Philip Larkin on the life of his greatest influence, Thomas Hardy

Larkin piece republished on the anniversary of Hardy's death.

“Most English writers have been only too glad to get out of the working class, if they have had the misfortune to be born in it.” In his 1975 review of Robert Gittings’s Young Thomas Hardy, Larkin maps out the many traps laid for any would-be Hardy biographer, with characteristic morbidity:

These are hazardous times for Hardy biographers. The bonfires are still burning at the bottom of Max Gate garden, letters, diaries, photographs, notebooks (“he, she, all of them — aye”), and the ascending smoke assumes lurid shapes, like gargoyles, or foetuses in bottles.

He holds forth on popular disputes around Hardy’s life and conduct: unacknowledged children, incest, class, frigidity, the estate – justifying his acknowledged status as the inheritor of the Hardy's school of poetry, in which quotidian provincial life is transmuted into gruelling, philosophically downbeat lyric poetry.

Legend has it Thomas Hardy kept a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations on his bedside table. Philip Larkin in turn kept a copy of Hardy. Each has attempted to “embrace” death in their work; to emphatically convey that nobody will be remembered, and nothing will survive, and that in times of crisis – this can be of comfort.

Hardy died on 11 January 1928. He was eighty-seven. His ashes were interred at Westminster Abbey, alongside Edmund Spenser, Aphra Behn and Matthew Arnold. But his heart, as he uncannily foretold in his poem “In death divided” – “I shall rot here, with those whom in their day / You never knew” – remains in his beloved Dorchester, interred beside Emma Lavinia Gifford, his first wife, about whom Larkin writes:

Hardy thought Emma was an intelligent and well-read woman, which she wasn't, and Emma took Hardy for a successful London professional man, which he wasn't either. It is hard to know who got the worst of it.

The Puddletown Martyr
Philip Larkin

Young Thomas Hardy by Robert Gittings
Heinemann, £4.95

These are hazardous times for Hardy biographers. The bonfires are still burning at the bottom of Max Gate garden, letters, diaries, photographs, notebooks (“he, she, all of them — aye”), and the ascending smoke assumes lurid shapes, like gargoyles, or foetuses in bottles. The little old gentleman with the light waistcoat and auctioneer's hat puts away his bicycle and trots in for luncheon with the Prince of Wales, but behind him innumerable dark trees thresh and ply, moaning of concealment, of betrayal, of domestic Sophoclean atrocities. “What has Providence done to Mr Hardy,” demanded Edmund Gosse as long ago as 1896, “that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex and shake his fist at his Creator?” The last ten years have brought grim guesses in reply: births unregistered, parentages unacknowledged, speechless agonies in the eweleaze under the pitiless sun. The Life (for “Speaking generally, there is more autobiography in a hundred lines of Mr Hardy's poetry than in all the novels”) has been invaded by the Works.

Faced with the long and blameless senescence, the scrupulous destruction of private papers, the Chinese wall of the pretended biography, the Hardy biographer can take one of two courses: he can either treat the row of serene volumes as an explosive enigma, a kind of large-scale Sonnets from which a human anecdote must be construed, or he can turn investigator, a tracer of unpublished letters, a searcher of the records of long-closed schools and hospitals, a visitor of museums and registries. Dr Gittings elects the second: “The only true method is to start from the facts of the life itself.” Only then can sober consideration begin.

Eschewing sensationalism, Dr Gittings opens on the theme of class — less on its obvious manifestations in Tess and Jude than with an interesting account of how Hardy stealthily withdrew from his family background. In the Life he either upgrades the status of his relatives or omits them altogether; in a genealogical table he constructed in his old age his own branch of the family (“Hardy had about thirty first cousins”) was left virtually blank. At his first wedding his wife's family was represented but his was not: afterwards, her relations came to stay but his did not. Gittings does not bother to explode the legend of a reluctant Hardy dragged into Society by his wife (indeed, this belongs several decades later than 1876, when the present volume ends), but his case that Hardy was determined to get away from “the people who toiled and suffered” might have been strengthened by doing so. (It is salutary to remember that Hardy first met Mrs Henniker at the Vice-regal Lodge in Dublin in 1893, and dined with her husband the Major in the Guards’ Mess, St James's, in the following year.) Gittings thinks that by The Hand of Ethelberta “the note of social protest, which had begun with The Poor Man and the Lady, is virtually dropped”. To this deracination he ascribes some of the stress and turmoil of the later novels, not altogether convincingly: most English writers have been only too glad to get out of the working class, if they have had the misfortune to be born in it. But it is amusing that someone who wrote “all things merge in one another — good into evil, generosity into justice [etc.]” should have been so keen to avoid merging with his awful Puddletown relatives.

Gittings deals fairly with the first marriage, and with Emma. He rejects the notion, entertained by Hardy and disseminated by his second wife, that there was madness in Emma's family: her eldest brother certainly died in an asylum, but of Bright's disease. With her life-long energy and high spirits she was, according to Gittings, a perpetual adolescent. He also points out, shrewdly, that both parties were deceived in each other: Hardy thought Emma was an intelligent and well-read woman, which she wasn't, and Emma took Hardy for a successful London professional man, which he wasn't either. It is hard to know who got the worst of it. Emma's eccentricities and overbearing manner must have been gall to Hardy, but she had to endure his poems to other women and to discover “that this obsessive, complicated, brooding mind could be unconsciously insensitive and accidentally cruel”.

