Thomas Hardy: Half A Londoner 
by Mark Ford.
Harvard, 305 pp., £20, October 2016, 978 0 674 73789 1
Show More
Show More

Human character​ , we know, changed on or about December 1910, but it had already changed on or about December 1863, when Baudelaire published his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’. In the course of writing about the journalist-illustrator Constantin Guys, Baudelaire leaves the salon and goes out into the street, away from art criticism to urban digression. He mentions Poe’s story, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, whose narrator, recovering from a recent illness, sits in a London café and watches the human traffic through the window. Artists are like convalescents, Baudelaire adds: nervously alert, grateful for the slightest detail, omnivorously curious. And the convalescent is like the child, who sees everything as if for the first time, drunk on novelty. Inspiration, Baudelaire continues, ‘has some connection with congestion’. Guys is such an eternal child, and the urban crowd is his domain: ‘he watches the flow of life move by, majestic and dazzling … He gazes at the landscape of the great city, landscapes of stone.’ From this, comes a further generalisation: ‘Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable.’

I was often put in mind of ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ while reading Mark Ford’s study of Thomas Hardy. Ford doesn’t mention it (though he does refer to Baudelaire’s flaneurial poems), perhaps because that manifesto is too obvious, or too obviously theoretical: he prefers to build his case patiently, historically, in solid empirical sediments, beginning and ending with biography, a form often maligned or ignored in academic criticism. But Ford realigns our sense of Hardy, moving him from Wessex fields to London streets, and offering a transformed writer: less the time-torn pastoral tragedian than a painter of modern life.

Baudelaire describes a specifically urban modernity – crowds, congestion, contingency – and suggests that a specifically urban artist will be needed as its analyst. Still, he claims with grandly vague precision that this is only ‘half’ of art; without the counterweight of ‘the eternal’, art may sign away its epic prestige, surrendering its totalising power to what Lukács would later lament as the ‘kaleidoscopic chaos’ of modern narrative impressionism. Ford’s Hardy combines in this way – if complicatedly – the eternal and the modern. The ‘half a Londoner’ he brings into relief is the young man who left his native Dorset for London in the 1860s, and who laboured, during the next two decades, to conquer the city. Even after his permanent return to country life in 1881, he and his wife spent several months a year in the capital, an arrangement that lasted more than two decades. Ford makes the convincing claim that London turned Hardy into ‘a modern type’ (a tag the novelist bestowed on Clym Yeobright in The Return of the Native); in city life he discovered ‘deracination, thwarted idealism, distrust of established religion, sexual anxiety (or indeed helplessness), a heightened sensitivity to the complexities of class privilege and to the ruthless depredations of the economic system’, sensitivities he passed on to many of his characters. (Grace Melbury, in The Woodlanders, combines ‘modern nerves with primitive emotions’.)

While Baudelaire’s ideal artist quickens to the crowded urban scene with detective-like avidity, Hardy was a somewhat reluctant painter of modern life, both drawn to city life and repelled by it. He couldn’t really imagine or bear the idea of congested London without the idea of his childhood landscape as release. Out of that pulsation, Ford argues, was born ‘the concept of Wessex’: the rural scene, eternal but eternally threatened by overweening urbanism, the pastoral redoubt far from the madding crowd, where Hardy could ‘know some liberty’, as he puts it in his poem ‘Wessex Heights’. Ford reminds us that in the maps of Wessex that Hardy drew and which were first included in the 1895-96 edition of his fiction, there are no railways, despite the many appearances of trains in his work: in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, ‘modern life’ is described as stretching out its ‘steam feeler to this point three or four times a day’ and quickly withdrawing, as if what it found there was ‘uncongenial’. Wessex was where Hardy could stage his feeling for cosmic conservatism; a late formulation appears in ‘In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”’, written in 1915, which pits the Continental catastrophe of the Great War against the longer histories of the English countryside, peopled by ‘a maid and her wight’: ‘War’s annals will cloud into night/Ere their story die.’ If Hardy was half a modern Londoner, the other half had a weakness for the pastoral-oracular. The two halves changed shape, feeding and modifying each other.

