Selected Writings, Vol. 3, William Sharp

THOMAS HARDY AND HIS NOVELS

(1892)

THAT the author of The Return of the Native has equalled if not surpassed that masterpiece is proof of the greatness of his place among contemporary novelists. it is a rank, however, as et far from being conceded, though Tess the, D'Urbervilles has apparently done more to bring about a true recognition of the author than the whole range of his writings from the early and anonymous Desperate Remedies, in 1871, to his Group of Noble Dames, in 1890. No one can approach English fiction critically and fail to perceive that Thomas Hardy is, at his best, one of the most remarkable novelists whom England has produced; yet we are confronted by the fact that his popularity, although of steady growth, is altogether disproportionate to his merits) and that even the immense swing by which he has recently been carried to the front place is due in no slight degree to causes independent of the literary quality and value of his work.
First and foremost, Thomas Hardy is a profound realist. I admit, that to me, the realism of Mr. Howells is thin and that of Mr. Henry James superficial compared with that of the author of Undcr the Greenwood Tree, The Return of the Native, The Woodlanders, and Wessex Tales. Again, his robustness of thought and speech does not appeal to most readers. They dislike him as crudely natural, even as they dislike the strong smell of the earth, the reckless byplay and fierce activities of the energies of nature, the salutary rudeness of bleak weather, rain, and the moil of muddy ways. It is possible to conceive of a woman having produced Madame Bovary, but not Salammbo ; of having composed Une Page d'Amour or even La Faute de I'Abbé Mouyet, but not Germinal or La Terre ; even with all its author's intense masculinity, of having written Diana of the Crossways; but it is impossible to think of the author of The Return of the Native or Tess of the D'Urbervilles as a woman. Mr. Hardy is not only the most English of all English writers since Shakespeare, but he is the most essentially masculine, is masculine almost to a fault. The manner of his expression being in accord with the nature of his genius, his style is unattractive to many, for it has much of the massive serenity, the large air, the austere dignity of nature herself. Of all modern novelists he is, or was till very recently, least read and least appreciated by women. This is strange, as no writer of our time has shown a more profound sense of the charm to men of women as women, a deeper understanding of women's nature or the nature of many women, and a more thorough grasp of the enormous influence of women, through both her strength and her weaknesses, in the economy of human life. But it is, I suspect, and as has already been hinted, not only women in general, but a large section of intellectually effeminate men, who resent this very attitude in Thomas Hardy. "Why cannot he give us a type of flawless womanhood? is a question I have seen in print and heard used again and again. Alas ! the painter of Bathsheba and Eustacia and Tess is not the supreme power.
I have noticed also that many persons of each sex are held at a distance by certain essential qualities of Hardy's genius. It is inevitable as the pathway of the winds, that are supposed to blow whence and whither they will, of as the tread of the avenger through Greek tragedy. It is as sombre as the aspect of Egdon Heath, while equally alive with sunshine, and fragrance, and the quick pulse of superabundant life. It is as quiet, unobtrusive, and pervasive as the tide, and has, below all the brightness and merry shimmer, the profound melancholy of the ocean. If one were to read sequently this writer's books, from the earliest to Tess of the D'Urbervilles, one would gain at last an overwhelming sense of the blind way of destiny, of the pathetic futility of human effort, of the pitiless impartiality of the laws of nature. For Hardy brings home to the reader a sense of profound sadness. Without ever unduly obtruding himself as the theologian or the philosopher, he touches the deepest chords of spiritual life, and having wrought his subtle music therefrom, turns away with a loving, sorrowful regret at all the by-play of existence beneath such dim darkness behind, above, and beyond. Yet to speak of him as a pessimistic writer would be misleading because inadequate. He does not preach pessimism, for he has the saving grace of having no "ism", to support or to exemplify. He is tolerant and patient, seeing at once the good and the weakness in all. In a word, the pessimism of which so many complain is a revelation rather than an exposition. Characteristically enough, it is seldom that he directly writes in a strain of sadness. Life, movement, humour, and the endless play of the forces numerable and ever of nature, and her in changing aspects, afford him more than he reveals his intimate sense of the insoluble mystery of existence, of our unguided ways a trackless plain of whose lost frontiers there is no resemblance, and whose horizons are seen of none. It is this stead-fast between fast austerity which has stood between him and so large a portion of the reading public.
