A scrupulous and contentious investigation of Hardy's (18401928) life and work, striking a sensible balance among his melodramatic Wessex novels, his impassioned and pessimistic poetry, and a life more mundane than other biographies have presumed. Hoping to avoid biographers posthumously as he did journalists during his lifetime, Hardy destroyed most of his personal papers and ghost-wrote his life story for his second wife, Florence, to publish under her name after his death. This odd work serves as Seymour-Smith's touchstone, despite Hardy's reticence about his personal life and Florence's own further editing. Of Hardy's early life in Dorset and architectural/literary apprenticeship in London, Seymour-Smith (Robert Graves, 1982) differs from earlier biographers in portraying a more stable childhood home life, a more influential relationship with the Dorchester philologist and poet William Barnes, a less sordid youthful affair with Tryphena Sparks, and a completely heterosexual friendship with Macmillan reader and Oxbridge dropout Horace Moule. In Seymour-Smith's view, Hardy had a mostly happy marriage with Emma Gifford, an independently minded helpmate from whom he was only later estranged (and who died in 1912); myths of their incompatibility came mainly from Florence, portrayed here as devious and pathetic. While Seymour-Smith takes to task other biographers (particularly Thomas Millgate in Thomas Hardy, 1981) for their egregious suppositions, he makes many minor ones himself, such as using a poem to infer developments in the collapse of Hardy's midlife affair with the novelist Florence Henniker, or asserting with only circumstantial evidence that the second-century heresy Marcionism informed the philosophical cast of The Dynasts. At his best, however, Seymour-Smith plays well the delicate game of reading Hardy's novels and poetry as biographical sources while chastising the critics who substitute sensational speculation for an acknowledgment that sometimes a writer just makes things up.
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