Thomas Hardy, builder

I’ve been reading two biographies of Thomas Hardy: Webster’s On a Darkling Plain and Hawkins’ Hardy, Novelist and Poet. Reading both of these together has really brought home a fact about Hardy’s childhood: his family was rich.

Wait, what? Yes, that’s what I said. Rich.

His father, Thomas Hardy, was a prominent businessman–tradesman, in British terms–a builder and stonemason. Today, he would’ve been a contractor. Hardy’s dad actually owned some freehold property, too, at Talbothays farm, which technically makes him a yeoman, I believe. All the contractors and business owners like that who I know today, I consider to be well off and prominent members of the community. The Hardys similarly were prominent in Dorset, and successful enough to send youngThomas to school and provide a governess for his sisters. But for Hardy the writer, money wasn’t enough. As one immersed in British class consciousness, he strove to escape his lower-class background–even though he was doubtless better positioned than many of his middle-class contemporaries.

This aspect of Hardy’s background had escaped me previously. In online biographies like, his rural and isolated background is emphasized, but as Hawkins notes, he was far from being a peasant. Instead, he watched the peasantry and studied their habits and speech–good training for his future career as a writer.

thatched 2-story cottage with large garden

The Hardy family cottage in Bockhampton

Hardy’s “The Well-Beloved”


Hardy’s last published novel is The Well-Beloved. Published in 1897, it is the revised version of The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved, which was serialized in 1892.

The writing shows Hardy’s usual skill with description and getting into his character’s heads, and also his usual reluctance to give his characters much self-awareness or to allow them to significantly grow (which is my frustration with his fiction in general). The novel has less natural description that earlier works like The Woodlanders or Tess and so seems to move at a faster pace.

The plot is the quest of Jocelyn Pierston to locate and hold onto an ideal he calls “the well-beloved.” She is a transcendental spirit not limited to one woman’s body, and the closer Pierston comes, the further she seems to recede. His belief causes him to throw away his best chance for happiness, to marry Avice, a childhood friend. They are betrothed but she refuses to meet him one night, so he abandons her in favor of another woman who appears–and who shortly thereafter abandons him. This is the story of Jocelyn the young man.

The book’s second section is called “The Young Man of 40.” Jocelyn is little change though all others have aged–something I could identify with! He received notice that Avice has died, goes to the island where she lived, and meets her daughter, Ann Avice. Jocelyn insists on calling this incarnation “Avice” after her mother, and she is an avatar of the well-beloved more than her mother was (part of Jocelyn’s hesitation to marry). In his pursuit, he gets her to become his servant (his fortunes having risen and those of her family fallen), then courts her until he discovers she is already married. He then reunites her with her husband (who is also a Pierston, though not a direct relation) and helps him in a career.

In the third section, “A Young Man of 60,” Jocelyn received a letter from Ann Avice asking him to come. When he visits her, he sees Avice the third, also very like the first Avice. This Avice has been educated and works as a governess. Her mother, the matchmaker, wants Jocelyn to marry her so she will be cared for. He falls in love at first sight, as expected, and Avice agrees to marry him despite his age, because her mother wishes it. In a karmic turn of events, Avice jilts him just as he jilted her grandmother. Jocelyn sends an allowance to her and her husband.

Another aspect of the karma involves Marcia, the woman he ran away with. Her family called her back home and he never saw her again after their elopement–until she comes to the house of Ann Avice. She is the step-mother of the man Avice the third has married. Jocelyn sees in all this a punishment, and after his illness he loses his ability to appreciate beauty. Beauty had been his livelihood–he was known after his death as a sculptor of genius. He marries Marcia and they are good friends until his death.

This is one of Hardy’s most moral tales. The only trace of immorality is the “island custom” in which a betrothed couple would have sex to seal the covenant. Ann Avice had practiced the custom with her husband and so married him, despite her lack of interest after the event. The night Avice the first stood up Jocelyn, they were supposed to meet in a solitary place where she was afraid he would want to act according to custom. From one point of view, he abandons her because she won’t have sex, which shows a lack of character but not especially a lack of morals.

Hardy considered the book totally inoffensive and was thus unprepared when it was maliciously assailed by the critics as immoral. He wrote to Lady Jeune, “After such a cruel misrepresentation I feel inclined to say I will never write another line” (29 March 1897). He worked on a short story after this date and some prose, but for the most part, his attention shifted to poetry.

(Bannerhead image by Walter Piaget from The Illustrated London News)

Deidre Lynch, Academic Rock Star

Did you know that The Economy of Character was Deidre Lynch’s first book? I’m even more impressed with her mind than I was before. Economy is a foundational, sophisticated study of the rise of the novel character in the 18th century.

Her work is not limited to the 18th century; she also works on Jane Austen, my favorite author. Her 2010 article, “Jane Austen and Greenhouse Romanticism” published in ELH, notices the abundance of flower metaphors used to describe young ladies in Austen’s work and the intersection of those metaphors with the rise of Linnean botany. On Monday, I was fortunate enough to hear her talk, “Pride and Prejudice by Numbers,” as part of the 19th-century Interdisciplinary Seminar series at UT.

