January 27, 2007
Thomas Hardy’s English Lessons
When Thomas Hardy drew his first chancy breaths inside a Dorset cottage in 1840, Wordsworth had yet to become England’s poet laureate. By his ninth decade, still writing, Hardy enjoyed listening to the wireless with his dog, Wessex, and had seen the silent-film adaptation of his own “Tess of the D’Urbervilles.” The author’s life span seems somehow even vaster than it was, a match for the cosmically long view Hardy took of his fictional characters, fate’s playthings set in motion on a “blighted star.”
This new biography makes its subject a fascinating case study in mid-Victorian literary sociology. Hardy struggles — with an industriousness befitting the age — against editorial rejection, rapacious contract terms and enforced prudery. Leslie Stephen, known chiefly to the 21st century as Virginia Woolf’s father, edited his magazine, The Cornhill, under the watchful, prissy eyes of so many others that he sometimes made “few suggestions beyond bowdlerizations” when working on Hardy’s copy. Serialization often forced the author “to pack in far too much plot” and thereby throw novels like “The Mayor of Casterbridge” significantly off-kilter. Finally, there were reviewers to contend with; Hardy remained overly sensitive to all they had to say.
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