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Sheila Berger, Thomas Hardy and Visual Structures.

Sheila Berger, Thomas Hardy and Visual Structures (New York UP, 1990), 224 pp., $40.00 cloth.

Sheila Berger's starting-point is Hardy's own insistence that he is a subjective, empirical, even irrational writer: The word that occurs most frequently and most significantly in his characteristically scattered and unsystematic observations on his art is"impressions." A novel for him is"an impression, not an argument," as he says in the 1892 Preface to Tess; Jude takes its origin in "a series of seemings, or personal impressions" (1895 Preface); he makes no apology for the absence of "cohesion of thought" in his poems, for "Unadjusted impressions have their value"; his interpretation of life is "only a confused heap of impressions, like those of a bewildered child at a conjuring show." This is, to be sure, a convenient strategy for disarming one's critics, for how can they attack a system of ideas whose very existence is denied? But the convenience of such repeated claims need not mean that they are spurious: Berger is right to take them seriously, and they constitute a useful point of departure for her inquiry into Hardy's modes of seeing.

She is not the first to approach Hardy by way of what he called his "idiosyncratic mode of regard," and critics from Alistair Smart (1961) to J. B. Bullen (1986) have made important specialized contributions to our understanding of this fascinating topic, which is also treated in more general accounts by Albert J. Guerard (1964), J. Hillis Miller (1970), and others. She offers a perceptive section on Hardy's use of "frames," suggesting that he "frames entire novels with woods or heath and presents settings within cliffs, storms, fields, doors, windows, telescopes, holes, mirrors, doorways, painterly styles" (p. 90), and this, though not entirely new, is well said. Hardy not only makes frames but breaks them, and the account of his "abolition" of the frame draws usefully on P. N. Furbank's Reflections on the Word "Image." There is, too, a good account of "The Power of Print," which draws attention to Hardy's use of inscriptions and documents; public signs and printed matter, it is important to remember, had for many people in the nineteenth century a novelty, even an excitement, that is not easy to recapture or even imagine.

In some other respects Berger's book is less satisfactory. Even without the acknowledgement to her dissertation director, it would not have been difficult to guess that it originated in a doctoral thesis, for it has some of the limitations as well as many of the virtues of that genre. It is serious, even strenuous, and learned, ranging widely over the Hardy canon and taking into account the work of aestheticians as well as literary scholars. But it is also too emphatic in places: Terms such as "massive," "monumental" and "stunning" do not advance the argument but seem to represent an attempt to win over a skeptical reader. The procession of critical authorities, tramping on and off the scene like a Verdi chorus, can become wearisome, and some of the quotations (Tess "like a fly on a billiard-table," or the victim of "National teachings and Standard knowledge") are excessively familiar. Some of the observations hardly need making for a readership of the kind presumably intended ("Thomas Hardy ... frequently alludes to paintings," p. 24), and some are downright banal ("There is no doubt that Hardy loved narrative," p. 32). The style is sometimes clumsy ("Alienation surrounds Tess.... "p. 59) and even ungrammatical (" ... no writer is as closely connected with a particular territory than Thomas Hardy is with Wessex," p. 56). There are few errors: "Tolbathys" (for 'Talbothays') appears twice on p. 178, and the title of John Bayley's important book on Hardy is given incorrectly.

On balance, however, the strengths outweigh the shortcomings, and at its best this study keeps admirably close to the always rewarding detail of Hardy's text and conveys an infectious sense of excitement and discovery.

Norman Page

University of Nottingham
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Author:Page, Norman
Publication:Nineteenth-Century Prose
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 1991
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