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The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy by Thomas Hardy; edited by Michael Millgate (University of Georgia: $35; 595 pp., illustrated)

October 13, 1985|Jackson J. Benson | Benson is author of "The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer" (Viking). and

Thomas Hardy, a great English novelist and poet of the 19th and early 20th centuries, died in 1928, so it is a little disconcerting to be suddenly confronted with the publication of his autobiography. Most of the material in the book has been published before, but in a different form--with a number of deletions and additions that were not Hardy's--and over the name of his second wife as a biography. The story behind the book is as engaging as its contents.

Although requested to do so on several occasions, Hardy resisted writing his memoirs. He believed that he had been so misinterpreted and misrepresented by critics over the years that he dreaded the possibility of unauthorized biographies that would mangle the facts of his life and miss the spirit of his work.

His solution was to organize and rewrite the journal entries he had kept over the years, adding details from a remarkable memory, and prepare a third-person autobiography which would, after his death, be published by his wife as the authorized biography. The memoir attributed to Florence Hardy was published in two volumes in 1928 and 1930 as "The Early Life of Thomas Hardy 1840-1891" and "The Later Years of Thomas Hardy 1892-1928."

Florence Hardy, also a writer, worked with her husband on the material and then, with the help of such advisers as J. M. Barrie, Sydney Cockerell and E. M. Forster, she polished the manuscript, eliminating repetitious or boring items and adding transitions, anecdotes and explanations. The result was a more readable account, but one which had diluted and altered Hardy's original.

The ruse was discovered in 1940, and in recent years the two volumes have been referred to as the "autobiography." This was only approximately true. It has taken the painstaking work of editor Michael Millgate (co-editor of the letters and author of "Thomas Hardy: A Biography") to restore the work to as close to what Hardy actually wrote as possible. In doing so, Millgate compared three surviving typescripts (only one of which was complete) with the published account, while carefully screening hundreds of handwritten emendations to sort out those made by Hardy from others. This process was made difficult by Hardy's use of a disguised hand--so as not to impeach the claim of his wife's authorship--and Florence's use of a calligraphy which imitated her husband's disguised handwriting.

Whether in its original disguise or restored, this is not a work that is easily read. It is less a narrative of a life than a collection of notes and observations placed in chronological order, and if it were not for the quality of the man and his work, it would probably not be worth the effort and attention that it demands. And while the material has all the charm of its time and place, it has all those Victorian mannerisms that our age finds so irritating--a hesitancy to provide the name of anyone referred to in the least sense negatively, a propriety that borders on prudishness, and a distance in respect to the material that eschews any reference to the personal, private or intimate.

If one wants a clear account of Hardy's life, then he is best advised to turn to Millgate's own recent biography or back to what for decades was the standard work, Carl J. Weber's "Hardy of Wessex: His Life and Literary Career." Yet, despite its flaws, the interminable lists of guests at social events and the failure to mention the estrangement of the author from his first wife, "The Life" has a power that will capture any reader who was strongly affected by the mastery of "The Return of the Native," "The Mayor of Casterbridge," "Tess" and "Jude." These works are permanently in our consciousness; any words sent to us from beyond the grave by their author are more likely than not to have interest and, at times, poignancy.

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