|Thomas Hardy around the time he wrote |
The Poor Man and the Lady
Hardy wrote the initial draft for the book in the second half of 1867 and made substantial edits in the process of recopying it for submission until the middle of 1868. The Poor Man and the Lady was not only unpublished but no amount of the original manuscript remains. What we know about the book we know mostly from correspondence between Hardy and the publishers to whom he shopped it, the elements from the book that were recycled into other forms (such as his follow-up effort Desperate Remedies as well as Hardy's later short story, "An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress"), and comments he made about it later in life.
The plot seems to have revolved around a doomed romance between a politically radical young architect and a woman of a considerably higher social status. They try to get married. People won't allow it. Her father tries to have her married off to someone of her social class. The young lovers marry in secret and then she dies suddenly. It's easy to see some classic elements of Hardy's fiction already at work in even this reduced version of the plot. The lead male character is an architect. The tension in the book centers around class anxiety and marriage.
What separates this early effort from Hardy's published novels to follow is the overt class criticism that appears to have filled its pages. We are certainly not invited to admire the land-holding Cytherea Aldclyffe in Desperate Remedies but neither is there the suggestion that all people of her social class are equally unlikeable. Several people, including publishers to whom the novel was submitted as well the readers they employed to assess its potential reception, make mention of the relentlessness with which Hardy attacks the upper classes in the book.
Honore de Balzac and W.M. Thackeray (whom Hardy identifies as someone he was reading during this period twice in his Life and Work) are both name checked as possible inspirations for his story, which leads us to another interesting line of inquiry. Is it possible that Hardy's first novel was rejected not only because it was immature work (ie very early in his development of the craft of novel writing) but also because it was blatantly literary, wearing its thematic concerns and ideology clearly on its sleeve?
Hardy took the work first to publisher Alexander Macmillan for consideration. I think it's worth mentioning that Macmillan was a connection (however distant) that Hardy owed to his old friend Horace Moule. Macmillan developed the book with Hardy for more than six months before deciding that he wouldn't be able to publish it and, even then, gave Hardy a letter of recommendation for another publisher to consider it. This feels like a favor being extended to Hardy on Moule's behalf and shows that, despite Hardy's apparent "failure" to establish himself permanently in London, the contacts he'd developed among those with more education and higher social standing than himself were paying off.
Ultimately, Hardy would shop the book to several publishers unsuccessfully before moving on to begin Desperate Remedies. His correspondence and the timbre of Desperate Remedies suggests that Hardy took some specific lessons away from his experiences with The Poor Man and the Lady. He went into his second novel trying to write something that would appeal to an audience that already existed rather than writing what appealed to him and hoping for the best.
He had also gained knowledge about how the publishing industry worked and was able to use that to make informed decisions when finally bringing his work to market. He also learned that most of the publishers and readers had latched onto his portrayal of rural people and his vivid physical descriptions as elements to retain for his next work. These were, of course, elements of his style that he would retain for the entirety of his career as a novelist.