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5 February 2024

Thomas Hardy’s life of desire

Why did the great novelist of female attraction create such misery in his marriages?

By Lyndall Gordon

“She was no longer a milkmaid, but the visionary essence of woman,” Hardy says of his most famous creation, Tess Durbeyfield: “a whole sex condensed into one typical form.” Tess, who is lovely and spirited, proves hardy, in the sense of long-suffering, at the hands of her seducer, Alec D’Urberville, and later her husband, Angel Clare, with his double standard of sexual morality. The punning title of Paula Byrne’s biography is not “Hardy’s Women” but “Hardy Women”, pointing to a prime characteristic of heroines who foretell and then outdo the liberated, career-minded New Woman in the 1890s, such as Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure (1895), opening a new path along the nerves of her finer intelligence.

Hardy Women dares to match three major lives of the novelist, two of them by leading biographers, Robert Gittings in 1975-79 and Claire Tomalin in 2006. Between these, in 1985, came a critical biography by the editor of Hardy’s letters, Michael Millgate, to whom Byrne is especially indebted. Yet her own expansive detail has a rationale that makes sense. Since Hardy invents figures whose days pass in obscurity and since he tried to put it over in his preface to Wessex Poems (1898) that his works were “in a large degree dramatic” not autobiographical, Hardy Women tracks down muses in an array of women who entered the author’s “orbit”.

Byrne casts her net wide. There are 71 chapters, each (with very few exceptions) headed by a woman’s name. Some are obvious – mother, sisters, wives – but most are obscure women and facts are thin. A chapter of four or six pages often yields only a sentence or two on the woman in question, filled out with her connections and local colour. The first 34 chapters press a reader to distinguish one from another as each woman undergoes Hardy’s pattern, which is to rouse mutual feeling and then move on. For him, it’s not shallow. An ardent look, a kiss and roused senses serve a purpose: his work. His susceptibility prompted and validated a fertile imagination. For a woman, though, it meant at best uncertainty, at worst pain. Each turned to a future – hope sealed by a ring that Hardy gave to the lady’s maid Eliza Nicholls, who went on identifying herself in Hardy’s novels, thinking he still cared for her. Even at the height of their romance, Hardy was distracted by a glance at Eliza’s younger sister, Jane.

In this way the author’s eye fell on women incessantly throughout his life, from boyhood to old age. The earliest to impress his ready sensibility was Julia Martin, a childless lady of the manor at Kingston Maurward, in Dorset, near Hardy’s birthplace in Higher Bockhampton, near Dorchester. She petted the clever boy, who attended the school she set up in Lower Bockhampton. Eroticised, Byrne suggests, by women’s clothing, he never forgot “the thrilling ‘frou-frou’” of silk flounces when she bent over him.

A recurring theme would be cross-class attraction, which appears in The Poor Man and the Lady, the first of his novels, rejected by several publishers and abandoned by Hardy, and again in Two on a Tower (1882). Hardy himself shifted from poverty to wealth and the society of titled ladies, who were among his most avid readers. The last woman to win his regard (in his eighties) was a country girl, Gertrude Bugler, who, in the 1920s, performed Hardy heroines with the Dorset Players. The frontispiece to this book shows her in the role of Tess.

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Fame brought Hardy into sophisticated society, yet he held by his rural past like Clym Yeobright in The Return of the Native (1878). As Clym bends to labour as a furze-cutter among the creatures of Egdon Heath, so Hardy, following a breakdown, came back to his native Dorset in 1867. Byrne’s retelling of Hardy’s life is soaked in class: his dreams of crossing the class barrier and his realistic awareness of the inescapable nature of his origin – how he drew on its scenes, folklore and accents. Byrne squares up to Tomalin’s The Time-Torn Man when she calls Hardy a “class-torn man”.

One of the strengths of this biography is to bring out the interconnections of class and romance. As a baby Hardy was frail, and in photos as an adult he appears weak, bowed, with a somehow unconvincing moustache – it looks stuck on – and yet an astonishing number of women were drawn to him. Emma Lavinia Gifford, the middle-class woman who became Hardy’s wife in 1874, explains this phenomenon in her autobiographical novella The Maid on the Shore. For her Cornwall heroine, one suitor’s “insignificant face and figure and quiet thoughtful manner had an interest for her more matured mind that no merely dashing handsome man… could have for her again”.