He first visited London as a small boy, in 1849, two years after the opening of the Dorchester to Southampton railway line. But the family’s relationship with the city went back to Hardy’s mother, who as a young servant in the household of the vicar of Stinsford had spent several months in London, where her employers decamped annually for the ‘season’. It is one of several breathtaking inversions in Hardy’s life: the eminent author made a habit in later life of spending the same period each year in the capital, where he would stay in areas like Kensington and Marylebone, and see his friends at the Savile Club. (Better still: when the Prince of Wales visited Max Gate in 1923, Hardy may have reflected with some complacency on the fact that he had bought the land on which his house was built from the prince’s grandfather.) Ford is alive to the long arc of Hardy’s class triumph, a journey which undulated with social anxieties and uncertainties. For instance, the city may have offered Hardy various possibilities of erotic fantasy, but his elderly infatuations were largely unrequited; and as if to ensure that such encounters would remain so, he tended to affix himself to married women of ‘superior social status’, as if, Ford suggests, understanding himself to be fulfilling his mother’s thwarted metropolitan ambitions.

During the 1860s and 1870s, he made several runs at that triumph. In 1862, as Hardy’s own account blazons it, he ‘started alone for London, to pursue the art and science of architecture on more advanced lines’. He took lodgings off the Kilburn High Road, where he lived for a year, before moving to Westbourne Park Villas, ‘a street parallel to the Great Western Railway line running west out of Paddington’. Though he was working in an architect’s office near Trafalgar Square (for a salary of £110 a year), he was really cramming for literary success. The new arrival took all the opportunities he could to educate himself: he read Mill, Darwin and Comte; took lessons in French at King’s College; studied paintings in the great galleries, went to the opera, read the Saturday Review. (Hardy never stopped this process: his late notebooks refer to Einstein and T.S. Eliot.)

The biographical contours are familiar, but Ford makes them vibrate in interesting ways. Hardy’s literary career is usually broken into two phases: the major novels (roughly, 1886-95), and then the renunciation of novel-writing after the scandalous success of Jude the Obscure, followed by the rinsing purities of the later poetry. It is hard to tell the story without a note of correction or improvement – the great marketed melodramas making way for the quieter refinements of the verse. But Ford reminds us that Hardy’s first and greatest desire was to write poetry, and that his poetic career started in London, with early work like ‘Dream of the City Shopwoman’, ‘Coming Up Oxford Street: Evening’, and ‘From Her in the Country’. As with many writers before and since the intensity of his literary ambition was at war with more dutiful desires, like pleasing his parents and securing the little bourgeois castle of job, income and spouse. He dramatised this struggle in ‘Coming Up Oxford Street: Evening’, which describes the sun moving through the city, its gaze falling on ‘watered track’, on sheets of glass, on doors, and on ‘ladies who rouge and whiten’; then the poem pictures a lonely ‘city-clerk’ (Ford calls him Hardy’s ‘hapless doppelganger’) walking along Oxford Street, dazzled by this urban sun but not warmed by it, a man who ‘sees no escape to the very verge of his days/From the rut of Oxford Street into open ways’.

Poetry didn’t offer that escape (‘Coming Up Oxford Street’ was not published until 1925), and Hardy switched to what was known as sensation fiction. His first novel, Desperate Remedies (1871), offered its title as a cheap hostage to unkind reviewers. The Spectator’s critic called the book ‘a desperate remedy for an emaciated purse’, and chided its publishers, Tinsley Brothers, as enablers of exploitative trash. Hardy’s purse may not have been emaciated, but it was hungry: in 1870, he had met Emma Gifford, whose solicitor father made it clear that this particular suitor was a low-born interloper. The courtship lasted four years, and Ford points out that the four novels Hardy published during that period established the narrative model for most of his subsequent fiction: ‘two or more male protagonists compete for the right to marry the heroine.’ In A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), Hardy split himself into two suitors who each represented a side of the author’s bifurcated existence: Stephen Smith, a well-educated but relatively unsophisticated architect’s assistant, a new arrival in London from the country; and Henry Knight, an established, opinionated lawyer deeply at home in literary London (he also reviews books). Hardy’s fiction repeatedly stages not only the multiple courting of a heroine (Jude the Obscure switches genders and agency), but the tense sociology of difference: yeomen, gentlemen farmers, intellectuals and self-made businessmen vie to win the hand, or control the fate of Hardy’s female protagonists. These novels anxiously aspire to a world in which such difference might melt away, a place often glimpsed only beyond the limits of the plot. While the men are sharply notched by class, the women (like Ethelberta in The Hand of Ethelberta, Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd, or Grace Melbury) tend to be spiritual aristocrats, creatures who democratically escape sociological capture. ‘I am only a peasant by position, not by nature!’ Tess tells Angel Clare. Among the consolations such women offer is a kind of sociological absolution, fully in keeping with the essential Protestantism of the English novel, whose standard-bearer may be Fanny Price, in Mansfield Park: ‘We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.’ Unlike Austen, Hardy wrote tragedies because, by and large, optimism’s cheque doesn’t get cashed.