Of less importance than his genuine realism or than his characteristic if half ,observed irony, but st
ill a noteworthy factor
in the matter of Thomas Hardy's acceptance of the public, is his style, or to be more exact, certain idiosyncrasies of style. Though the most exclusively and natively English of all the great novelists of the Victorian age, he is in point of diction the most Latinical writer we have had since Dryden and Milton. This is characteristic of the Celtic Briton, and not the "English Englishman." And yet, so far as is known, Hardy is of Old Saxon or Anglo -Danish stock. In this respect he is to be classed with two other writers who are both markedly given to a strongly Latinised diction---George Meredith and Robert Louis Stevenson.
Perhaps one must know something of Wessex in order fully to enjoy Thomas Hardy's novels. Certainly to those familiar with the south-western counties there is as little exaggerated in his chronicle of the doings and sayings of the natives as in his descriptions of the general and particular features of the country-side, from the mystic barrows beyond Egdon Heath on the north to where, on the south, the Channel waves splash at the feet of the little town "sacred to the memory" of the trumpet-major. Hardy's own qualities of humour, shrewdness, and quaintness have not led him to pervert the homely speech of the country-folk into a diction impossible or at least improbable. What he has done is to give, for the most part, only the quintessential part of it. In this sense, and this sense only, can he be held to account for straining or overcolouring his material. It is thus, no doubt, that so many of his most careful readers note the Shakepearean quality of so much of his peasant speech;
for unquestionably Shakespeare drew hisTouchstones and Audreys from life--and the labouring folk of Wessex of to-day differ wondrous little in all essential respects from their ancestors of Elizabethan, Stuart, or Georgian times. Wise words don't come from a fool in whatever degree of social life he moves ; and vice versa, when naturally shrewd and vigorous minds express them-selves they do so aptly whether they be as   cultured as Swithin St. Cleeve and Constantin Lady, as "ordinary" as Gabriel Oak  or Dr. John Loveday, as insignificant socially as Tess Durberfield or Marty South or Fancy Day, as "low" as Diggory the reddelman or the for-ever perspiring Reuben Dewy. For the most part the Wessex of Hardy is a land of woodland and pasture, here rising into grassy uplands and even hills, here sinking into long, fertile, verdurous valleys, here dark with oak and beech leaves of the New Forest, here bare with the vast heaths and moors which give with the vast heat so great a portion of it a character so unlike that of the shires to the north and east.
The villages, too, are just as they were in the times of our forefathers.
Thomas Hardy himself resides in the heart of the "five-countied Wessex." His home is a large red-brick house built after his own design, situated on the rise of a long upland sweep to the east of Dorchester. A vast perspective is before one from almost any one of the windows of the house, rolling downs, acres of arable land and pastures, upland ranges, and dark belts of woodland, with, valley-ward, the white gleam of the Frome meandering among the daisy lands and through and past ancient Dorchester. Far away to the right is the hill-top monument to his kinsman of old, Admiral Hardy "of glorious renown"; to the south-west are the broken ridges of that extraordinary freak of nature (and toil of man) known as "Maiden Castle." In front of the house itself stretches away an immense swelling rneadow, some three thousand acres in extent, the largest in England. I cannot swear to the acreage, but answer for the vaguer statement. The house is known as "Max Gate," the old name of the portion of the upland whereon it is built, and of the small hamlet near, though it was at one time the intention of the owner to call his place "Conquer Barrow," after the tree-covered mound which rises to the northeast just beyond his garden walls. Not only is Mr. Hardy thus in the best possible position for the novelist of Wessex, within easy reach as he is of any part of the whole region brought
so vividly near to us in Under the Greenwood Tree and The Woodlanders, in The Return of the Native, and Tess of the D'Urbervilles, but he is in what is to him, with his scientific and antiquarian as well as artistic and literary tastes, a profoundly interesting country. Dorchester, itself a great Roman encampment and fortress in the days of Constantine, and the whole region around, are as full of "remains" Roman and Anglo-Saxon as any locality in western Europe.
