvements in policing. In addition, it resulted in the evolution of the detective novel. Flanders begins this discussion with the interest in a few major crimes from before the Victorian era, explaining how public response changed during the Victorian age.

One theme of the book is class. Flanders effectively shows that the public interest in murder was for crimes that involved the middle or upper classes, with a tendency of the newspapers and popular songs and legends to elevate in class the murderers who were from the lower classes. Newspapers flagrantly made up “facts” about accused murderers that sensationalized their backgrounds or their crimes, including changing their social class. Even as late as the Jack the Ripper murders, interest was probably only taken by the public (since the victims were lower-class prostitutes) because of the number and viciousness of the crimes.

Flanders tells us about a series of panics that took place as a result of a growing audience for this kind of subject matter. Once a tax was removed from newspapers in 1855 that had kept the price high enough to restrict their circulation to the middle and upper classes (although the poor shared newspapers or picked them up in coffee houses), circulation greatly expanded and the papers found a new audience for sensationalism.

Even though there had only ever been a very few cases of murder by poisoning, in the early and mid-nineteenth century a poisoning panic resulted from a highly publicized murder case. In the ensuing rash of accusations, people were brought to “justice” when there was no actual proof that anyone had been poisoned let alone any proof that the accused was guilty of any wrongdoing. Unqualified persons were allowed to testify on the “scientific” evidence, including one Alfred Swaine Taylor, who for years testified to the presence of arsenic using a test that actually introduced arsenic into the sample through copper gauze. Even worse, the lower class “poisoners,” who usually had little or no legal representation, were invariably hanged, while the middle and upper class accused often got off completely or with lighter punishment, even if there was more real evidence against them.

Eventually, with improvements in the science of criminology and the rise of public indignation about some obvious miscarriages of justice, the police force was compelled to become more professional and the law to pass more stringent rules of evidence.

Frankly, our lurid interest in crime hasn’t changed, as shown by the prevalence of true crime shows on TV. A large part of the fascination and entertainment value of this history has to do with the details of the crimes as well as the plots of the many plays, novels, and penny dreadfuls that derived from them. Flanders has written an entertaining and lively history for anyone interested in true crime, the evolution of the mystery novel, or the history of advancements in criminology.

Day 380: Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush

Cover for Lady Gregory's ToothbrushLady Gregory’s Toothbrush is more of a biographical essay than an extensive biography of Lady Gregory, one of the founders with William Butler Yeats of the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin and a huge figure in the Irish cultural revival of the 1890’s and early 1900’s. The title of the book is based on a comment she made that reflected her own inconsistencies, that is, her firm roots in the Protestant aristocracy against her support for the culture of rural, Catholic Ireland. When Playboy of the Western World was being produced by the Abbey, there was a huge uproar by Catholic nationalists. Lady Gregory remarked that the dispute was between “those who use a toothbrush and those who don’t.”

Tóibín’s sketch effectively shows the contradictions in Gregory’s character. It would be easy to dismiss her as an elitist snob, but Tóibín makes very clear her contributions to Irish theatre and folk lore. She was one of the first people traveling to rural Ireland to collect Irish folk tales before they were forgotten. As well as writing her own plays as part of the movement to encourage and advance Irish culture, she collaborated with Yeats on his without credit, and some of her contemporaries believed she wrote the bulk of one or two.

An interesting detail from Lady Gregory’s life is how this redoubtable woman cossetted and gave in to Yeats. Tóibín recounts her son Robert’s indignation, for example, when he found that his mother had served Yeats “bottle by bottle” the entirety of his prized Tokay handed down to him by his father.

Copper Beech in Coole Park
The copper beech at Coole Park

Tóibín makes very clear the love she had for her husband’s estate, Coole, which she carefully preserved for her son while he was in his minority. There she entertained many of the great talents of Ireland, including Yeats, his brother Jack, J. M. Synge, George Bernard Shaw, and Sean O’Casey. The home no longer stands, Tóibín says it has been covered in concrete, but I myself have seen the great copper beech bearing their initials.

If I have any complaint of this short book, it is at my own ignorance (even though I have done some reading), for my lack of knowledge of the events of this time and particularly of the plays discussed makes it difficult to understand some of Tóibín’s remarks, particularly the furor around some of the plays. Having never read or seen Playboy of the Western World, for example, I don’t understand what was so upsetting (and indeed he implies that a modern audience may not).

