Saturday, April 9, 2016

Hardy's Lost, Unpublished Novel

The Poor Man and the Lady was Hardy's first completed attempt at writing a novel. It was written at a critical moment in his life, begun just after he'd left London, essentially admitting the demise of his dream to enter the clergy to justify continuing his formal education while also walking away from a career as a London architect. He justified leaving by citing concerns about his health from living in London but one catches a whiff of the irrational about it - a compulsion to return to Dorset to recover pieces of his former self after the transformational experience of living at the center of England's social and cultural heart.

Thomas Hardy around the time he wrote
The Poor Man and the Lady
Hardy's decision to funnel his creative powers into novel writing was grounded in pragmatism. He had begun writing poetry while in London but, even from that vantage, couldn't see any way to make a living doing it. He'd even done a little journalism on the side but it didn't suit his interests or temperament. We don't get the sense of great novels inspiring him to take on the form as his major influences were poets and essayists. In his The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy, Hardy recounts a conversation where he declared his "indifference to a popular novelist's fame."

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 The Poor Man and the Lady was not only unpublished but no amount of the original manuscript remains.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.


  1. Interesting. I didn't realize he had an unpublished first novel. Not very surprising that the main character was an architect.

    1. I think he was feeling really resentful about the process of securing a marriage that would suit his mother in terms of providing a noticeable boost to his upward social mobility vector. By the time he started the book, he was 27 and, having left London, he had considerably narrowed his pool of respectable candidates, making the achievement of a successful marriage seem further away than ever. Thus the wish-fulfillment in the novel of a lady who could love the man, not merely the value of the union. As you know, we're in for a slew of architect/stone-mason protagonists and secondary characters in Desperate Remedies and beyond...

  2. Would any marriage have suited his mother given her strong advice to all her children to remain unwed, Rob? I have wondered if the warnings of his mother subconsciously affected his marriages, neither of which gave him long-term happiness. Then again, his siblings, all of whom heeded Jemima's counsel, seemed to live out pretty unfulfilled lives too!

    1. I think you've got your finger on it, David. I suspect that Jemima probably continually moved the goal posts on Tom in regards to an acceptable marriage with the idea that eventually he would lose interest. He seems to have taken a lesson from his father in that he didn't challenge her directly but charted his own course as best he was able without setting off a direct conflict. Once the pregnancy scare was in play, he probably used that as an imperative to force the matter but it obviously didn't sway her as none of the Hardys attended the wedding. I hear her voice in Aunt Drusilla from Jude the Obscure who insists that "The Fawleys were not made for wedlock; it never seemed to sit well upon us." I guess the interesting question is what caused Jemima to hold such strong opinions about marriage and keeping her children apart from it? It's really a very atypical opinion for the period. Thanks for reading!

  3. Sometimes it still astonishes me that we have no manuscript or typescript of The Poor Man and the Lady. How did that happen? Were all traces of it purposely destroyed at some point? Because I sense that Hardy reached during his lifetime that milestone when the world realizes it needs to collect and preserve this man's creative genius. It seems that if the PMatL existed by that point (the last two or three decades of his life), someone would have tried to preserve it. But maybe I'm wrong.

  4. Hardy himself destroyed it. He had a lifelong habit of burning work, much to the horror of his legacy-minded friends. Millgate ties this impulse in with the same near-obsessive need to control what elements of his private life were allowed to filter into the public sphere, which is ironic considering that he is basically known for mercilessly mining the lives and character of people he knew to make his books. Millgate is also of the opinion that PMatL was plundered for Desperate Remedies, the novella "An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress" and a poem called "The Poor Man and the Lady" so I think Hardy's reasoning was that he'd extracted the literary value he could from it.