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.

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