Thomas Hardy: Half a Londoner by Mark Ford - review by Nicholas Roe

Nicholas Roe

Near the Madding Crowd

Thomas Hardy: Half a Londoner


Belknap Press/Harvard University Press 305pp £20 order from our bookshop

‘What contrasting planes of existence he moved in – vibrating at a swing between the artificial gaieties of a London season and the quaintnesses of a primitive rustic life.’ So, late in his long life, Thomas Hardy described the self-division that provides the title of Mark Ford’s book – the first full-length account of Hardy as ‘a London man’, exploring the importance of that city to his literary career and the evolution of his imagined region, Wessex. All of Hardy’s London homes are discussed, together with the places he visited. His social presence is vividly evoked (‘a little, quiet, grey old man wearing a red tie’), as are the Londoners he encountered, from his arrival as a shy unknown in the 1860s to the soirees and dinners of the 1890s, by which time he had become a famous and controversial writer. Underpinning the whole book is Ford’s quest to understand Hardy’s ‘obsessive need to make sense of the relationship between London and the provinces’ at a time when railways, newspapers and the penny post had brought connections between country and city yet had also accentuated disparities between them.

Hardy is best known now as the inventor of Wessex, the area of southwest England – half real, half dream – where many of his novels and poems are set. Centred on Dorset, Wessex extends westward from Jude’s Christminster to Castle Boterel, from Michael Henchard’s Casterbridge to ‘the Great Forest, Blackmoor wide’ of ‘A Trampwoman’s Tragedy’. ‘Older than the centuries’, Wessex was in reality a working landscape when Hardy was born on 2 June 1840 at Higher Bockhampton, in the parish of Stinsford, ‘between woodland and heathland’. At this time Dorset was more than a day’s journey from London by the fastest mail coach, yet within seven years of his birth its remoteness was diminished. Dorchester railway station opened on 1 June 1847, from where a morning express could reach the metropolis before two in the afternoon. The old mail coaches were turned off the road and milk could now be sent up to the city by night train. ‘Londoners will drink it at their breakfasts tomorrow’, Tess says to Angel Clare in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. ‘Strange people … we have never seen.’ Tess’s sense of distance from London measures Hardy’s own, and yet, as Ford convincingly shows, that city of strangers unsettled Hardy into writing, initially enabling his self-discovery as a poet and then propelling him onward to become a novelist of rural and urban change, loss and uncertainty. Throughout, Ford detects the influence of London, as Hardy’s imaginative encounters with the provincial and the metropolitan reflect his experience of being torn between two worlds that were ‘mutually dependent but often mutually uncomprehending’.

Hardy first visited London, aged nine, with his mother. When he returned in 1862 he stayed for a full five years, during which he was employed as an architect by the genial Arthur Blomfield. Elected to the Architectural Association, with a prize medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects, he could have made a career in architecture but for the distractions of literature and the city. A contemporary in Blomfield’s office recalled Hardy as ‘a quiet sort of fellow, gentle in his way of speaking and moving about, rather dreamy in manner’; with the other young architects he talked of ‘literature and the writers of that time’. Lodging in Clarence Place and at 16 Westbourne Park Villas, Hardy soon ‘knew every street and alley west of St Paul’s like a born Londoner’. He enjoyed the theatres, galleries, music halls and pleasure gardens; he went to the International Exhibition and Kensington Museum; he rode the smoky new Metropolitan Line; and he had his bumps read by a phrenologist, who concluded that he ‘would lead … to no good’. Instructed by Blomfield to supervise the clearance of St Pancras cemetery for the Midland Railway, Hardy watched with macabre fascination when a coffin disgorged a skeleton with two skulls. Back in his lodging at Westbourne Park he studied Shakespeare, logic and economics, learned French and art history, and read ‘large tracts’ of poetry. Many of his own most original and inventive poems – his bleak masterpiece ‘Neutral Tones’, for instance – date from this time. Although published three decades later in his collection Wessex Poems, many of them had actually been composed a stone’s throw from Paddington Station.

After five years of the city’s ‘din and sin’, Hardy retreated, exhausted and in some disarray, to Dorchester, disappointed at having failed to find a publisher. From this time he lived ‘between Architecture and Literature’, shuttling between Dorset and London as his fame grew, seemingly in two minds as to whether he should be one of the madding crowd or not. The Return of the Native dramatises this personal unease most forcefully through the character of Eustacia Vye, whose yearning for the intellectual excitement of city life disturbs the slower rhythms of rural Wessex, ‘obscure, obsolete, superseded’, that attract her husband, Clym Yeobright. As Ford’s book shows, these two conflicted forces coexisted uneasily in Hardy for most of his life.

By November 1872 Hardy had been noticed by Leslie Stephen, who secured Far from the Madding Crowd for the Cornhill. It was in this novel that Hardy’s ‘Wessex nooks’ first appeared. He immediately grasped their imaginative possibilities in his next, The Hand of Ethelberta, where the interpenetration of London and Wessex is more thoroughgoing than in any of his other writings. In some respects, Wessex-born Ethelberta embodies the poetic ambition and social aspiration of Hardy himself during his first years in London, glimpsed in ‘Coming up Oxford Street: Evening’ in the form of a forlorn ‘city-clerk’ who sees no escape from the city’s dismally unromantic ‘rut’.

The word ‘Wessex’ was thus a constant reminder of the darkling rural dream. Ford sets this against the hard-edged modernity of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) and John Herschel’s General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars (1864). He depicts the new science as one facet of Hardy’s metropolitan consciousness, although, as Hardy also knew, the city’s haze of gaslight already meant that the night sky could only be seen from such places as Egdon Heath, where it seemed ‘everything … had been from prehistoric times as unaltered as the stars overhead’. Never as philosophically ambitious as John Donne’s poems, Hardy’s ‘metaphysical deployments of imagery’ are nonetheless deftly made. They are ‘serious, indeed strenuous attempts’, Ford tells us, ‘to digest the implications of new scientific discoveries’. This affinity is striking in that Donne was not much read at the time, but there is also an important contrast. Donne was a complete Londoner – a Bread Street Cockney – and his city sophistication serves to highlight a quirky, off-centred modernism in Hardy that distances him from Eliot, Joyce and Woolf. Ford’s study reminds us that ‘loamy Wessex lanes’ can also stir thoughts of ‘national service’, ‘poison-gas’ and ‘the end of dreams’.

When Hardy died in January 1928, after much anguish and disagreement his ashes were interred in Westminster Abbey and his heart at Stinsford in Dorset. This dismemberment contradicted Hardy’s wish to be buried near his family. Yet, as this fascinating and strangely poignant book reveals, the two locations of Hardy’s graves are true to the life that had shaped his writing.

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