Sunday, March 27, 2016

A Writer Made of Books

I apologize for the tardiness of this update. We've had a cold pass from child to parents and it's been a pretty exhausting week.

An 1865 portrait of the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne,
perhaps the greatest single literary influence on
Thomas Hardy.
It has been observed that great reading creates the potential for great writing; that is, the love of reading nearly always sits as the foundation of a love (or compulsion) to write. Thomas Hardy's journey to become one of the most celebrated writers of his day was initiated by access to books and an environment wherein he was encouraged to make the most of his intellectual talents.

Hardy's literary pedigree is novel (for his time) in that it is a lineage inherited from his mother, Jemima. Ironically, there is evidence supporting the idea that Jemima was an avid reader but could not write much beyond signing her own name. It has been suggested that Thomas inherited his mother's love of reading due to his own ill health in childhood but there remains the (possibly apocryphal) story that he could read before he was three. It is plain that Jemima's love of reading created an environment where books were prioritized as valuable for the children of which Thomas was the eldest.

It should come as little surprise that Thomas's library was peppered with a mixture of non-fiction and Biblical related literature but his mother's eclectic tastes also dropped a few tasty morsels such as a translation of Virgil's Aeneid and Samuel Johnson's Rasselas.

As he grew older, we see more primers and subject books appearing, with interests in history, languages and grammar already identifiable. Millgate's biography also mentions him reading works by historical fiction writer Harrison Ainsworth, Dumas and some of the Shakespearean tragedies.

It was in Dorchester, while apprenticing with architect John Hicks, that Hardy's intellectual world expanded the most impressively under the influence of his close-friend Horace Moule. Moule introduced him to many of the revolutions in natural science and philosophy that would shake the foundations of the Christian faith in the 19th century. Moule also encouraged him in his Greek studies but, despite Hardy's ambitions to join the clergy by attending university, saw his efforts better directed toward the course he was on to become a respectable architect.

Hardy may have moved to London in 1862 (aged 21) in order to further his career as an architect but it also marks our first sense of his having considered writing as an alternative to his first dream of furthering his education. His readings alternated between classics like Shakespeare and books designed to expand his mode of thinking on topics including logic, economy and philosophy -- all suggested by Moule with whom he was still in conversation.

By 1864, he was placing small pieces in publication while considering poetry as a vehicle for his creativity. His poetic models at that time were many including: Milton; Scottish poet James Thomson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edmund Spenser, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley and Tennyson. He also appears to have discovered his closest poetical forebear in terms of influence, A.C. Swinburne, specifically his Poems and Ballads.

What seems most interesting in this exploration of the books that shaped Thomas Hardy is the lack of traditional novels among them. Though Hardy would study novels as he embarked upon his career as a writer of them, he did so as an architect would -- dissecting them for their structure and narrative devices that he might be able to replicate said devices as was necessary in his own writing. For Hardy, novels were a means to the end of earning a living as writer and not necessarily the source of his inspiration to write in the first place. For that, it is wiser to look to the oral storytelling traditions of his home and family from which he would derive so much of the material of his own novels.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Hardy and the Fairer Sex

Thomas Hardy's cousin and mythical baby mama Tryphena Sparks
As both a novelist and poet, Thomas Hardy is remembered for his portrayal of women. In an earlier day and age, he was seen as having a keen insight into the motivations of women, though I suspect that argument doesn't carry a lot of water within modern scholarship. What we can say, ecumenically, is that Thomas Hardy was fascinated by women and that his imagination focused on said motivations perhaps more intently than other writers of his time.

There is much to be said about Hardy's relationship with women during his public life as a writer, whether in how he portrayed women in his work or how he dealt with women in his actual life. We will, however, defer those issues for another day and focus on his interaction with women as a child and as a young man, perhaps in hope of identifying some archetypal relationships that will shed light on his adult attitudes.