Women’s response to Hardy was stirred by his empathy. Byrne quotes a fan letter from a 20-year-old in New York, praising Hardy for understanding a woman’s soul. He loved feisty women such as his cousin Tryphena Sparks, a headmistress at the age of 20, with a coil of dark brown hair and eyebrows like black slurs in musical notation. His adored Phena (as he called her) became a model for the wilfully independent female farmer Bathsheba in Far from the Madding Crowd (1874).

Bathsheba offers an astute statement about women’s language to her suitor, Boldwood: “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.” It was later quoted by Virginia Woolf in a feminist essay – and again by Byrne to open a chapter. So it was that Hardy had the sensitivity to feel also for silent or quiet women gripped by unrequited love: Marty South in The Woodlanders (1887) and Elizabeth-Jane in The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886). Byrne shows how both these characters were modelled on his beloved sister Mary, who endured the lonely, repressed life of a schoolteacher.

Hardy’s empathy extended to defying Victorian condemnation of illegitimacy. He calls Tess “A Pure Woman”, the subtitle to this novel of 1891. He defies opinion further in Jude the Obscure four years later, when Sue Bridehead rejects the legality of marriage, the idea of “giving” a woman as though she’s property. Even more unacceptable to readers of the time was the fact that Sue detests sex with her husband, the schoolmaster Phillotson, though she respects him as a person.

Strongest of all is Hardy’s empathy with women’s desires. At Talbothays dairy, Tess and Angel Clare are “balanced on the edge of a passion, yet apparently keeping out of it”. As Angel carries four milkmaids across a stream, each grows keener on him so that their feelings suffuse their room by night.

Hardy was a master of erotic situations, the best known being Sergeant Troy’s swordplay around the swooning body of Bathsheba in a chapter of Far from the Madding Crowd titled “The Hollow Amid the Ferns”. A man’s action shifts to a woman’s drama with the suspense of hands-off arousal. Byrne quotes an encounter from Hardy’s first published novel, Desperate Remedies (1871), in a boat so small that when the hands of the architect hero “came forward to begin the pull [at the oars], they approached so near to her bosom” that Cytherea leaps to a fancy “he was going to clasp his arms around her”.

In recalling his school days (in his ghosted biography), Hardy brought up an aversion to touch. Byrne records this in passing, but I wonder if it bears on the unhappiness of Hardy’s two wives: Emma and his secretary Florence Emily Dugdale, whom he married in 1914. The reasons for their suffering were complex, eluding proof. Recently, the licence of fiction has allowed Elizabeth Lowry to do something rare: a poetic close-up of Hardy and the difficulties of proximity to him, in her novel The Chosen (2022). The telling focus is the period between the death of Emma late in 1912 and the sequence of poems in her memory, published in Satires of Circumstance (1914).

The height of Hardy’s genius lies in these poems, among them “The Going” and “The Voice”, outpourings of grief, memory, remorse and longing. “Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me”: a ghostly voice comes to him from Emma’s native Cornwall and “those red-veined rocks far West”. Though in life Emma Hardy was estranged from her husband, in death her voice haunts the living, as does a scene from the past: a woman on horseback, “riding high above with bright hair flapping free”. Byrne notes how Hardy catches the way women moved. The rhythm of her gallop revives the headlong freedom and the very heartbeat of Emma as she once had been in “Beeny Cliff” (dated “March 1870-March 1913”).

The poet is present in Hardy’s novels when he stills action with a lasting image: a close-up of Tess in her pink dress and white curtain-bonnet, in profile against the flank of the cow she’s milking; then, by contrast, a long shot: Tess distanced by her husband’s rejection, an insignificant creature, a mote on the horizon of Flintcomb-Ash as she pulls swedes from stony ground; and finally, Tess at Stonehenge, a sacrifice.

The landscapes of Flintcomb-Ash and Egdon Heath recall the heath of King Lear. The poet in Hardy brings tragedy of that order to the novel, as Byrne points out. Her biography does its utmost to underpin Hardy’s life with his reading, his drafts and newfound letters. It excels in searching out unseen corners and establishes the ties between life and literature that Hardy denied.

Lyndall Gordon’s most recent book is “The Hyacinth Girl: TS Eliot’s Hidden Muse” (Virago)

Hardy Women: Mother, Sisters, Wives, Muses
Paula Byrne
William Collins, 656pp, £25

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[See also: The double life of DH Lawrence]

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This article appears in the 07 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Who runs Labour?