Tóibín effectively and elegantly draws a brief but balanced portrait of this complex woman, showing us both her accomplishments and faults. Although I have read some of Yeats’ poems and some of Shaw’s plays, this short work makes me want to do more exploring around these figures in the Irish cultural nationalism movement and their works.

Day 237: Neverland: J.M. Barrie, the du Mauriers, and the Dark Side of Peter Pan

Cover for NeverlandDuring the past year I read Margaret Forsters’ biography of Daphne du Maurier, and I find that Neverland makes a fascinating contrast with it. Piers Dudgeon traces the history of the du Maurier family and speculates how their relationships with J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, adversely affected them. Several members of the family were indeed disturbed, but the question is, how much, if anything, did that have to do with Barrie?

Dudgeon paints Barrie as a sociopath without exactly calling him one. Barrie grew up unloved by his hypochondriac mother, who took to her bed with the death at fourteen of her favorite son David. Barrie was six at the time and was never able to attract much of her attention, even resorting to dressing up as his brother and imitating him to try to get her to love him. This behavior is indeed bizarre, but Dudgeon makes the first leap by alleging that Barrie must have somehow caused his brother’s death to have been so neglected.

The early life of George du Maurier is not similarly examined (George being Daphne du Maurier’s grandfather); instead, Dudgeon zeroes in on du Maurier’s experiences as a young bohemian in Paris. Du Maurier is best known as the author of Trilby, a novel in which Svengali takes over the life of a young woman by means of hypnosis and eventually ruins her. This novel is based at least in part on the experiments of du Maurier and a group of friends during which they repeatedly hypnotized a young artist’s model. Du Maurier apparently regretted this episode in later life, although he did not give up “mesmerism,” and what he called “dreaming true” (self-hypnosis) until he married, and he later returned to his experiments.

Dudgeon uses this background to weave the theory that Barrie–who admired du Maurier’s first book, Peter Ibbetson, a story about a man who can escape the bounds of space and time by “dreaming true”–was somehow rejected by du Maurier and took his revenge by purposefully befriending and dominating members of du Maurier’s family, causing changes in their behavior. There is actually no proof that du Maurier and Barrie ever met, although Barrie certainly befriended Sylvia Llewellyn Davies, George’s daughter, and her children. It is also clear that he “stole” her children. Both Sylvia and her husband Arthur died when the boys were quite young, and Barrie copied the letter that Sylvia wrote during her last illness requesting the children’s nanny and her sister Jenny to take charge of the children, changing “Jenny” to “Jimmy,” and thereby co-opting the children. Oddly, none of the du Mauriers seems to have objected to that, to which Dudgeon ascribes more sinister goings-on. Of those boys, only one seemed not to be at all disturbed by their upbringing with Barrie.

Modern minds will think sexual abuse, of which there are indeed some indications, but Dudgeon thinks Satanism, if that’s not an exaggeration. And here we get to Peter Pan, who was not intended to be everyone’s picture of innocent, irresponsible boyhood, but who Barrie intended to be a villain, a Pan or “demon boy” figure, a pixie who stole other people’s children, who hated mothers, and who killed without compunction. Barrie was good at hiding the antisocial nature of his work behind saccharine sentiments, but this depiction is indeed what he intended, and Dudgeon of course sees Peter Pan as a self portrait of Barrie.

Dudgeon presents a great deal of information about the various fates of the Llewellyn Davies boys, but he spends his final chapters on Daphne du Maurier, their cousin. Margaret Forster’s view is that du Maurier’s tendencies toward homosexuality (borne out by some affairs and statements by du Maurier herself) and possible affair with her own father colored her life and affected her relationships with her husband and children–that and an appalling degree of selfishness. But Dudgeon doesn’t think she was homosexual at all. He believes that she and her father Gerald, a well-known actor who appeared in several Barrie plays, were so overshadowed by Barrie that her “demon boy” self came out in adolescence and dominated most of her life, until she suffered a breakdown in her 50’s.

I am not criticizing this book for lack of interest–it is indeed engrossing. But Dudgeon hangs a great deal too much of his tale on the assumption that most of Barrie’s and both the du Mauriers’ writings were autobiographical in some way. Even if they were, many of the quoted passages can be interpreted in more than one way. Barrie’s submersion of the children into a fantasy life certainly doesn’t seem to have been good for them, and as I said before, there is some indication in his own writings of the possibility of child sexual abuse, but I don’t know what else can be said with authority.