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Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy.

Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy, Penguin Press, 2007, pp. 512, $35

The biographer's enterprise is fraught with difficulty. The attempt to tell a good story must be balanced against factual accuracy; the biographer's judicious empathy for the subject, in concert with the data of that person's life, must yield a cumulative and consistently engaging and responsible account. During the past three decades, the writing of literary biography has become an especially difficult endeavour as literary theorists have become increasingly uncertain about what a respectable literary biography is or ought to be. Most of the fundamental concepts on which biographers rely--including the nature and relevance of historical processes and contexts, concepts of self and origins, and our understanding of levels of textualization, to name only a few--have come under intense scrutiny.

And then there is the problem of uncooperative subjects. Take Hardy, for example. Hardy's life--which included a wife in an attic; neurotic entanglements with his natal family; a shrewd menage a trios; assorted dalliances with a variety of women ; and his ardent disingenuousness regarding his economically and educationally disadvantageous childhood--provide inexhaustible fodder for innuendo, speculation, and mythmaking. Perhaps recognizing this, Hardy did everything he could to foil the well-intentioned biographer. Throughout his life, he destroyed papers and drafts, he took special effort to conceal the contributions of various amanuenses, and he took pains to make it appear as though his second wife's biography of him might appear objectively written, despite its having been drafted, in no small degree, by himself. To complicate matters further, during the past two decades, many established critical assumptions about Hardy's work have been challenged by valuable scholarly reassessments.

However, the strain inherent to the biographer's enterprise is nowhere apparent in Tomalin's study. The work's distinguishing pretence is to explain the mainsprings of Hardy's poetic genius. Although Hardy's poetry remains under-examined and underappreciated, Tomalin contributes nothing new. Instead, in the place of original interpretations, we get a rewrite of the oft-told tale of the two bad wives, Emma and Florence, who presented their lives as a series of trivial 'discontents and dramas' and restricted the attainment of both his writerly (and sexual) goals. Emma Lavinia Gifford, Hardy's first wife, comes in for special rebuke: she is repeatedly impugned for being burdensomely lame, barren, and inconsequential, and is censured for inhibiting Hardy's artistic expression. However, Emma is credited in death with having provided Hardy with his supreme inspiration: 'Emma ... was dead. This is the moment when ... Hardy became a great poet ... It was the death of Emma that proved to be his best inspiration'. This explanation is not only woefully inadequate, but is so vulgarized and grotesque in its flat self-assurance that it makes one wonder why Tomalin chose a subject so clearly beyond her intellectual and emotional range. Further, there is a disquieting insincerity apparent in this biography, an empathic refusal masquerading as solicitous regard that makes all the more conspicuous the absence of any discussion of the only partially revealed currents of sexual and aggressive drives that influenced Hardy's artistic perceptions and choices. This most prominent aspect of Hardy's poetry and life experience warrants a more generous and percipient assessment.

Finally, to those who feel that they have become inured to slipshod writing, a special warning: Tomalin's easy generalizations, confused similes, and pedestrian descriptions will threaten to reawaken even the most resigned reader's ire. Sentences such as '... while [Hardy] admired--even adored--the elegance of Mrs Henniker and Agnes Grove, and delighted in their crisp worldly conversation, they did not make him despise Emma's muslins and ribbons and hats like collapsing birthday cakes' will simply not travel very far.

Susan Osborn

Rutgers University, New Jersey
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Author:Osborn, Susan
Publication:Literature & History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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