Claire Tomalin pointed out in Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man that while Hardy arrived in London with nothing, Henry James appeared in the city around the same time clutching a bond for £1000, and letters of introduction.* One of the many virtues of Ford’s account is that it slows down the tempo of these early, difficult years, and draws our attention to uncanonical or even disdained writings that most criticism, in pursuit of Wessex and success, skips over. Ford provides sparkling readings of dour early poems, and calm analyses of fantastical potboilers. He makes a persuasive case for two novels which very few people now read, The Hand of Ethelberta (1876) and The Well-Beloved (1892). They are outrageous tales, bulky as pantomime donkeys, twitching with melodramatic antics, sudden reversals, impostures and disclosures; the plots race like children for sweets. But they interest Ford because they are set half in London and half in Wessex, and play the city off against the country. The Hand of Ethelberta opens in Wessex, where we first encounter our heroine, an elegant, comfortable young widow whose status owes more, we are told, to brains than blood. Ethelberta Chickerel (to use her original surname) finds success and fame in London as a poet and storyteller, despite the modesty of her origins, which she has stealthily repressed: her father is a butler. The novel’s political sympathies are decently democratic, if not quite radical, and indeed champion the decent servants against their fairly grotesque employers (one of the loveliest features of Hardy’s fiction is his fabulous ear for dialect, and his Shakespearean portraits of the collective life of workers, both rural and domestic). Ford lingers over a moving scene, in which Ethelberta’s sister, Picotee, joins the servants to spy on her own sister. The domestic staff persuade Picotee to dance in a room upstairs while a grand dinner is taking place below. Accustomed only to poor cottages with thin ceilings, she is sure they will be heard, and that ‘we shall all be ruined!’ No, comes the response, these are ‘some of the best built houses in London – double floors, filled in with material that will deaden any row you like to make, and we make none. But come and have a turn yourself, Miss Chickerel.’ I’m not entirely persuaded by Ford’s claim that these two strange books are ‘experimental’ rather than haphazard, but he is an acute critic of their fraught class-consciousness, and of the ways in which that social drama plays out across the different landscapes of country and city; London, in The Hand of Ethelberta, is both desired and despised: the place of great opportunity, the site of expansion, but peopled, at least in its higher echelons, by libertines and frights straight out of Thackeray.

Ford’s emphasis​ revitalises the canonical novels he spends less time on; thanks to his book, you find yourself noticing, in devotedly ‘country’ novels like Far from the Madding Crowd and The Mayor of Casterbridge, how London and Wessex interact, even at the level of metaphor. One of the great pleasures of Hardy’s language is the way he and his characters use what is pastorally near at hand for the purposes of picture-making, roughly customising their metaphors. In Tess, Hardy sees a reaping-machine as a kind of giant field-monster, with the threshed sheaves appearing behind it like ‘the faeces of the same buzzing red glutton’. Bathsheba Everdene, gazing at the corpses of Fanny Robin and her dead baby, sees ‘the plump backs of its little fists’, and is reminded of ‘the soft convexity of mushrooms on a dewy morning’. ‘They say he can talk French as fast as a maid can eat blackberries,’ a farm-worker says of Clym Yeobright, who is returning from Paris. Clym’s father is described as being ‘as rough as a hedge’. (This is approbation: Clym’s father was a farmer.) And Oxford, in Jude the Obscure, is seen thus: ‘They raise pa’sons there like radishes in a bed.’ Hardy’s characters use the gap between subject and rural likeness ironically: rustic honesty passes judgment on cultivated quibbling (like speaking French or being an Oxford-educated parson). He does something similar when his likenesses explicitly borrow from London and the space between subject and likeness quivers a bit, setting up a teasing ambiguity. As when he describes ‘the united breathings’ of Bathsheba’s farm-workers drunkenly sleeping off a party as ‘the horizontal assemblage forming a subdued roar like London from a distance’. Or when a dangerous bull, in The Mayor of Casterbridge, is described as having nostrils ‘like the Thames Tunnel’ – Brunel’s great achievement of the 1840s. Ford rightly says that the ‘awkwardness’ of Hardy’s prose – the intermittent clumsiness, the heavy references to classical literature and German philosophy – ‘makes us aware of the labour involved in acquiring such knowledge’; something like the labour of metaphor can also be felt in Hardy’s prose, with usefully estranging effects.

