Thomas Hardy is not boring – he’s brilliant!
It’s quite common for people to “diss” the Victorian novelist, Thomas Hardy’s writing, these days – particularly when Charles Dickens’s star is so prominent. I’ve listened to quite a few school children curse him over the years I’ve taught his poetry and prose in disparate classrooms throughout London. “Why does he take so long to describe a field or a cow?” one pupil complained to me once. But I want to argue his descriptions are one of the reasons he’s marvellous; you can lose yourself in the landscape of a Hardy novel in a way you just can’t with other writing. You become immersed in his world: a world of wild moors, of provincial towns, of dairies, of sheep-farms, of lonely hills and windswept coasts. What’s great about Hardy is that, unlike many other writers, he really knew this landscape from the inside; he grew up in rural Dorset, the son of a builder, and knew the countryside from the perspective of a genuine “country-dweller”. This is quite unlike characters like Wordsworth or even the Brontes, who were essentially “too posh” to know the countryside from a genuine local’s perspective.
Hardy has a great ear for how local people speak; some of the best passages of dialogue in his novels are almost interludes when he charts what the local people are thinking about the dramatic events that are going on in their midst. His dialogue is full of humour and yet it never “patronises” his rural characters; a keen intelligence comes through.
Hardy was a master-storyteller. I’m currently telling my Creative Writing class at Goldsmiths that they could do a lot worse than look at the way he constructs narratives. His plots are both psychological but full of drama; he specialised in the “role-reversal”. A drunk who sells his wife becomes an important Mayor (The Mayor of Casterbridge); an clever girl, Tess, is raped and then appears to find redemption in a new match, only to have her dreams ruined (Tess of the D’Urbervilles); a beautiful farmer’s wife is afflicted by the curse of her husband’s previous lover (The Withered Arm); a poverty-stricken girl inherits a massive farm and estate (Far From The Madding Crowd). If you’re a writer and you’re stuck for a good plot to imitate, then you could do worse than update some of Hardy’s storylines. It’s no surprise that so many films have been made of his novels.
Furthermore, Hardy is fantastic at writing memorable scenes; he had a great eye for telling details. Two desperate gamblers who are gambling on a lonely moor use glow-worms to light their game in the dark (The Return of the Native); the blood of a dead man drops through the ceiling and is spotted by the landlady (Tess); a young boy takes pity on some birds and instead of shoo-ing them away as he’s been instructed to do, he encourages them to eat the seeds in a field, only to be beaten a brutal farmer (Jude The Obscure). His scenes are well-paced, full of twists and turns and humour.
Most strikingly, Hardy is a tremendously ambitious novelist; he aims to tackle the really big themes in his work; the meaning of life in a Godless universe; love, marriage and sex; death and the dark ironies of fate. Although his canvas is relatively small; he more or less only looks at a small group of characters in a Dorset (Wessex as he calls it) setting, the worlds he explores are enormous.
We haven’t even begun to discuss the poems yet. He was perhaps even better as a poet; his poems about his wife, Poems 1912-1913, remain the finest love poems in the language. His Wessex poems can be read here.
Above all though, Hardy is very modern because he was such a good “psychologist”. Unlike Dickens and many other writers, his characters are living, breathing, “three-dimensional” people, not comic stereotypes. They are flawed and fallible, but even some of his most unappealing protagonists are always sympathetic, such as the bad-tempered Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Hardy works best when he’s read aloud. There are some great audio versions of his novels. They’re great to read aloud as well. I’m reading The Mayor of Casterbridge to my eleven-year-old son. Yes, there are moments when he’s a bit lost, but overall, he’s really enjoying it because the story is a good one. Getting into Hardy is a bit like diving into a beautiful but cold sea; it’s a shock at first when you get swimming, you like it and appreciate the experience.