Hardy's mother Jemima exercised a profound influence over her husband and children. In other circumstances, a statement like that might serve as a preview for a horror story of a childhood. There is considerable evidence supporting the narrative that she was, in fact, beloved of her children. She inculcated the children with a profound sense of obligation to family above all other things. Though all four children had careers, none of them escaped the orbit of the family cottage in Upper Bockhampton until Jemima died at the age of 1904 at the age of 90. This is exceptional because Thomas, foremost among them, had the means and even the motive, due to his fame, to move away but chose, instead, to build his own home within walking distance.

The children were born in two groups: Thomas and Mary, the elders and Katherine and Henry, the younger. Their mother intended that the children should all pursue careers, never marry and live together like platonic couples. All but Thomas remained unmarried until their death. As one might expect, Thomas and Mary were very close and, as we will see, she appears, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, in his writing. It is probably no exaggeration to say that Mary was Thomas's first confidante and, in that sense, his archetype for the deep friendship and intellectual rapport he sought in his eventual wife.

However deep seated his urge to please his mother and remain legally and emotionally unattached from women who were not members of his family may have been, Thomas Hardy does not appear to have been of the temperament to carry those attitudes beyond the onset of puberty. He was inclined to become deeply infatuated with young women to whom he'd never or barely spoken and, in some cases, only seen from a distance. Even viewed through a lens of Victorian morality, poor Tom was just bad at courting behaviors and hitched the wagon of his affections too often to women who, in some cases, barely knew he was interested.

And then there is the enigma of Tryphena Sparks.

When Thomas returned to Dorchester after his time in London, he was suffering from the double indignity of a broken "understanding" (kind of a preliminary engagement) with a young woman named Eliza Nicholls and the public perception that he'd failed in his ambitions to make it in the big city. While he returned to his work with Hicks, the local architect, he appears to have grown very close to Tryphena, his sixteen year old cousin.

Partially due to his own later tendency to obscure his own biography, a tragic mythology sprung up regarding Tryphena among Hardy speculators. Some insisted that they had produced a child. Others suggested that they were to marry but, at the last moment, it was revealed that Tryphena was not his cousin but his niece!

Millgate throws cold water on the more extreme of these speculations but acknowledges that the pair did engage in some mild courting behavior and that the union was probably deep-sixed by both Jemima and Tryphena's mother on the grounds that a marriage would improve neither of their social situations.

After the romance between them dissipated for whatever reason, Hardy would take a job working to restore a church at St. Juliot, in Cornwall, about 140 miles away. It was there that he met Emma Gifford, who would, in time, become his first wife. But there does seem to be little doubt that Tryphena was the archetype for some of Hardy's protagonistas, including the tragic Sue Bridehead from Jude the Obscure as well as the subject of several of his poems.

It's tempting of course to play armchair psychoanalyst and see Hardy's early courting behaviors as, essentially, self-sabotaging in order to avoid openly disobeying his mother's wishes. It's even more tempting to treat that as fact rather than conjecture when considered against the reality that none of his family attended Tom's wedding to Emma. Emma, who as we'll see, had her own set of personality issues she brought to the table but there is little doubt that Jemima viewed and treated her as she would have any outsider - with barely veiled hostility as a threat to her son's success and happiness.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Thomas the Architect

Thomas Hardy's architectural drawing of his home, Max Gate.
Before he was a published author, Thomas Hardy was directing his ambitions toward becoming an architect. All told, Hardy spent more than fifteen years learning and plying his craft. Advancing himself as an architect competed with his ambitions of becoming a writer for at least ten of them. Though he would go on to be remembered for his writing, there is much in Hardy the writer that is dependent upon the experiences he had working in architecture.