Hardy can be awkward, but at the same time astonishing beauty is sowed into every scene and stanza of his work. Herons, in Tess, which arrive ‘with a great bold noise as of opening doors and shutters’. Winter winds, in the poem ‘The Prospect’: ‘Iced airs wheeze through the skeletoned hedge from the north.’ Hares, in ‘The Haunter’: ‘Where the shy hares print long paces’. ‘Beech leaves, that yellow the noon-time’ in ‘At Day-Close in November’. The rain, in ‘Childhood among the Ferns’: ‘The rain gained strength, and damped each lopping frond.’ This is the writer who meant so much to D.H. Lawrence, to Auden, to Larkin. But all my examples are pastoral, drawn from Hardy’s uncanny noticing of the natural world. Using notebooks, diaries and unfamiliar poems and novels, Ford demonstrates how Hardy also trained his eye, as Baudelaire desired, by looking at the city, by gazing at ‘landscapes of stone’. Ford brings out a modern impressionist, who brilliantly sketched urban interiors and exteriors; this writer is more concise, more direct, more imagistic than the writer we know from the Wessex fiction. From March 1878, the Hardys lived in an end of terrace house in Tooting, not far from Wandsworth Common railway station, and here they remained for a little more than three years. South London inspired several poems (‘A January Night,’ ‘Snow in the Suburbs’, ‘Beyond the Last Lamp’), and several notebook entries. In one of these Tooting passages, Hardy does nothing more than describe his study, and the glow of the fire:

Firebrick back red hot … underside of mantel reddened: also a shine on the leg of the table, & the ashes under the grate, lit from above like a torrid clime. Faint daylight of a lilac colour almost powerless in the room. Candle behind a screen is reflected in the glass of the window, falling whitely on book …

A passage Ford cunningly excerpts from The Well-Beloved shows the novelist in perfect command of the grammar of modern urban realism, in which habitual and dynamic details are craftily pushed together, so that they seem to belong to the same time-signature:

He opened the casement and stepped out upon the balcony … Over the opposite square the moon hung, and to the right there stretched a long street, filled with a diminishing array of lamps, some single, some in clusters, among them an occasional blue or red one. From a corner came the notes of a piano-organ strumming out a stirring march of Rossini’s.

But Ford’s most interesting discovery is from an 1888 diary. Hardy had attended a service at St Mary Abbots in Kensington, and reflected on the experience in his diary. It is a consummately urban piece of writing, alert both to singularity and enforced collectivity, in which different consciousnesses war and coexist, and it gives one an idea of the kind of novelist Hardy might have been had he fully thrown in his lot with the city; Ford is not wrong to call this passage ‘a preview of modernist uses of stream of consciousness’:

They pray in the litany as if under enchantment. Their real life is spinning on beneath this apparent one of calm, like the District Railway-trains underground just by – throbbing, rushing, hot, concerned with next week, last week. Could these true scenes in which this congregation is living be brought into church bodily with the personages, there would be a churchful of jostling phantasmagorias crowded like a heap of soap bubbles, infinitely intersecting, but each seeing only his own. That bald-headed man is surrounded by the interior of the Stock Exchange; that girl by the jeweller’s shop in which she purchased yesterday. Through this bizarre world of thought circulates the recitative of the parson – a thin solitary note without cadence or change of intensity – and getting lost like a bee in the clerestory.

In Pavese’s novel The Moon and the Bonfires, the narrator returns from a successful life in America to the desperately impoverished Italian countryside where he grew up. In a beautiful detail, he remembers that when he was a boy he always knew he would get away, and always knew that he would do the kinds of thing he is now doing – standing in a hotel, writing a letter on important stationery, a letter ‘which would go far away, to the city, and hunters would read it, and mayors and ladies with umbrellas’. Hardy’s journey out of Dorset to London, and back again, was of course his own, but it was also part of a larger traffic between country and city that would profoundly determine the modern novel: Lawrence was Hardy’s nearest successor, but the complicated relationship of rural to urban, or margin to centre – in which each location judges the other as lacking some crucial element, some essential life-force – still informs much contemporary work. Think of fiction by Anne Enright, Eimear McBride, Alan Hollinghurst; but also, in an important postcolonial modification, Naipaul, Amit Chaudhuri, Zia Haider Rahman. We were Hardy’s heirs, without quite knowing it; Mark Ford has located the inheritance.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences