Monday, March 05, 2007

Thomas Hardy

Two interesting reviews of Claire Tomalin's biography of Thomas Hardy have appeared recently: by Adam Kirsch in the New Yorker and by Tim Parks in The New York Review of Books (not available on-line). Kirsch's appeared in the January 15 issue, and I noted the following to comment on at the time:

"His novels, and especially his poems, describe a world from which God has already absconded, and for good. Because this is still the world we inhabit today, he remains one of the most vital and relevant of English writers—more modern, in some ways, than the modernists who succeeded and disdained him."

This was not my experience reading Jude the Obscure a few years ago. I came to it after having read all the Harry Potter novels that were then available. One effect of this was that I wanted to read some nineteenth-century novels—for the plots and subplots and all the social details (the kind of narrative J. K. Rowling writes). First, I read A Tale of Two Cities, and then I read Jude. I loved both, but I was also struck by how much Hardy's novel seemed trapped in a particular time period: it could not have been written much earlier, and its concerns were no longer important within a few decades after its publication. Jude's exclusion from higher education on class grounds is, happily, no longer an issue in England or the United States, and the impossibility of divorcing Arabella is also a dated problem. I feel closer to Stephen Moss's comment: "Hardy's mindset and the moral vision of his characters are alien to us."

Kirsch's review also contains a lovely quotation from Hardy: "If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the Inquisition might have let him alone."

1 comment:

Donald Brown said...

I agree with you about Hardy. And that's another strike against Kirsch. Clearly he wants to go back "before modernism" like so many wags these days (I think of Wood-Peck(er) of course). Hardy's "Jude" is marred by the kind of melodrama that modernism went some distance to outlaw forever from serious literature. But even "Tess" is manipulative in the way that only plotted novels can be (i.e., novels where the plot has to make a point).

Hardy's poems are another matter entirely and deserve to stand with other great pre-modernist lyrics (like Yeats and Hopkins) that are much more accomplished than most modernist verse. But that doesn't stop them from feeling dated to me.