Friday, February 10, 2017

Writing 'A Pair of Blue Eyes'

The cover to a recent mass-market edition
of Thomas Hardy's third novel
A Pair of Blue Eyes.
A Pair of Blue Eyes was Thomas Hardy's third novel. It is an interesting transitional book in that contains, like the two prior to it, conceptual threads of his never-published first effort The Poor Man and the Lady. Unlike those books, it was written entirely after his introduction to his future wife, Emma Gifford, and it was published under his own name. Before digging into the substance of the novel itself, it may prove valuable to examine the circumstances under which it was produced.

Hardy had completed Under the Greenwood Tree in what one might characterize as a weakened position in terms of his ability to bargain. His first novel, Desperate Remedies had ended up costing him money and had slipped into the remainder bin prior to the release of his follow-up. After fumbling for some time to find a publisher for his finished manuscript for Greenwood, he finally settled it with the same publisher, Tinsley, but only by selling the copyright for a mere £30, a pittance more than the sum he'd lost on his first book.

It was a dynamic time in Hardy's life. He was living between four places: his family home near Dorchester; Weymouth, where he pursued architectural work; London, where he mixed architecture and publishing business; and St. Juliot, where he was pursuing a future with someone who seems to have loved him as unequivocally as he loved her. It was a romance conducted largely by correspondence, punctuated by intense periods of dreaming together about the possibilities of the future. Emma became his sounding board and his copyist and, depending on how seriously you decide to take her later claims, his collaborator.

Reviews and sales on his second book had been stronger than his first and it was Tinsley this time who came to Hardy, in late June of 1872, interested in tying up his next effort for serialization and eventual publication. Hardy had already told him of a new story he was working on, drawn, at least in part, from his recent excursions to Cornwall. Tinsley offered him 200£ for the serialization and rights of a novel called A Pair of Blue Eyes to publish the novel but the first installment had to be published in September.

It was real money but it came with real demands from him as a writer. Some sources suggest Hardy had as many as five chapters written before he made the agreement with Tinsley. Taking that at face value, it represents about 10% of the book that was to be serialized monthly until its end in April of the following year. He completed the first installment by the first of August 1872 and then embarked for a visit, his first, with Emma's parents to discuss the prospect of her hand in marriage.

That visit is one of the black holes that Hardy installed in his own biography by destroying all references to it and speaking of it only in the vaguest terms. Emma's father, impoverished but apparently still possessing all the class prejudice of his upbringing, rejected Hardy outright and the grudge-bearing author never saw either of Emma's parents again. As A Pair of Blue Eyes has a ill-fated love between a low-born but ambitious man and a liberal-minded but tradition-bound heroine sitting at its core, it's a challenge not to project that narrative on to the void Hardy constructed around this devastating moment in his life.

Emma's parents may have rejected Hardy but Emma did not. It was their foolhardy attitudes about class and money that had abandoned her to become a maid-servant to her sister, who had married a septuagenarian clergyman under the duress of a similar paucity of options. Hardy loved her. He had ambition. He had talent. It was a gamble but, given her precarious position, it was, perhaps, the wisest bet available to her.

Unfortunately, Emma's parents were not the only parties opposed to the union. Hardy's mother, Jemima, was opposed to any of her children marrying and there was nothing about Emma that appeared to inspire feelings to the contrary. She seemed to resent the implication that her Thomas wasn't good enough for someone else's family and rejected Emma on similar grounds. The pair of lovers were faced with a future unendorsed by either of their respective families.

It was in this highly-uncertain but, doubtless, highly-emotionally charged period that Hardy completed his obligations (by March of 1873) to Tinsley LIKE A BOSS. A Pair of Blue Eyes was Hardy's first novel to be published under his own name and, by my reckoning, also the first that has moments (long stretches, even) where we encounter the full power of Thomas Hardy, the novelist. It sold well, was reviewed well and led immediately to the development and creation of Hardy's first great novel, Far from the Madding Crowd.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Review: Thomas Hardy by Claire Tomalin

Penguin Books. 2007. 528 pages
It has been said that a biography (and historical narratives in general) tell us more about the time in which and the audiences for which it is written than about the subject under scrutiny. Michael Millgate wrote two Hardy biographies, spaced some two decades apart in time, as well as restoring Hardy's autobiography from the poorly-edited pseudepigraphical biography, published under Florence Hardy's name, that it had been for the five decades prior to his involvement with the work. One might suggest that Millgate's treatment of Hardy was more historical than biographical as he felt a compulsion to unearth all of the resources that had been buried under Hardy's compulsion to control the narrative about his life. His work answers the questions, "What can be known about Thomas Hardy and how shall we weigh the validity and centrality of the sources available to us?"

Claire Tomalin's Thomas Hardy asks different questions and answers them for, perhaps, a different audience than Millgate's work. Her take on Hardy is more narrative than exhaustive, addressing central questions surrounding Hardy and his body of work free of the compulsion to overturn every stone and document the contents hidden beneath it. In this sense, she serves as a filter for Millgate's work, producing a biography aimed the uninitiated rather than specialists seeking to expand the framework of Hardy scholarship.

The most notable focus to Tomalin's narrative is the close scrutiny on Emma Hardy's diaries as a barometer for the internal pressures of the couple's difficult marriage. Tomalin's picture of the relationship as it evolved over the course of their lives is more nuanced than the one Millgate presents, if only because of her greater interest in it. The close reading of Emma's personal writing can sometimes take on the quality of text-based biblical criticism as Tomalin often invites us to infer feelings and resentments between them from what is not said. All told, this aspect of the book does offer a more robust picture of the relationship that would define much of Hardy's later poetry in absentia.

The rest of the book, however, feels like retreading ground already exhaustively covered by Millgate. Tomalin is the more lyrical writer between them and, for someone who only wants to read one book about Thomas Hardy, there would be no reason not to choose this one. Her reading of Hardy's work in conjunction with his personal narrative is often insightful and demonstrates clearly her commitment to her subject.

Perhaps there is an apples-to-oranges unfairness in comparing the work of one writer who has dedicated his scholarly life to a subject to that of another who interest is more journalistic, seizing upon a subject for the time it takes to write a credible biography before moving on to her next book but that's kind of where I ended up with Tomalin's Thomas Hardy. It was engaging enough to move me from introduction to conclusion. It made me rethink a few of my own ideas about the Hardy's marriage. It was written well-enough that reabsorbing information with which I was already familiar was no more tedious than it needed to be. But, at the end of the book, I didn't feel like I had so much learned more about Thomas Hardy as I had examined the particular intersection of elements to his life story that would compel Tomalin to write about him.