Almost immediately after beginning his apprenticeship, Hardy began associating with men in Dorchester who would provide him with some of the social and intellectual polish he would need to someday transition into a writer of novels. Perhaps the most important was Horace Moule, a Cambridge student whose father was a vicar. In him, Hardy found not only a friend but someone through whom he could see precisely what would be expected of him should he aspire to attend college in order to be a scholar or a cleric. Though Hardy would, at first, diligently undertake the self-education to pass the entrance exams, he discovered that there was simply not enough time in the day to learn enough to pass in a timely fashion. If Hardy had not given up those aspirations, it is doubtful he would have turned to a democratic form like the novel in order to fulfill his urge to publish.

Moule also introduced Hardy to many of the important ideas and writings of the day, connecting him to the currents of thoughts that were circulating as far afield as London herself.

Hardy's early years as an apprentice gave him the opportunity to travel quite widely throughout the country for a man of his age and status. His work took him into many diverse communities where his journalistic eye and ear could soak up visual details, folk lore and dialectic tics that separated one from the next as well as exposing him to the deep history of each place in its oldest, most important buildings now in need of repair.

After several years of apprenticing, Hardy moved to London to work as an assistant to a well-known architect who specialized in the restoration of old churches into a contemporary style ironically known as the Gothic Revival. He took full advantage of cultural opportunities that were simply unavailable in Dorchester and, again, socialized with people well-above his natural station of the son of a stonemason from Dorset. After five years, it appears that his health suffered from city dwelling and he returned to his home territory. His experiences had taught him that he had ambitions that went beyond merely being an architect but also gave him a social framework to understand Londoners' tastes and expectations.

Of course, Hardy would later borrow extensively from his direct experience with stonemasonry, carpentry and architecture in his novels and poems. Both his first and last published novels feature major characters who occupy some point on the spectrum of building crafters and his insider knowledge of how the vocation worked (literally) could be called upon to provide a "sense of truth" to his writing in the same way he might highlight a local turn of phrase or an almost forgotten folk ritual. Moreover, Hardy's characters seem to occupy real physical spaces, often modeled from his memory on homes, offices, churches and other types of buildings that he himself had occupied or studied.

Perhaps I'm stretching credulity with my final point here but, as he began to tackle the idea of producing a novel, I think it would be unwise to overlook his experiences as a designer of spaces in relation to his ability to create within the very structured form of the English novel of the period. The creative journey from serialization to three volume release and finally into one volume form imposed three different sets of structural demands upon his stories. This ability to think about the structure of a story in three-dimensions as it were was no small feat and yet it was one he seemed to master by his fourth novel, Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), completed only four years after his first, the unpublished The Poor Man and the Lady.

Hardy all but abandoned the craft of architecture after his first novel's publication with the grand exception of his home, Max Gate, the home he designed and had built for him outside of Dorchester. As I hope I've been able to demonstrate here, Hardy benefitted generously from not only the skills and experiences he gained in his time as an architect but also the opportunities the profession offered him to expand himself socially and intellectually into the man he would eventually become.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Rosin Up the Bow

Though Thomas Hardy would not follow in his father's footsteps as a stonemason, he did join in the family tradition of playing music. Hardy's father was part of an ensemble of local musicians that performed not only at church as part of the congregational worship but also at social events like weddings, festivals and other more minor celebrations. His writing is chocked full of references to music and songs of his time and place and, by all accounts, music remained an important part of his life even after he stopped performing himself.

The church went through a transition during Hardy's childhood with the ensemble eventually replaced by an organ--a transition facilitated, no doubt, by the Industrial Revolution in England . An organ would have been too rare and too expensive for such a humble place of worship before the onset of mass production. Hardy gifts the modern reader with a glimpse into that world in Under the Greenwood Tree (which bears the subtitle The Mellstock Quire), which we will explore in greater depth upon reading the novel, as well as in a variety of poems.

Hardy dwelt upon the loss of this tradition, no doubt reacting to its erosion in practice as a sort of metonymy for his relationship with his father. Thomas Hardy Sr. was, by all accounts, a hard-working man of generous spirit and no small degree of affability. He was also a very quiet man who deferred to his wife Jemima in all matters related to the home. We have a very clear sense historically of Hardy's sense of debt to his mother for pushing him to aspire beyond his station and very little evidence that this debt came with resentment. He seems to have been very devoted to her, sometimes at the expense of his first wife, until her death in 1904 and eulogized her beautifully in the poem "After Her Last Breath." Hardy's father casts a more elusive shadow within his work.