"Among the few features of agricultural Europe which retain an appearance but little modified by the lapse of centuries may be reckoned the high, grassy, and furzy downs coombs, or ewe-leases, as they are indifferently called, that fill a large area of certain counties in the south and southwest." So begins the story of The Three Strangers, in Wessex Tales. If the Londoner visitor to our "province of houses" tire or of the inevitable urban hurry and worry, he could do no better than take a leisurely walking-trip among those "high grassy and furzy downs, coombs, or ewe-leases." He will find them and the homely, ignorant, yet shrewd and often highly intelligent and even original people who dwell by them just as described by Mr. Hardy. He will gain enjoyment and renewed vigour of body, and find that it is not "Continental travel " alone that enlarges the mind. Parochialism is easier to carry about with one than even one's portmanteau. But for those who cannot wayfare into Wessex, let me recommend a mental voyage with Mr. Hardy as guide and companion. One cannot but be stronger and saner and healthier and every way better for such an experience. To those who already know all he has to tell us, Wessex is a haunted land, to which it is ever a rare pleasure to turn, whether in fact or vicariously. And there is endless company -from such wrecks of man's high estate as Thomas Leaf or Granfer Castle or Christian Bathsheba Everdene, Eustacia Vye, Marty South, Tess Durbeyfield, Gabriel Oak, John Loveday, or Clym Yeobright. This Wessex of Thomas Hardy is, to lovers of his work, but another Wilderness Bottom green and fragrant and winsome, from whose , thickets of dream " comes enchantment as sweet and welcome as that "loud, musical, liquid voice " which Dick Dewy on their and Fancy Day heard by the copses on their wedding day.
Mr. Hardy was born in Dorse
t in 1
840.  After an education which comprised a good classical and scientific training, though he was at no university, he began life as an architect. He resided in London from 1869 to 1867, from 1870 to 1872, and from 1878 to 1881;  for the rest he has lived mostly in Dorset. His comparatively brief sojourns in Italy and France have left almost no trace upon his work. His first printed literary production was an essay on coloured brick architecture, written with so much. technical knowledge and in so creditable a style that the author was awarded the medal of the "Institute of Architects." Prior to 187o he wrote, with this exception, nothing of any importance, unprincipled and the most industrious and resurrector would be hard pushed to rake up against this author any juvenilia, except perhaps a signed sketch of a few pages contributed to Chambers' Magazine late in the sixties. But in 1870 he decided to see what he could do as a novelist. At this date he recognised neither his true bent in fiction nor the great advantage of the material which since his early boyhood he had unconsciously accumulated. At the same time, both from choice and from instinct, he depicted scenery and delineated types of character more or less familiar to him ; and though it would be foolish to claim for his first book any high place in contemporary fiction, it is not to be passed over in the cavalier fashion adopted by many newspaper critics. In the first place Desperate Remedies has originality in more ways than one, an originality more obvious in 1871, than twenty years later, no doubt; in the next it is of particular importance to every critic of Mr. Hardy's collective work, for in it is much that is suggestive, much that goes to substantiate the statement that from the first a continuous vein of inspiration has sustained the novelist, a vein as clearly recognisable as it is distinctly individual.
In 1872 another novel appeared without the author's name, though acknowledged to be by the author of Desperate Remedies. Under The Greenwood Tree was subtitled A rural painting of the Dutch School, and here we have unmistakably the hand of a master. To this day Under
The Greenwood Tree remains one of Thomas Hardy's most distinctive achievements. It seems to me to stand alone as much now as at the time when it appeared. From first to last it is admirable, though it has no plot to speak of, and is, in a word, nothing more than a series of life-like studies of man and nature connected by a thread of narrative. But where can we find its like?  Where has anything more absolutely English been done? Where, since the time of Shakespeare, do we encounter such vivid fidelity, such Rembrandtesque setting of homely things in the picturesque aspect that is none the less true because seen quintessentially ? In his next book Mr. Hardy made a more definite bid for success with the novel-reading public. A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) was a title likely to appeal to subscribers to circulating-libraries, and as a matter of fact the book has some vogue. Though it has many notable things in it, and as a story is a distinct advance upon any previous tale from the same pen, it is not one of the author's important books. At the same time Elfrida Swancourt is one of Hardy's most distinctive creations. It is commonly understood that of all his heroines she is the best liked by women. But in Far from the Madding Crowd a far wider success was won. This book made its author one of the foremost novelists of his day, and still is the most popular of all his romances. Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba Everdene are now as familiar names in our ears as those of almost any personages in Scott, Thackeray, or Dickens. The whole art of the author can be studied in this novel. No one is at once more vital and more reserved than he ; no one more great and vigorous and blithely humorous, and yet more profoundly impressed by the tragic pathos and mystery of our "why and wherefore." The pathos, almost invariably unobtrusive, is as natural and genuine as the humour. It is of a kind that has no kinship with sentimentality, but is as it were the twilight and moonlight of a strong, vigorous life. More than once this chronicle of the countryside rises to a high pitch of dramatic intensity. A hint as to the motif of the book, as indeed of all Thomas Hardy's work, might be found in that pregnant sentence in one of the early chapters, " Love is a possible strength in an actual weakness."
