Whether its Dickens’s London, Joyce’s Dublin, Laurence’s Manawaka, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Alice Munro’s southern Ontario towns, the association of certain authors with particular locales—real or fictive—can be illuminating but also, at times, reductive. That’s the case for Thomas Hardy, whose name, for most readers, immediately conjures images of a bygone rural world: the villages, towns and landscapes of Wessex, “the partly real, partly dream-country” (the author‘s own description) in which most of his novels, stories and poems unfold.
Yet, as Mark Ford’s illuminating new study shows, “the focus on Wessex in critical responses to Hardy’s work has obscured the importance of London to his career and development” (p.xiii). The capital, Ford contends, was also central to Hardy’s life and creativity. Hardy’s experiences in London have been explored to some extent by previous critics and biographers: whether by Claire Tomalin in her 2006 text The Time-torn Man or in the individual essays by Michael Slater and Keith Wilson that Ford cites as significant inspirations for his own study.
Half A Londoner, though (the title alludes to Hardy’s self-description in a letter to Edmund Gosse), announces itself as “the first comprehensive account of Hardy as a London man” (p.xiv). As such, the text falls productively between literary criticism and biography. Professor of English and American Literature at University College London, and also a poet, Ford’s style is at once academic and accessible, erudite and elegant, and he constructs a compelling narrative that traces Hardy from his first sojourn in London as a young man (where he had gone to pursue his architecture ambitions but where he effectively “became a writer”) through the extended periods that he spent in the capital in later life.
According to Ford, Hardy’s attitude towards London was characterised by profound ambivalence. On the one hand, he was stimulated by the range of experiences, entertainments and opportunities for self-invention offered by the city; on the other, he was dismayed by the poverty, disconnection and “mechanical indifference” that he witnessed there. (“Poverty in the country is a sadness but poverty in the town is a horror,” remarks the heroine of his 1876 satirical novel, The Hand of Ethelberta.) Early work depicts the city as a kind of monster, yet Hardy was consistently drawn back there, for both work and leisure.
As such, Ford’s central thesis is that Hardy’s work and life were defined by a tension—both painful and productive—between the country and the metropolis, resulting in “a profound personal sense of self-division” (p.xv). As Ford shows in the excellent introductory chapter, this split is irresistibly emblematised in the rather macabre wrangling that occurred over Hardy’s final resting place, which resulted in his ashes being interred in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner, and his heart being removed and buried in Dorset’s Stinsford Churchyard. (The two funerals took place concurrently, with luminaries including Kipling, Shaw, Barrie and Galsworthy serving as pallbearers at the London ceremony.)
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Ford shows that tension playing out in Hardy’s fiction and poetry with considerable skill. Though occasionally drawing a bit too heavily on the Michael Millgate-edited (auto-)biography The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy for particular details, and not entirely avoiding predictable lurches into psychobabble (the “erratic fluctuations of Hardy’s responses to women”, we’re told, were powerfully influenced by the “unnatural taboo that [his mother] placed on her children’s relations with members of the opposite sex” [p.75]), the critic is at his best when offering close readings of the literary texts. Key poems such as “Coming Up Oxford Street: Evening”, “To An Actress” and “From Her in the Country” receive particularly incisive treatments, with intertextual connections between Hardy and poets from Wordsworth and Larkin to Seamus Heaney and Peter Porter insightfully teased out.
The novels also receive some good analysis, with Ford highlighting Stephen and Elfride’s disastrous “mad dash” to marry in the city in A Pair of Blue Eyes (this episode is, as Ford puts it, “the first of the ghastly episodes of disillusionment towards which so many of Hardy’s novels inexorably move” ) and suggesting, of The Hand of Ethelberta: “its guardedness and self-consciousness can… be read as expressive of the difficulties and anxieties that Hardy himself experienced when performing his ‘London man’ persona” (p.169). If some links between the work and the life feel a little strained, the book is nonetheless strong at illuminating “the complex interplay between Dorset and London that formed the particular literary and social matrix in which [Hardy’s] fiction evolved, and that so shaped his life” (p.11).
Ford’s Hardy emerges a palpably complex and contradictory figure: a writer who was fully aware of the marketability of “Wessex”, and tailored tales to suit the demands of a predominantly urban readership, yet one whose fortunes were governed by the forces of chance and happenstance which so poignantly and powerfully structure much of his fiction. Avoiding hagiography, the tone of the text is nonetheless sympathetic, and Ford succeeds in bringing Hardy close to the reader: in particular, the image of the author sitting on a stile, reading a brutal Spectator pan of his first published novel Desperate Remedies, “wishing he were dead”, in a moment of “never forgotten bitterness”, is one to give all critics pause.
“[T]he concept of Wessex itself evolved out of the dialogue between Dorset and London that structured so many of Hardy’s opportunities and experiences,” Ford writes(p. xv-xvi). In exploring the author’s literal and imaginative negotiations between the provincial and the metropolitan Ford does justice to “the conflicted polarities of Hardy’s feelings about the city” (p,139), producing a rewarding text that’s of value not only to Hardy scholars and fans, but also to those interested in rural and urban studies more broadly.
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