Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life
Yale University Press, 2007 (2007)
Reviewed by Tim Davis
homas Hardy's biographers - Ralph Pite included - face an undeniable obstacle and challenge: Hardy, seeking to maintain control over his public and private personae, '
composed his own biography, ghostwriting it in the third person and specifying that after his death it should be published with his second wife, Florence, named as author. Its two volumes, The Early Life and The Later Years of Thomas Hardy (1928), remain an essential source for anyone writing about him even though it is an extremely partial account, one that exaggerates both Hardy's consistency and stability. The book gives the impression of a philosophically dispassionate character - someone who as a young man was as resigned, melancholy and meticulous as he became when older.
' With that as the precedent, subsequent biographers during the last century have consistently run into problems when trying to discover and expose the
ow, in the second noteworthy Hardy biography published this year (with Claire Tomalin's offering,
, appearing in January), Pite uses correction and amendment as his rhetorical strategy; frequently focusing on Hardy's 1928 biography - the work that has so markedly influenced many subsequent Hardy biographers - Pite relies upon new and extensive archival research as he takes a fresh look at Hardy's development as a person and author in the midst of the cultural, social, and economic upheavals of late 19th century England.
n Pite's presentation, readers discover a complex personality lurking behind the carefully constructed mask of one of the giants of English literature. For example, Pite corrects Hardy's own claim of being a '
passive and indifferent
' person and author. While it is true that Hardy was often perceived by his contemporaries as '
passive and indifferent
' as well as elusive and enigmatic, Hardy - as astutely argued by Pite - achieved his exceptional rise to fame and status (in an excessively status-conscious England) and maintained an obsessive concern for privacy (in tandem with his relentless drive for success) in large part because of a singular personality.
ossessed of a fastidious memory, remarkable in his reticence, too often emotionally guarded, and often inflexibly dispassionate, Hardy moved steadily (obsessively) from his isolated rural humble background (Dorcester in southwestern England) to the pinnacle of literary fame and social acceptance in cosmopolitan London. With a personal life that resembled a novel and with an overpowering desire for success (perhaps paradoxically, both aesthetically and commercially), Hardy - as revealed by Pite and notwithstanding Hardy's self-created public image - was an extraordinarily passionate, impulsive, obsessive, and vulnerable man. With this revelation as background, Hardy's novels and poems - when revisited by contemporary readers - begin to take on new and more complex meanings.
hile it may be impossible for any literary biographer to completely represent his or her subject and then relate those representations to the subject's literary texts - that is always the challenge for literary biographers, especially those who would take on Hardy as their subject - Pite has presented readers with a comprehensive and innovative look at the author of
Far From the Madding Crowd
Tess of the D'Urbervilles
Jude the Obscure
Wessex Poems and Other Verses
. Taken in combination with other recent biographies, Pite's highly recommended biography is an important and erudite addition to Hardy studies, especially as it so completely exposes and contextualizes the more complete and complex Thomas Hardy within his literary achievements and his rapidly evolving society and culture.
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