Claire Tomalin has a facility for revealing the notable figures we think we know, but who have become, through the haze of history and fame, unreal and difficult to grasp. Many of them we know only through their writing, an unreliable source at best, particularly if the writing is fictional.
In her biographies of Samuel Pepys, Jane Austen, the 19th-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and Charles Dickens’ mistress Nelly Ternan, Tomalin fills in the ghostly celebrity with meticulous research about the world around the subject, the politics of the time, social standing, family, friends, where they went to church, what they ate, whom they admired. Tomalin’s astute understanding of her subject and her skills as a writer set her work apart, earning her praise from scholars and general readers alike.
Her talent is exceptional: How many other unputdownable bios of dead writers have you read? Her latest book, Thomas Hardy, is as satisfying a portrait of the moody Victorian as we could hope to get.
It is also a fascinating portrait of the times. Hardy embodies the discomfort of a Britain in transition, as it was leaving its rural past and entering an industrialized future. Dickens wrote about the effects of these changes on poor people in the cities; Hardy wrote about their effects on poor people in the country, a world he knew perfectly. Once he found fame, Hardy circulated in the best intellectual society; he knew or knew people who knew Tennyson, Swinburne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Matthew Arnold and Henry James. Hardy attended Charles Darwin’s funeral. J.M. Barrie of “Peter Pan” fame was an early reviewer and admirer.
Even so, his rustic roots meant Hardy was “never sure where he belonged,” Tomalin points out. Hardy was a contradiction, a man whose genius set him apart from the life he was born to but who never felt at home in the life he chose. Most fans of Hardy know him for his novels, with their luminous descriptions of the rolling Wessex countryside, against which unfold tragic, sometimes cruelly fated, stories of lost innocence and toxic love. But Hardy thought of himself as a poet, not a novelist. He wrote books to pay the bills.
In Far From the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Jude the Obscure, Hardy created sensuous, mercurial, unconventional protagonists not easily admired. His few admirable characters, such as Tess or Jude Fawley, are made to endure unrelenting hardship before they die in ignominy. Hardy’s seeming ambivalence for his creations often baffles and frustrates his readers. Tomalin goes a long way to explaining this ambivalence, which comes from Hardy’s own struggle to rise above his station in the strict social strata of Victorian England.
His parents were nobodies in the pragmatic social thinking of the time: his mother, Jemima, a discontented housewife and former servant, his father a Dorset builder who had to be persuaded to marry after Jemima got pregnant.
One of Tomalin’s achievements in this biography is her rereading of Hardy as a progressive thinker. His characters are metaphors for Hardy’s deep frustration with a world that nevertheless embraced and nurtured his gift.