Thomas Hardy’s Life Story

One of the things I love about reading authors’ biographies is making connections between the life and the work. Academic departments traditionally have a lack of respect for biographical criticism, although department members regularly research and write biographies, an irony that frustrates me no end. An historian once informed me that biography isn’t history, and I replied that history isn’t either. What we both meant was that these are not “real” or “true,” necessarily. They’re both all about storytelling and making meaning from events. What’s important is to start from the original data rather than to read backwards from the stories and to assume that everything in them happened exactly that way. Not everything that goes on in a novel is something that happened to the author.

But writers write what they know. They borrow from anywhere to get what they need, but they also use their own lives. Readers need to be discerning. In the case of Thomas Hardy, one of my great loves, and the focus of my Master’s degree, there are a few staples that recur: an architect, older woman/younger man, social class divide. When Hardy was a young man, he trained as an architect, and when he married, he was beneath his wife in terms of class. Characters need to do something, and what they do needs to be convincing. In Hardy’s marriage, social class was a barrier, and he works that out novel after novel. Also recurrent are Hardy’s philosophical convictions. For one thing, he believed that we are in the hands of an unkind Fate. Novel after novel.

But most interesting to me is that he struggles, book after book, with the question of to whom does a person really belong–the one to whom a person is married or the one with whom a person has a bond. Transgressing societal order, in terms of this dilemma, is at the heart of Jude the Obscure. Hardy lays the blame at society’s judgmental feet. When we read a writer’s work, we read what concerns that writer, and it’s couched in aspects of the life.


Filed under On Reading, On Writing

7 responses to “Thomas Hardy’s Life Story

  1. dorgrease

    Shall I be forced to confess my woeful lack of knowledge about Thomas Hardy? I could not write this for the public as a comment on your blog. Which book by Hardy should I read first? Love, Doris

    • Doris, never be embarrassed to say you don’t know. That’s how we learn.

      I love Hardy, partly for his realism. He is not a wrap it all up in a nice happy bow kind of writer. I’d say that The Woodlanders would be a good introduction.


      • dorgrease

        My copy of The Woodlanders just arrived and I have started reading. It will require a bit of adjustment for me to comprehend his long, involved sentence structure. But I understand that he is writing in the 19th century and that his style fits the era. Also, some of his vocabulary is challenging, but I can dig out the dictionary and keep my brain growing.

      • His sentences are beautiful, but we always do have to adjust to different use of the language. Soon, you’ll be in his rhythm, and the reading will be easier.

        The course will be a physical classroom setting. This year, I did Irish fiction.

  2. I blame you for my Hardy crush. I fell in love with all the books we studied. That happens to me with people, too. The more I know them, the more I feel connected to their stories, the more I love them.

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