Gittings also accords a central position to Horace Moule, the first of Hardy's two mentors (the second was Leslie Stephen). Moule, who had attended both Oxford and Cambridge, was Hardy's university, telling him what to read and how to write; indeed, if Gittings offers a reply to Gosse's question, it is Moule's alcoholism, illegitimate child, and suicide that he names:

The certainty is that, from the time of the death of Moule, Hardy never portrayed a man who was not, in some way, maimed by fate . . . we can date the emergence of Hardy as a fully tragic artist, an expounder of life's true miseries, from the suicide of his friend, and the appalling revealed ironies of that personal history.

The existence of the illegitimate child apparently rests on the authority of the second Mrs Hardy, who told R L Purdy about it in 1933. One wonders if it is more firmly founded in fact than Emma's in-heritance of madness. Gittings also brings forward Moule's successor in Hardy's life, Leslie Stephen, who acted as American-style editor to Far From the Madding Crowd (“Muttering to himself in the manner pilloried by his talented daughter in To the Lighthouse, he would go through the manuscript scribbling in its margins and some-times all over it”). It was Stephen who gave Hardy his poetic credo in a sentence that is really all anyone needs to know about writing poetry:

The ultimate aim of the poet should be to touch our hearts by showing his own, and not to exhibit his learning, or his fine taste, or his skill in mimicking the notes of his predecessors.

One is grateful to Dr Gittings for his meticulous research (who would have dreamed that Hardy had “a walk-on part in The Forty Thieves at Covent Garden”?) and for his considered judgments, but at the same time a certain disappointment must be registered. The picture of Hardy that he draws — a prosaic, undecided, somewhat devious young man concerned to rise in Society — hardly squares with the poignant perception of even his earliest work. One asks sometimes whether he really likes Hardy: his first chapter repeats the view that the crypto-autobiography is dull. Since the greater part of it is a fascinating jumble of anecdotes, vignettes and observations taken from Hardy's diaries before their destruction, it is in fact supremely readable, especially precious for its aphorisms on poetry (“the emotion of all the ages and the thought of its own”). Then we are invited to smile at Hardy's “grand assault on poetry” in 1865: on the evidence of the 1866 poems alone, this is like deriding Jack Johnson for learning to box. His contention that what makes Hardy “consistently our most moving lyric poet” is that his “Words . . . were never solely literary; they were almost always linked to a remembered and familiar tune, undivided” omits the element of meaning: almost always, too, Hardy is saying some-thing original. Dr Gittings makes a foray into the question of Hardy's sexual development, or lack of it: “speculation about almost every woman he meets” may be a sign of “delayed or imperfect physical development”, but it might equally be the opposite. There is no mention of his strange comment on the servant-girl's baby: “Yet never a sign of one is there for us” — strange, in that it seems too intimate a reflection for one of Hardy's temperament to publish (it is in the Life), unless it is a deliberately planted false clue. And in that case what are we to make of the last will (14 August 1922), providing for “the first child of mine who shall attain the age of twenty one years”? Nor is Dr Gittings entirely guiltless of unjustified assertion: his claim that in 1871 Hardy sent valentines to both Emma Gifford and Tryphena Sparks is made on entirely circumstantial evidence. There is no proof that Hardy ever sent a valentine to anyone.

Dr Gittings reserves the heretical Providence and Mr Hardy (1966) for an appendix. Few of his readers will be unaware of its contention that Hardy was, at the time he met Emma Gifford, engaged to his cousin Tryphena; that he had an illegitimate son by her; and that she turned out to be not his cousin but his niece. Taking these assertions in order, Gittings concedes that the first may well be mostly true: the second Mrs Hardy (that source again!) used to say that Tryphena sent back Hardy’s ring, which he then bestowed on Miss Gifford. The second he shoots down in flames: it rests on the unsupported statement of Mrs Bromell, an 85-year-old sufferer from cerebral atherosclerosis; no birth, death, marriage, census, school, apprenticeship, or employment records support the existence of such a son, and the “long, hot autumn of 1867” when he was supposedly conceived had in fact an above-average rainfall. And there is not only no factual support for the third, “it is based on a denial of all personal and documentary evidence.”

If Dr Gittings is frankly severe about this book, it is because it has had an influence entirely out of proportion to its merits: it “seems to have exercised some sort of hypnotic effect on many people’s critical faculties”. On the other hand, Dr Gittings does not deal with what for some readers was the strongest part of its appeal: that it provided a hypothetical explanation for some of Hardy’s most puzzling poems. The last stanza of “On a Heath”, for instance, is crucial to the Lois Deacon-Terry Coleman argument:

There was another looming
Whose life we did not see;
There was one stilly blooming
Full night to where walked we;
There was a shade entombing
All that was bright of me.

If this is not an unborn child, one wants to ask, what is it? In 1920 Vere Collins put the question to Hardy himself:

C. Who or what is that referred to in the last stanza?
H. There is a third person.
C. “Another looming”, “one stilly blooming”, “a shade entombing” – are not there three different things?
H. No, only one.

The same speculations apply to “The Place on the Map”: “And the thing we found we had to face before the next year’s prime…” Well, of course, we have Hardy’s often-repeated assertion that “those lyrics penned in the first person… are to be regarded, in the main, as dramatic monologues by different characters”: the little old gentleman shuts the front door firmly in our faces. But the poems remain, and Gosse’s question remains. The Deacon-Coleman solution may have been wildly and ludicrously wrong, but it felt true. Even though it is put to flight, its place is unlikely to be taken by the unfortunate Mr Moule.

18 April 1975

Introduction by Philip Maughan.

Philip Larkin and Monica Jones outside Westminster Abbey. Photo: Hulton Archive via Getty Images.

Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was a poet, novelist and librarian. He contributed poetry and criticism to the New Statesman in the early 1970s.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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