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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As it turns out, the Bake Off and the Labour party have a lot in common

And I'm not just talking about the fact they've both been left with a old, wrinkly narcissist.

I wonder if Tom Watson and Paul Hollywood are the same person? I have never seen them in the same room together – neither in the devil’s kitchen of Westminster, nor in the heavenly Great British Bake Off marquee. Now the Parliamentary Labour Party is being forced to shift to the ­political equivalent of Channel 4, and the Cake Meister is going with. As with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, so with Bake Off: the former presenters have departed, leaving behind the weird, judgemental, wrinkly old narcissist claiming the high ground of loyalty to the viewers – I mean members.

Is the analogy stretched, or capable of being still more elasticised? Dunno – but what I do know is that Bake Off is some weird-tasting addictive shit! I resisted watching it at all until this season, and my fears were justified. When I took the first yummy-scrummy bite, I was hooked even before the camera had slid across the manicured parkland and into that mad and misty realm where a couple of hours is a long time . . . in baking, as in contemporary British politics. It’s a given, I know, that Bake Off is a truer, deeper expression of contemporary Britain’s animating principle than party, parliament, army or even monarch. It is our inner Albion, reached by crossing the stormy sound of our own duodenums. Bake Off is truer to its idea of itself than any nation state – or mythical realm – could ever be, and so inspires a loyalty more compelling.

I have sensed this development from afar. My not actually watching the programme adds, counterintuitively, to the perspicacity of my analysis: I’m like a brilliant Kremlinologist, confined to the bowels of Bletchley Park, who nonetheless sifts the data so well that he knows when Khrushchev is constipated. Mmm, I love cake! So cried Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain when she was making a mockery of the “Fatfighters” – and it’s this mocking cry that resounds throughout contemporary Britain: mmm! We love cake! We love our televisual cake way more than real social justice, which, any way you slice it, remains a pie in the sky – and we love Bake Off’s mixing bowl of ethnicity far more than we do a melting pot – let alone true social mobility. Yes, Bake Off stands proxy for the Britain we’d like to be, but that we can’t be arsed to get off our arses and build, because we’re too busy watching people bake cakes on television.

It was Rab Butler, Churchill’s surprise choice as chancellor in the 1951 Tory government, who popularised the expression “the national cake” – and our new, immaterial national cake is a strange sort of wafer, allowing all of us who take part in Paul’s-and-Mary’s queered communion to experience this strange transubstantiation: the perfect sponge rising, as coal is once more subsidised and the railways renationalised.

Stupid, blind, improvident Tom Watson, buggering off like that – his battles with the fourth estate won’t avail him when it comes to the obscurity of Channel 4. You’ll find yourself sitting there alone in your trailer, Tom, neatly sculpting your facial hair, touching up your maquillage with food colouring – trying to recapture another era, when goatees and Britannia were cool, and Tony and Gordon divided the nation’s fate along with their polenta. Meanwhile, Mel and Sue – and, of course, Mary – will get on with the serious business of baking a patriotic sponge that can be evenly divided into 70 million pieces.

That Bake Off and the Labour Party should collapse at exactly the same time suggests either that the British oven is too cold or too hot, or that the recipe hasn’t been followed properly. Mary Berry has the charisma that occludes charisma: you look at her and think, “What’s the point of that?” But then, gradually, her quiet conviction in her competence starts to win you over – and her judgements hit home hard. Too dense, she’ll say of the offending comestible, her voice creaking like the pedal of the swing-bin that you’re about to dump your failed cake in.

Mary never needed Paul – hers is no more adversarial a presenting style than that of Mel and Sue. Mary looks towards a future in which there is far more direct and democratic cake-judging, a future in which “television personality” is shown up for the oxymoron it truly is. That she seems to be a furious narcissist (I wouldn’t be surprised if either she’s had a great deal of “work”, or she beds down in a wind tunnel every night, so swept are her features) isn’t quite as contradictory as you might imagine. Out there on the margins of British cookery for decades, baking cakes for the Flour Advisory Board (I kid you not), taking a principled stand on suet, while the entire world is heading in one direction, towards a globalised, neoliberal future of machine-made muffins – she must have had a powerful ­degree of self-belief to keep on believing in filo pastry for everyone.

So now, what will emerge from the oven? Conference has come and gone, and amateur bakers have banged their heads against the wall of the tent: a futile exercise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Will Jeremy – I’m sorry, Mary – still be able to produce a show-stopper? Will Mel and Sue and Angela and Hilary all come sneaking back, not so much shriven as proved, so that they, too, can rise again? And what about poor Tom – will he try to get a Labour Party cookery show of his own going, despite the terrible lack of that most important ingredient: members?

It’s so hard to know. It could be that The Great British Bake Off has simply reached its sell-by date and is no longer fit for consumption. Or it could be that Tom is the possessor of his alter ego’s greatest bête noire, one as fatal in politics as it is in ­bakery, to whit: a soggy bottom. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.