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.

David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.