As a young architect, Hardy would be assigned to oversee the renovation of churches into the Gothic Revival Style, an undertaking that one can see echoed in the page of Jude. He expressed his regret for his involvement with it later in life, seeing it akin to destroying the design integrity of the original buildings in the name of a slavish devotion to a past poorly glimpsed. One must also wonder if some of that shame wasn't a deeper expression of his sense of progressive detachment from the days when his father played music in a church just like the ones he had changed in the name of progress.

Going to church for Hardy was never, as far as we can tell, about entering into a deep relationship with a personal savior. It was about community, family, rite and hymn. It was a place where music was once made by a band of skilled local musicians in service to the local folk. I feel strongly that Hardy's deepest connection to his father came through playing music together and in his life-long love of music we can see that bond most clearly on display.

In 1995, a group called The Mellstock Band released an album of music drawn from Hardy's work called The Songs of Thomas Hardy's Wessex, performed in a style consistent with the historical period. I've included a playlist of videos featuring the songs on that record. It is a wonderful listen and I hope you all enjoy it as much as I have.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Keeping Up with the Hardys

The cottage at Higher Bockhampton in Dorset where Hardy grew up.
Photo by Chris Downer
The greatest miracle of Thomas Hardy's life was that he became a celebrated writer at all. In Hardy's day, family status, class, vocation, geography and education carefully defined the parameters within which one was expected to thrive. This idea of a person's lot in life being decided by factors largely exterior to individual aspirations dominates his work.

In Hardy's case, he was able to leverage his relative social strengths to overcome his social liabilities. He was the eldest son of a stonemason. Hardy's father was the equivalent of a successful independent contractor; a man who could just afford to bankroll larger scale projects while providing unskilled laborers with the supervision needed to convert said labor into money. His family was not affluent in the way we might think of it today but their financial security was rarely in existential doubt.

Still, being from Dorset and essentially a manual laborer, Hardy's father was, from a rural perspective, a pillar among working class families in his area and, from an urban perspective, nobody from nowhere.

Hardy's mother Jemima played a vital role in his future success. Though she came from little means, she was well-read and instilled a love of reading and education in her young son. By the time he'd finished his formal schooling at 16, his own academic success put him in position to apprentice with an architect, rather than just taking up his father's profession. Though it wasn't a dramatic leap in social class, it was an upward step in status, which was about as much as anyone could have hoped for in that place and time.

It was this step upward that paved the way for him to marry Emma Gifford, the daughter of a solicitor of limited means. Though Emma's higher social standing served the Hardys well in his early years and transition to becoming a novelist, his own fortunes would rise far beyond hers and, in time, she was perceived as something of a social liability to him. This was but one of many strains on their marriage which I'll cover in much greater depth as the blog progresses.

Hardy's success makes it difficult to recognize the caricature of his own experience that he captured in Jude, that of an intellectually ambitious young man of low status who is thwarted in his life's dream of gaining the education that will allow him to escape the harsh conditions of the working poor. While Hardy managed to escape from the nexus of geography, status and education that might have otherwise held him to the position of a simple architect for the whole of his life, his books are a constant reminder that he and most of his peers were one bad decision, marriage or vice away from utter ruin.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Sifting the Ashes: The Millgate Biography

In preparation for this blog, I thought it wise to read through at least one Hardy biography to establish the skeleton of a chronology of his life and work in my mind. In my research on the various biographies available, I was surprised to find that the first semi-definitive work on his life wasn't written until the 1980s by Hardy scholar Michael Millgate. In 2004, enough new materials surrounding his life had been researched and authenticated that Millgate felt compelled to expand it into the volume that I'm reading, Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revisited.

