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 623: The Goblin Market and Selected Poems

Cover for The Goblin MarketI don’t know much about the life of Christina Rosetti. I know a little more about her brother, the artist Dante Gabriel Rosetti. The introduction to this book of her poems says that something happened to her when she was 15 that changed her from a mercurial child into a controlled, careful young woman. Certainly, her poetry shows a preoccupation with religion and death. It is also brimming with life, full of nature and love.

In “The Goblin Market,” for example, her descriptions of the goblin’s fruit are luscious. But though I understand the introductory comments about the poems being too sexually explicit for Victorian tastes, I see this poem as more about the pleasures and temptations of life versus spiritual values.

Some of the poetry in this collection dwells on themes I am not that fond of, but there is no doubt that the language is vivid and gorgeous. I don’t know if the poems are arranged sequentially, but some of the earlier ones remind me somewhat of traditional folk songs. Her sonnets employ an unusual rhyme scheme, close to Petrarchian, but with the last six lines using a different scheme.

One of my favorite poems was “In an Artist’s Studio,” about how the artist paints and repaints his model:

Lizzie Siddal
Dante Gabriel Rosetti portrait of Lizzie Siddal

He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him
Fair as the moon and joyfull as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

I know that Dante Gabriel occasionally painted Christina when she was young, but this poem made me think of how he obsessively painted his mistress, Lizzie Siddal.