You may not love the biography, but at least you learn something.
01 May 2015
by Claire Tomalin
Recently I spent about a month methodically plowing through Claire Tomalin's biography Thomas Hardy.
Hardy was on my mind because a new adaptation of his novel Far from the Madding Crowd is coming out this week. I've not read all of his novels, but I very much enjoyed Under the Greenwood Tree (which I only read after watching the BBC adaptation, thanks again, British TV) and a short story collection titled A Changed Man. I've read parts of Tess of the D'urbervilles and would very much like to finish the whole thing, and although I've read The Return of the Native, I don't remember it very well.*
So when I went looking for a biography of Hardy I thought I would try Tomalin's; I'd never read anything of hers before but her name was familiar and she's a well-regarded biographer.
Frankly? I didn't care for the book a whole lot. I enjoyed learning more about Hardy, but for some reason it just felt like a real slog to read his life story. And he didn't really lead a dull life (he rose from extremely humble beginnings to become a very well-off author; he was married twice and carried a serious torch for another married woman; he wrote some of the angriest, and at the time, most scandalous literature available). This also was probably not the right biography for me because Tomalin really seemed more intent on proving Hardy's worth as a poet than as a novelist. That's fine, but it almost seemed like she just skipped over the writing and importance of his best-selling novels.
Periodically she also used turns of phrases that seemed a bit heavy-handed to me. There's this, in a caption for a photo of Hardy's first wife: "Her situation as a wife whose husband no longer needed her was pathetic, and, although she was mocked by many and disliked by som, there is something touching about her childlike face." And this: "Hardy and Emma's failure to have children is the saddest thing about their life together. He would have made a gentle and humorous father, and a child would have given Emma a focus for her attention and love, and filled up the long hours when he was absorbed in his writing. It would have relieved the tensions and resentments that built up between them..." (p. 172.)
Now that all may be true. But it seems rather a lot to assume. Particularly because the rest of the biography paints Hardy as a man truly driven to write and spending a lot of time doing so. Sometimes he did not seem over-kind to his first wife (or his second wife, really), so, although there is evidence that he was a kind uncle and friend to several relatives' and friends' children, it seems a bit of a leap to say what kind of father he would have made.
So yeah, not my favorite biography ever. But informative. Which is another thing I really do like about nonfiction: even if you're not in love with the author's writing or style, you usually still get something for your time in the way of knowledge.
*What I do remember is that I read it because Holden Caulfield referenced it in the novel Catcher in the Rye: "I like that Eustacia Vye." Yes, I was so in love with Holden that I went and read what he read. Ah, youth.