Fine, however, as is Far from the Madding Crowd, it is not his masterpiece. That was written some four years later. But before the publication in '78 of The Return of the Native there appeared the novel called The Hand of Ethelberta. Public opinion is still strangely divided about this book. There are readers who think it one of the author's cleverest productions, and there are more who miss in it the peculiar quality which enhances for them the value of such works as The Return of the Native, The Woodlanders, and Tess of the D'Urbcrvilles. The first of these three, one of the greatest works of fiction in our time, was by no means at first hailed as a masterpiece, though in this instance the public proved wiser than the critics. This story of Clym Yeobright, Eustacia Vye, of so many others of all degrees from passionate Wildeve and winsome Thomasin and the homely reddelman, Diggory Venn, to Grandfer Castle and Christian, and the heathside company who meet at The Quiet Woman inn of the most moving and elsewhere, is one and memorable novels in our language.
The Trumpet Major, which chronologically for many was produced next in order, was years and possibly still is a much more popular novel. True, the period dealt with is a more remote one, and the ordinary novel reader is apt not to give his or her vote for a story wherein the hero is finally left out in the cold ; yet the events are of so stirring a kind and the narrative is so full of vivid and picturesque detail that John Loveday has probably a larger circle of friends than any other of Hardy's male characters, with the possible exception of Gabriel Oak and Clym Yeobright. If the book have not the tragic intensity of The Return of the Native, the nervous movement and youthful energy of Far from the Madding Crowd, the austere impressiveness of The Woodlanders, or the glow and passionate humanity of Tess of the D'Ubervilles, it has a serene and welcome charm of its own, the quiet sundown light of a bright autumnal day. As unlike The Trumpet Major as either of its two most notable predecessors are the two volumes which came next, A Laodicean in 1881 and Two on a Tower in 1882. In my judgment A Laodicean is the least successful of all Thomas Hardy's novels. It seems even to lack vitality. Two on a Tower, on the other hand, is alive from first to last, and though not in what may be called his permanent manner, it is a novel of singular wit, charm, skill, and grace. Yet even here the best things are said by "the common chorus," and probably as many readers enjoy the remarks of Hezekiah Biles, Sammy Blore, Nat Chapman, and Haymoss Fry, as of Lady Constantine and Swithin St. Cleeve.
Four years elapsed between the publication of Two on a Tower and The Mayor of Casterbridge, though in this period were written two or three of the remarkable short stories which later on were issued under the collective title of Wessex Tales. The Mayor of Casterbridge is, I have heard, looked upon by booksellers as the least popular of Thomas Hardy's books. This is not quite easy to understand. Certainly it is not so well constructed and is in a sober tone throughout, and, what perhaps signifies much, there is less humour in it than in most of the other chronicles of country life in Wessex. On the other hand, Michael Henchard, the mayor, is one of Hardy's most noteworthy creations.
In the Wessex Tales, again, we find the same qualities which have ensured the success of Far from the Madding Crowd and its kindred. These stories are admirable, and in vigour, picturesqueness, humour, and potent charm, seem to me much beyond the later series of stories collectively called A Group of Noble Dames. One can, for several reasons, imagine this opinion being challenged by the author himself, for he must have had a new and welcome pleasure in writing the charming "little histories" of these mostly frail Wessex dames of high degree. But surely in the "groups" there is nothing to equal, much less to surpass, the finest of the three Wessex tales---The Three Strangers, The Withered Aym, and Interlopers at the Knap. What an admirable story the last named is ! How much of it one would like to quote I I know nothing of its kind finer than The Three Strangers. It stands out among short stories by great writers of our time much in the same way as Wandering Willy's Tale, among the brief essays in fiction of an earlier period. It has all the best qualities of the best Netherland art, and is just what we might expect from Rembrandt were he to come among us again and take up the pen instead of the brush or the etching-needle.
But before the issue in book-form of the Wessex Tales there appeared in 1887 one of the most notable of all Thomas Hardy's works. It has always been a puzzle to me why The Woodlanders seems comparatively so little known. One may ask a score of people which of Thomas Hardy's novels they have read, and probably not more than three or four will have any first-hand knowledge of this masterly and beautiful study. It is as absolutely the author's own as The Return of the Native or as Tess of the D'Urbervilles for though his individuality is keenly marked throughout all his books, it is most dominant in these. The purport of this story is to exhibit "the unfulfilled intention which makes life what it is." It is a somewhat sombre tale, and there are scenes in it, as in Tess, which seem to have given offence to those possibly worthy but stupid and blundering people who constitute themselves the champions of Mrs. Grundy and the exponents of that silly old lady's views ; but to arrive at an estimate of Thomas Hardy's place in contemporary literature and to leave The Woodlanders unread, would be like a similar estimate of Mr. Meredith without consideration of, say, The Egoist, or Diana of the Crossways. This nobly wrought book has something of the effect of night upon one, a sense of largeness and vast quiescence beyond all personal fret and weariness, of "night, that strange personality, which within walls brings ominous introspective. ness and self distrust, but under open sky banishes such subjective niceties as too trivial for thought."
