Another wonderfully readable life by veteran biographer and journalist Tomalin (Samuel Pepys, 2002, etc.).
She always builds a good story, and this slow but touching biography of the mild-mannered provincial architect from Dorchester who created seething novels about inequity and thwarted ambition is no exception. Tomalin begins at the death in 1912 of Hardy’s once-beloved first wife Emma, from whom he grew estranged in their last years; evidently he began to compose poetry seriously at this juncture as a way of revisiting their romance and his early life. Born in 1840 to a domestic servant who had to hurry up and get married before his birth, Hardy later became aware that he was an unwanted child whose existence stunted his mother’s chances of bettering herself. He served as an apprentice to an architect in Dorchester, then quit to seek his literary fortunes in London, attending reform meetings and making publishing contacts. After marrying wellborn Cornishwoman Emma Gifford, he settled back in Dorset to build his own house and live quietly among the laboring villagers. The humiliating rejection of his early novels rankled, and for many years after he finally got published, it was in serial form for quick money, much like Dickens and Eliot. Far from the Madding Crowd, which delineated the grim rural life that Hardy knew intimately, made his reputation as a socialist, feminist and gorgeous describer of nature. Hardy’s worldview grew more pessimistic, “marked by a fierce questioning of accepted ideas about society,” and it is evidenced in works including The Return of the Native, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Hardy’s bleak rewrite of the Book of Job, Jude the Obscure. Tomalin thoughtfully considers these works, and the poignant marriage of Hardy to Em, in a text brimming with insight.
A richly introspective biography sure to rekindle interest in Hardy’s writing.