Spurred by a children’s book she discovered that counted things in Pride and Prejudice, Lynch notes the many things that are numbered–the sisters, the pounds per year–as well as references to statistics, the ‘one,’ and so on. Lynch argues that numbers raise questions about getting from summary to totality and questions how they function as literary devices.

On a biographical note, Lynch tells us that Jane would have helped the Rev. Austen in his computations of births, deaths, marriages, etc, for the 1801 census.

Andrew Norman’s Thomas Hardy: Behind the Mask

Thomas Hardy: Behind the MaskThomas Hardy: Behind the Mask by Andrew Norman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Andrew Norman has an idée fixe that Emma was the source of all Hardy’s unhappiness. He believed they never consummated their marriage because of the plot of Jude the Obscure and one poem in the 1920s that refers to a couple who didn’t consummate–this despite saying that the couple were sad they didn’t have children. That’s inconsistent logic, and I’m pretty sure it’s Norman’s rather than the Hardys’. I do believe that Emma had dementia in her last decade–the letters from Florence and comments from visitors to the house seem to support this. Was she unbalanced when they first met? In retrospect, it’s easy to see what we want to see. I was interested to learn that she had many relatives who had been institutionalized.

Norman unproblematically reads Hardy’s biography into all of his novels and poems. While Hardy undoubtedly was inspired by his experiences, it’s simplistic to view his works as a key to his life.

Still, I enjoyed reading this book. It’s a relief to have someone come out and tell you what they actually think. I first started reading it on Google Books and was interested enough to order it from the library. I wouldn’t recommend it as a source for a student (Norman gets some details of Tess wrong, for instance) or as a first biography of Hardy, but it’s a light break for Hardy scholars.

View all my reviews

Victorians Institute Conference 2014: The Secrets at Our Doors

Illustration from conference page

The 2014 Victorians Institute Conference was one of the better ones I have attended. The panels were well-grouped and most of the papers were not only interesting but insightful and stimulating. Kudos to Casey Cothran on a job well done.

I read a paper on the infamous Colonel Baker, and I moderated a fascinating panel on Queen Victoria’s Garden Pavilion, put together by interdisciplinary faculty at North Carolina Statue University. I heard papers by Todd Starkweather, Gretchen Braun, Susan Shelangoskie and Jennifer Brown, Dagni Bredesen, Kayley Thomas, Anthony Garcia, Deirdre Mikolajcik, Janet Myers, Kirsten Anderson, Emma Burris-Janssen, Angharad Eyre (I love knowing someone with that name! She’s the heroine of one of my favorite books, The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley), Jessica Saxon, Shuhita Bhattacharjee, Rose O’Malley, Jean Fernandez (my old Iowa chum), Esther Godfrey (UT alumna), Kristin Messuri, and Carolyn Day. And of course, there was the fantastic keynote address by Marlene Tromp.

Among the many things I learned:

  • Drowning was naturalized as the end for fallen women, whose suicide arose from poverty rather than shame or broken hearts. The first place checked for Lady Deadlock when she went missing was the Thames
  • Dickens’ son wrote a Dictionary of the Thames
  • David Copperfield’s caul connects thematically to the many characters who almost or do drown
  • There were over 1100 reports in the papers about John Tawell, the murderer caught by telegraph. (This really puts to shame the number of articles I’ve found on Baker!)
  • In Dorian Gray, Basil’s view of the artist is similar to Keats’. The anxiety of influence permeates the novel [this would be a good angle for my students).
  • Dorian becomes an aesthetic object, but at the end the portrait is again the object. Dorian was identified by his rings: things become the markers of identity.
  • Wilde posed as aristocratic, but he actually had to work. That’s why his things were auctioned to pay the legal fees.
  • The curb bit and bearing rein used on horses were social markers for the middle class, much like corsets.
  • 18th century women were able to have pockets under their dresses, but changes in dress made it more difficult. New women with pockets were seen as appropriating masculinity.
  • An adaption of East Lynne was performed every Saturday night for 40 years.
  • In The Wing of Azrael, the bounded female self is inherently deviant. Philip Dendraith’s body becomes evidence of Viola’s abuse.
  • The 1889 erotic novel Venus in India by “Capt. Charles Devereaux” addressed female readers as well as male.
  • “deontic” means “of or pertaining to duty and moral obligation as ethical concepts”
  • Darwin’s ideas had an effect on the concept of female beauty, that it became more tired to reproductive success.
  • In Steel’s On the Face of the Waters, Hindu space is figured as resistant to the pressures of history.
  • “Oude” is pronounced “owd” like in “crowd.”
  • Prostitutes did marry, more often than in Panel pictureliterature. A typical prostitute approach was “Are you good-natured, sir?”
  • Consumption was so tied to ideas of beauty that clothing styles sought to replicate the effect, as in dresses with lower-set armholes to encourage slouching and hairstyles that were less complicated.

I notice with some surprise that I didn’t attend any talks on poetry, though it was mentioned occasionally. I suppose this was because the focus of VI is cultural criticism.

