Skip to Content

Books

The only way wasn’t Wessex

Once Hardy had become a feted figure, London played an increasingly significant role in his life and imagination, according to Mark Ford

19 November 2016

9:00 AM

19 November 2016

9:00 AM

Thomas Hardy: Half a Londoner Mark Ford

Belknap Harvard, pp.305, £20

The ten pallbearers at Thomas Hardy’s funeral in Westminster Abbey on 16 January 1928 included Kipling, Barrie, Housman, Gosse, Galsworthy, Shaw and both the prime minister and leader of the oppposition. This distinguished gathering was not strictly necessary for the job at hand, because Hardy’s coffin merely contained his ashes — all that there was room for in Poets’ Corner. At exactly the same time in Dorset, at a smaller funeral, a casket containing Hardy’s unincinerated heart was being borne to its final resting place alongside his parents and his first wife in the churchyard at Stinsford. As Mark Ford observes, this macabre compromise between the nation’s and the author’s wishes seems appropriate for a writer whose life and career was divided between the capital and the countryside.

It also neatly reflected Hardy’s poetic ‘obsession with the physical and imaginative afterlives of the dead’, a persistent and disturbing theme inspired by graveyards in Old St Pancras as well as ‘Mellstock’. The title of Ford’s lively introductory chapter, ‘In Death Divided’, is borrowed from a poem containing some distinctly odd post-mortem musings that Hardy wrote about Florence Henniker, one of several women who had captured his heart while it was still securely lodged in his chest.

As both a poet and novelist, Hardy is always associated not only with English gloom but also with the English countryside in which he was born. It was in London, however, that he became a writer, and Ford shows just how significant a role the capital played in both Hardy’s life and imagination. Hardy first came to London in 1862, shortly before his 22nd birthday, in order to work in an architectural office while at the same time attempting to launch a career as a poet. Having failed to interest publishers in his poems, and suffering from ill-health, he returned to Dorset after five years, but would frequently live for extended periods in London, and when he became a fêted literary figure he would spend the season there. As a map in this elegantly designed book shows, choosing which of Hardy’s 34 London residences warranted a blue plaque must have been difficult, though the eventual choice was 1 Arundel Terrace in Tooting, where he and his first wife Emma lived from 1878 to 1881.


A damp, dark street in Tooting was the setting for ‘Beyond the Last Lamp’, written many years later, in September 1911, when Hardy’s relations with Emma ‘had reached their nadir’. This is among the many poems Hardy set in London, ranging in subject from prostitutes to St Paul’s Cathedral; and Ford’s discussion of these urban verses, particularly in a chapter on ‘London’s Streets and Interiors’, is both engrossing and illuminating. He places this poetry in a literary context and relates it both to Hardy’s life and to entries, often as beautiful as the poems themselves, that Hardy made in his notebooks and diaries.

Ford provides equally valuable insights into the London of Hardy’s fiction, starting with The Poor Man and the Lady. This ‘socialistic, not to say revolutionary’ book, as Hardy characterised it, failed to find a publisher, but accurately reflected what he called his early ‘years of London buffeting’, and it was subsequently cannibalised for Desperate Remedies, published as his first novel in 1871, and A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873). Hardy continued to explore London in later novels, and although he is famed for his descriptions of ‘Wessex’ landscapes, such as Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native and the turnip field in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Ford shows that evocations of metropolitan life in The Hand of Ethelberta and The Well-Beloved are equally striking.

What Ford calls ‘the London-Dorset axis’ is an important aspect of the work, and Hardy was able to shuttle between the country and the capital because of the arrival of the railways. He would later complain that Dorchester had become ‘almost a London suburb, owing to the quickened locomotion’, but he was not slow to take advantage of the railways as both a passenger and a writer. ‘Trains speed from town to town, and to and from London, carrying characters and plot, on a regular basis in Hardy’s novels and short stories,’ Ford observes, and he explores the often crucial psychological function these journeys have in the fiction. In A Pair of Blue Eyes, for example, Stephen Smith and Elfride Swancourt’s disastrous decision to leap onto a London-bound train ‘initiates the first of the ghastly episodes of disillusionment towards which so many of Hardy’s novels inexorably move’.

Ford has the true measure of his subject, and his admiration for Hardy does not blind him to occasional dud moments and absurdities, which he treats with a light and witty touch. His discussion of less well-known novels and poems is particularly welcome, and this fine book will encourage readers to return to the work they know with a quickened perception and explore further what is new to them.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


Show comments
Close