In 1912, when he was 72, Thomas Hardy began to write a series of love poems about his wife, Emma. The poems were unlikely for several reasons. First, for years he and Emma had been estranged, and she had retreated to sleep alone in the attic, where she wrote letters to friends about his unkindness. By this point, Hardy was a literary celebrity, and had maintained flirtations with more than one woman. His reputation was based largely on his fiction; his controversial later novels, among them Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, had cemented his stature as a portraitist of country life and thwarted small-town aspirations. Second, Hardy was famous for his indictment of marriage—a bishop publicly burned his copy of Jude, and a Victorian newspaper, shocked by it, labeled it “Jude the Obscene.” What no one, including Hardy himself, would have guessed was that Emma would prove to be, as Claire Tomalin claims in her brisk new biography of the author, “his best inspiration.” That fall, Emma suddenly fell ill, and she died before Hardy got a chance to say goodbye to her. In the months after her death, numerous poems in her memory poured out of him—love lyrics of acute regret in which one of his recurrent themes was distilled in its most distinctive form. That theme could be said to be our failure to perceive the shadowy outlines of our own experience; life, in Hardy’s view, was nothing but a strangely prismed window onto the peculiar workings of time.
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