This report wouldn’t be complete without discussing Marlene Tromp’s fabulous keynote, “Blood Evidence: Forensics, Narrative, and Cultural History.” She began with two recent cases that illustrated the limitations of forensic evidence in order to illustrate that scientific data is dependent upon narrative. When the data supports an “obvious truth,” other reasonable explanations may be ignored. Marlene then discussed two cases from the 19th century, the murder of Jessie McPherson in 1862 and of Clara Burton aka Harriet Buswell in 1872. Though there was a wealth of forensic evidence in both cases, the evidence was contradictory either to itself or doxa. So far I’ve mentioned this talk at a social event, in a pedagogy discussion group, and in a class discussion about the Titanic; Marlene mentioned that the testimony of working-class survivors that the ship broke in half was discredited by officials until divers found the actual wreck. This is something that deserves much more thought. When the truth violates our previous beliefs or comes from a source we don’t truth, how will we recognize it?

Time like a closing fan


The Piazza de San Marco. Notice the adverts deep in the background.

UT’s Nineteenth-century Seminar today discussed Victoria Zimmerman’s article, “‘Time Seemed Fiction’–Archeological Encounters in Victorian Poetry” (Journal of Literature and Science, 2012). In it, she examines poems by Hardy and Rossetti that feature archeological objects. She argues that, rather than seeing the historical object merely as a palimpsest, in the poets’ meditations on the objects ‘time closed up like a fan,’ in Hardy’s words. That is to say, the multiple, spread-out meanings of the object created through its duration over time collapse into the temporal now. The advantage to seeing time as a closing fan instead of a palimpsest is that it recognizes the duration of objects rather than thinking of them as a layers of static meaning. The distinction is a fine one, and one could easily argue that a fan is no more dynamic than a palimpsest.

The discussion led me to think again of Venice, no doubt because Hardy’s poems were inspired by his trip to Rome. In Venice, one has the sense of layers and layers of time. In both Henry James’ Italian Hours and Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, the writers acknowledge that multiple histories have left their traces on the floating city. Yet they both treat it like a living fossil, something that has changed little since its crystallizing death. Reading James or Ruskin today drives home the conception of Venice as a fossil, little changed since when those Victorians wrote. And yet Venice does live, does change. The Basilica de San Marco is a tourist attraction as well as an active church. The Piazza still has stores and restaurants, but the owners, menus, and wares have changed. The square is no longer “Europe’s ballroom,” as Napoleon called it. If anyone dances in the Piazza, it’s for the sake of auld lang syne, for the sake of being part of a long tradition of elegant living. And the newest thing in the Piazza is often glossed over: the giant adverts that pay for all the splendor. To treat Venice as a static palimpsest, already written and re-written, neglects its continuing, albeit slow, dynamism. I’m not sure if the closing fan is the appropriate metaphor, but at the least it signals the duree of Venetian tourism.

The Woodlanders

Cover of The Woodlanders

A reference in some of the secondary literature sent me to Hardy’s The Woodlanders, published 1886-1887. It’s a Wessex novel but set in the woods (per the title) that ends in bleak tragedy, like most of his novels. The prose is uneven–while the dialogue and descriptions of people are lively and engaging, the diction is stiff and formal in the narration and descriptions of places. From Chapter 1:

“The physiognomy of a deserted highway expresses solitude to a degree that is not reached by mere dales or downs, and bespeaks a tomb-like stillness more emphatic than that of glades and pools. The contrast of what is with what might be probably accounts for this. To step, for instance, at the place under notice, from the hedge of the plantation into the adjoining pale thoroughfare, and pause amid its emptiness for a moment, was to exchange by the act of a single stride the simple absence of human companionship for an incubus of the forlorn.”

Compare that pretentiousness to this snippet of dialogue between Melbury and his wife from Chapter 3 as they discuss the future for their daughter, Grace:

“I wish for nothing definite. But there’s a lot of things possible for her. Why, Mrs. Charmond is wanting some refined young lady, I hear, to go abroad with her—as companion or something of the kind. She’d jump at Grace.”

“That’s all uncertain. Better stick to what’s sure.”‘

Hardy had a great ear for people’s speech. He was also very attentive to clothes. It’s amazing how much detail about women’s clothing he inserts. Once you begin looking for it, it’s everywhere. For instance, Marty South plans to walk twelve miles in pattens, though the turnpike is clean, in order to save her boots. Giles suspects that “external phenomena—such as the lowness or height or color of a hat, the fold of a coat, the make of a boot, or the chance attitude or occupation of a limb at the instant of view—may have a great influence upon feminine opinion of a man’s worth”, but he doesn’t change his appearance. One of the more intriguing statements about dress is the narrator’s claim that

“For there can be hardly anything less connected with a woman’s personality than drapery which she has neither designed, manufactured, cut, sewed, or even seen, except by a glance of approval when told that such and such a shape and color must be had because it has been decided by others as imperative at that particular time.”

What does this mean for Tess? Simon Gatrell argues that Tess never chooses her own clothes, that even her red ribbon was chosen by her mother (2006). Neither, though, does she glance at her clothes with approval except when she’s thrilled with the wedding clothes bought by Angel. Gatrell claims they’re a fetish for Angel, but the clothes themselves please her, even the gloves and boots.