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Claire Tomalin


The Time-Torn Man

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Thomas Hardy's wife Emma died in November, 1912. She was just 72 and although she had not been well there was no reason to suspect that her life was in danger. Tomalin finds that this was the moment when Hardy, already acknowledged as a great novelist, became a great poet. He had already written fine poetry but now he began to produce a series of elegies that are, Tomalin thinks, among the most original ever written.

For years before this, Hardy and Emma had been semi-estranged, resenting each other and unable to communicate at any deep level. But the beginning of their relationship had been very different: then they had been deeply in love. Hardy now saw his poems as a way of making amends for his later neglect, and this late poetic outpouring was an extraordinary tribute to Emma and their former love.

Relations with women were very important to Hardy, and he fell in love a number of times in later life, although his feelings were apparently not fully reciprocated by the women concerned. But no woman could fully embody the feminine ideal for Hardy; for that, we must go to the heroines of his novels, especially Tess.

Hardy's attitude to women reminded me strongly of another poet, Robert Graves, who throughout his life sought an embodiment of his Muse— a quest which, in later life, led him to fall in love with a succession of young women. Both writers are probably most often thought of today as novelists, but both regarded poetry as their true vocation and wrote novels to make money. Tomalin is a perceptive critic of both the novels and the poetry.

Hardy was an atheist and met his own death without complaint and without the expectation of any kind of future life. Yet he retained a certain feeling for religion ('hoping it might be so', as he wrote in a well-known poem), and he continued to accompany Emma to church on and off over the years. But his dislike of Christianity was conveniently overlooked after his death to allow him to be buried, contrary to his wishes, in Westminster Abbey (after cremation and minus his heart, which was interred locally).

Hardy had humble beginnings and these shaped his later career. He wished to go to university, and his failure to do so troubled him, though it may well be that, had he done so, he would not have become the writer that he did.

Tomalin provides an excellent examination of Hardy's complex character, his strengths and his weaknesses. He does not emerge unscathed: Emma was difficult in later years but Hardy did little to help her, and his relations with his second wife, Florence, were not much better. Probably no real woman could live up to the idealisation that we find in his heroines. But he himself was aware of his failings and confronted them.

He wrote honest poems, almost every one shaped and structured with its own thought and its own music. They remind us that he was a fiddler's son, with music in his blood and bone, who danced to his father's playing before he learnt to write. This is how I like to think of him, a boy dancing on the stone cottage floor, outside time, oblivious, ecstatic, with his future greatness as unimaginable as the sorrows that came with it.

6 January 2011

%T Thomas Hardy
%S The Time-Torn Man
%A Claire Tomalin %I Penguin Books
%C London
%D 1996
%G ISBN 978-0-670-91952-5
%P xxv+486pp
%K biography
%O notes; illustrations

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