Nevertheless, when we come at last to Tess of the D'Urbervilles we have, before us the most mature and, on the whole, the most powerful expression of the author's genius. I have read several parts of the book again and again, and have read the story as a whole twice, and in so doing I have felt as though all of Hardy's works that preceded it were in sorae sort a clearing of the ground-more or less brilliant heralds, let me say rather, of this superb achieve. ment. The romance has the power, the intensity, the inevitableness, and above all the warm humanity of the great dramas, ancient and modern. It is so homely a subject, and deals so simply with simple things of common life in a remote English county, that its effect upon the mind is all the more reason for our wonder and admiration. I can well believe what I heard a distinguished author declare, that no man, and certainly no woman, could read this book with sympathy and not thenceforth be of broader mind and more charitable and catbolic spirit.
Tess herself is as living a woman as there is in fiction ; but there is embodied in her also something that neither she nor Angel Clair nor any one ever guessed-the typical strength and weakness of an immense, perhaps preponderating number of women. Whatever is best in Thomas Hardy's work is to be found in this page from life---humour, pathos, tragedy, marvellous descriptive faculty, and that transforming magic through all, for which there is no other word than the much abused term "genius." There are scenes in Tess which one cannot but believe will represent the high-water mark of our later Victorian fiction, and there are episodes which must surely touch the hearts and influence the minds of those who come after us almost as profoundly as they do our own. In depictive art there is nothing in the range of modern -fiction, not even of the narrative of the wooing of Lucy and Richard Feverel by the river side, to surpass the supremely beautiful description of the morning meetings of Angel and Tess during the height of the milking season at Talbothay's Farm, daily meetings in that strange and solemn interval, the twilight of the morning, in the violet, or pink dawn. Here we have the very spirit of romance, and here we have English prose of the noblest kind.
Every reader of Thomas Hardy's novels will differ as to the relative rank that ought to be given to each book. A consensus of opinion as to which are his three greatest works would be interesting and suggestive. I would advance a claim for pre-eminence in behalf of The Return Of the Native, The Woodlanders and Tess of the D'Urbervilles. In these three books it seems to me that we have the highest development of a rare literary temperament, the finest and largest utterance of genius that can no longer be gainsaid as such. Thereafter (Under the Greenwood Tree not being considered as a novel, but rather as a sequence of rustic studies) would come Far from the Madding Crowd, the finest of The Wessex Tales, and, though not quite with them, The Trumpet Major.
There is one quality which Thomas Hardy has far in excess of any other English novelist, that of the intimate sense of the complex interrelation of man and nature. There, again, he stands alone as an exponent of the epical method. He is the sole living Englishman of whom I know who can write as Zola does at his best; who could do and has done writing so far beyond all the fret and fume of contemporary opinion as the close of that Titanic masterpiece, Germinal or even of La Terre. Hardy is an incomparably finer artist than Zola, and at the same time in intensity of concentration is the only man who approaches that great and much misunderstood writer. Yet, at his highest even, Zola has given us little of the commanding beauty of Hardy's speech at its best. No one can ever forget the solemn procession of "inspired" words---at the close of La Terre or Germinal; but while they have the charm of vast perspectives seen from the dusty highway of life, Hardy's finest utterances exercise the spell of a not less real though a . more remote realm of romance. One writer is a man who can see things only at his feet or else afar, the other a man whose clear and serene gaze takes all in, in just proportions. No living man has given us more memorable pictures than of "the dewy morn" meetings of Tess and Angel Clair, already alluded to, or of Marty South and Giles Winterborne walking silently together in the chill lonely hour before a winter-day dawn, "where gray shades, material and mental, are so very gray. And yet, looked at in a certain way, their lonely courses formed no detached design at all, but were part of the pattern in the great web of human doings then weaving in both hemispheres, from the White Sea to Cape Horn." It is somewhat sadly significant that it is the poet and clear-eyed, saner, and more deeply observant writer who penned that profoundly pessimistic sentence in Tess of the D'Urbervilles.  "It is then (where 'the constraint of day and the suspense of night neutralise each other') that the plight of being alive becomes attenuated to its least possible dimensions.' Is this to be Thomas Hardy's final word on the mystery of human life ?

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