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.


  1. This is the only Hardy biography I've read and I thought it was fantastic. It really took me into his life and work. I hope you enjoy it.

  2. I read Millgate's original biography when it was first published. I do not plan to read his update but would like to read a couple of more recent biographies by Ralph Pite and Claire Tomalin. It is interesting when authors (or their friends) try to disguise or otherwise hide part of their life.

    1. James,

      You can pretty much mark the boundary of modern Hardy scholarship with Millgate so that's awesome that you were there for the birth of the whole thing! I've heard nothing but positive reviews of the other biographies and plan to read them and other supplemental materials throughout this blogging project.