Not surprisingly, while Robert Gittings' two-volume Hardy study (1975, 1978) was strongest on Hardy-the-poet,...



Not surprisingly, while Robert Gittings' two-volume Hardy study (1975, 1978) was strongest on Hardy-the-poet, Millgate--co-editor of the Hardy Letters and author of Thomas Hardy: His Career as a Novelist (1971)--is best on Hardy-the-novelist, with particular emphasis on the imaginative transformation of autobiographical material into emotionally charged fiction. Less predictably, while Gittings viewed the less-than-attractive Hardy personality (with some skeptical harshness) as the strenuous, secretive, torn outcome of a ""double life,"" Millgate--to somewhat blander but no less plausible effect--recognizes those conflicts yet presents a more passive Hardy, usually ready ""to let matters take their own course,"" a genuine pessimist but one who ""was perfectly capable, if not of deliberately generating depression, at least of surrendering to it willingly and without resistance."" The result here, then, is a densely detailed, scrupulously balanced critical biography, drawing on a wide range of documentation (some 1500 footnotes), interpreting with intelligence, yet never generating much narrative momentum or digging very deeply. Millgate follows Hardy from rural beginnings to ambivalent ambitions (architectural, clerical, literary); from youthful infatuations to unfortunate marriage with snobbish Emma Gifford (like Gittings, Millgate finds her not always to blame); from writing struggles, ""almost pathetically open to advice"" from mentors, to success forever marred by Grundy-ish critics. Neither Gittings nor Millgate convincingly explains Hardy's astonished, angry reactions to the latter. (""It seems extraordinary, scarcely credible, that he should not have known the trouble he was likely to provoke by allowing his stories to drift into waters well known to be dangerous."") And though Millgate is indefatigable in chronicling Hardy's friendships and flirtations (Florence Henniker, Gertrude Bugler, et al.), Gittings is more convincing in Suggesting the needs behind ""Hardy's old susceptibility to feminine companionship."" Still, if there's a sympathetic yet shallow comprehensiveness to much of the biographical portraiture here, the life-to-literature connections are uncommonly shrewd: Return of the Native explores ""in hypothetical terms a road he had not taken""; throughout, ""what gave Hardy pain was precisely what provided the fuel for his art."" And Millgate delivers his exhaustive, impeccable scholarship in clean, firm, literate prose. A strong, uninspired mega-biography, then, which can't quite transform the cold, rainy Hardy landscape into compelling life history--but, for students of Hardy's fiction and for those who found Gittings slightly too idiosyncratic or unsympathetic, this is likely to be the standard source for many years to come.

Pub Date: May 7, 1982


Page Count: -

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1982