A man with many sides

<strong>Thomas Hardy: the guarded life

</strong>Ralph Pite <em>Picador, 524pp, £25</em>

ISBN 033

Late in their marriage, Thomas Hardy's first wife took up cycling. It was a fashionable pursuit at the time, but Emma Hardy must have cut a ludicrous figure, Ralph Pite remarks, "charging along on her bicycle with a small, frail man trailing in her wake". The man was her husband Thomas - who was, as he wrote to a friend, "trying frantically to overtake her".

The scene is wonderfully chosen and described. Like something out of Chaplin, it seems to stand for something broader in Hardy's world - a world in which there is always a sense of moving at the wrong speed, of being out of step. It also provides an incongruous image of the eminent writer. Yet Hardy, as Pite argues, was a man with many sides. While the books "conjure up a bleak, stoical figure" - an impression confirmed by the biography that Hardy himself ghost-wrote, posthumously published under his wife's name - visitors recall a "charming, friendly, amusing gentleman who was a fund of information on all sorts of subjects". And the body of Hardyana to date has produced numerous other alter egos: Hardy the geologist, Hardy the architect and (in the case of one creative 1960s effort) Hardy the absent parent and traumatised philanderer.

Pite admits that Hardy's life is a stubborn mystery, and his biography embraces the writer's seemingly self-conscious inconsistency. An impressive, and impressively human, book, it will be particularly useful for those researching Hardy: Pite writes well about the author's use of dialect in his novels, his relationship with his mentor, the Dorset schoolmaster William Barnes, and his turbulent relationships with readers and publishers. On the whole, however, this biography is more concerned with knowing things honestly than with fact-gathering, addressing what we would like to know about Hardy as a man, a lover, a husband and a friend.

When it came to women, Hardy suffered from a sort of romantic clumsiness. Like so many of his characters, he always felt he was missing something, or someone. After he married Emma Gifford, his early fondness for his cousin Tryphena re-emerged. Later, as he became increasingly successful, he felt more and more embarrassed by his once beloved wife. Pite gives accounts of his cruelty - his forcing her to leave the table when he felt the conversation was beyond her, or slipping off to awards ceremonies without letting her know. He also details, with tenderness, Hardy's first real attempt at an affair - a day trip to Winchester which culminated in both parties going home separately (a veil is drawn over the 15 minutes they spent alone in a railway compartment). His second marriage, to Florence, also proved problematic. His longing for his late first wife produced the triumphantly accomplished Poems of 1912-13. Later, Florence found herself overlooked as Hardy developed a series of May-to-September-style crushes on girls who looked like his heroine, Tess.

Art, as Hardy wrote, was always a sort of "disproportioning" of realities, "to show more clearly the features that matter in those realities". Biography, through necessity, requires the same sort of conscious distortion. Pite's skill is in balancing the larger sweep of Hardy's life with a sense for what happened at the edges. It is the smallest of details that can shed light on a life. We learn of the poignancy of a note from Emma to Hardy - "Your novel seems sometimes like a child of all your own and none of me" - which touches both on their shared sadness at childlessness and on their marital estrangement. Elsewhere, Pite tells of the word that Hardy wrote in the margins of his Bible, later heavily erased - "Doubt".

Hardy had a keen and contradictory vision - he could be almost voyeuristic, as well as self- involved. He knew the value of small things, but despised pettiness. As biographies go, this one seems to match its subject. It contains those annoying dark hints where an interesting possibility is followed by an admission that this is "purely speculation", and Pite's fondness for cliffhangers occasionally borders on pastiche. Overall, however, this is a brilliant book. Pite, like his subject, takes risks with what he reveals, but the detail is always enlarging. Hardy, and his times, seem bigger for this work.

Sophie Ratcliffe is a lecturer in English at Jesus College, Oxford