One of the reasons that it took so long to write a definitive biography was that Hardy took great pains to control the narrative about his own life while he was alive, as well as making arrangements for the preservation of that narrative after his death. He wrote an autobiography called The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy and arranged for it to be published after his death in his second wife's name. Florence Hardy modified his work before allowing it to be published and a definitive text of Hardy's intended manuscript wasn't published until 1984, reconstructed by Millgate himself.

Both texts are flawed as works of history because they ignore critical areas of Hardy's life that reveal the source of some of his most important ideas. Building on the portions of the two Hardy biographies that were verifiably true, Millgate pieces together a less flattering but altogether more human picture of the enigmatic writer using primary sources like Hardy's notebooks and annotated books, recovered correspondence, letters and diary entries from both Emma and Florence Hardy as well as published materials (reviews, rebuttals etc) that Hardy ignored in the retelling of his own story.

There have been other Hardy biographies published and I plan to read and comment upon them as time and circumstance allow but, for the next few blog posts, I'm going to focus solely on the second Millgate biography as a launchpad to talk about Hardy the man before we get started on the first novel Desperate Remedies.

In the meantime, I've added a few links to the right side. If you're on Goodreads, please feel free to add me there. I'd like to use it as the social locus of this project so I don't spam my friends on Facebook to death.

Monday, March 7, 2016


Welcome to 'Joy Lies Slain,' a blog dedicated to the systematic study and exploration of the life, writing and legacy of writer Thomas Hardy. I suppose that the first question that might occur to someone stumbling upon this blog for the first time is, "Why Hardy?"

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs:
Print Collection, The New York Public Library. "Thomas Hardy" 

The New York Public Library Digital Collections
Thomas Hardy has been my favorite writer since I was a teen, which, by way of context, was during the administration of the Bush the Elder. I read some of his poetry for my British Literature class in high school and loved his ability to sketch these powerfully emotional scenes in a short space. That same year, I read Jude the Obscure, Hardy's final novel. It was the most terrifying thing I'd ever read, which was no small feat as I'd been reading Stephen King novels since grade school. It was scary in a different way. It was the story of the way that the world crushes a man and makes it as if he'd never existed.

Of course, any writer has the power to create a character and then destroy it. What got me so deeply was the obvious affection that the author had for his protagonist. Jude was a lovable character. He strove. He made bad decisions but almost always for the right reasons. His life was brutish and short, filled with horrors I couldn't fathom experiencing. Hardy's writing was lyrical, bursting with lavish descriptions of nature, people, places, buildings and it made me want, despite the steep downward vector of Jude's own fortune, to step into that place and become a part of it. That was his genius to me then, that juxtaposition of the achingly beautiful and the soul-crushingly depraved.

In the years since, I've re-read Jude many times, taking something different yet no less vital from it with each return to Wessex. I've read quite a few of Hardy's other novels and been a student of his poetry. Of late, I've found myself thinking of the man and his work quite a bit and, after some deliberation, decided to take a journey in tribute to all that I feel Hardy's writing has done for me.

'Joy Lies Slain' has a five year mission. I'm going to read all of Hardy's novels and poetry in the order they were published and write about it. Along the way, I'm going to dive deep into works that have sprung up around his legacy including: biographies; critical writing; work by authors who were an influence or upon whom Hardy had a recognizable influence; as well as films and music drawn from his work.

And, in the summer of that fifth year, I will take a trip to Dorset in the West Country of England, with my wife and daughter, and finally have my chance to look through the window of time at the places that set my imagination on fire all those years ago.

I know that's a bold proclamation and five years is a long time. I have no idea what Fate has planned for me but I can't think of anything I'd rather accomplish in those five years than drilling deep into the work of my favorite writer and sharing my findings with all who derive pleasure from such things.

I think it's going to be fun.

Reading:Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revisited by Michael Millgate

On Deck: Desperate Remedies (Novel 01)

Listening to: Hossein Alizadeh's Weaving the Garden