Hardy and Lockdown

Tracy Hayes

Thomas Hardy suffered from ill health for much of his life. Not inheriting his father's physique, his auto/biography contains the famous lines: 'Had it not been for the common sense of the estimable woman who attended as monthly nurse, he might never have walked the earth. At his birth he was thrown aside as dead till rescued by her as she exlaimed to the surgeon, “Dead! Stop a minute: he's alive enough, sure!”'. Being 'healthy but fragile' it was assumed by members of Stinsford parish that 'Tommy would have to be a parson, being obviously no good for any practical pursuit', much to his mother's consternation. It was doubted that he would survive into adulthood, his parents once saying, in his hearing thinking he was asleep, that they did not expect to rear him. Hardy retained into old age what his biographer Michael Millgate describes as 'a vivid sense of his early experiences of sickness and weakness'. He refrained from physical exertion, apart from long leisurely walks around the heaths and woodlands near the Bockhampton cottage, preferring the world of books and music.

While trying to make a career in architecture with the firm of Blomfield in London the fog, smoke and dirt regularly plagued Hardy's constitution, forcing him to return to Dorchester in order to regain his health. In 1867 he accepted a position with John Hicks and was glad to move back to Dorset permanently.

In October 1881 Hardy contracted an illness that would leave him helpless for six months. A doctor diagnosed internal haemorrhaging and urged an immediate operation. Hardy was terrified of such a possibility and obtained a second opinion. The diagnosis was confirmed, but it was conceded that Hardy might avoid the necessity of an operation if he were to be kept in bed, his feet raised above head level, for an extended period. The pain was so intense Hardy thought he would die. It eventually eased with much bedside care from Emma and a very limited diet, although he suffered lengthy episodes of jaundice and inflammation of the bladder. Famously it is during this time that he dictated the bulk of his novel A Laodicean to Emma from his bed, having already sent the first thirteen chapters to the printer. Suffering so much that he was unable to receive visitors, he nevertheless managed to deliver each instalment on schedule to Bowker, though he said later of the whole traumatic experience that it 'was an awful job'.

Attending Tennyson's funeral in 1892 caused Hardy to reflect on his own corporeality. He wrote to Emma that when he looked into his mirror he was 'conscious of the humiliating sorriness of my earthly tabernacle...Why should a man's mind have been thrown into such close, sad, sensational, inexplicable relations with such a precarious object as his own body!'. This sentiment is portrayed in a disturbing scene in The Well-Beloved when Jocelyn Pierston finally accepts the circumstances of old age, he finds himself at the conclusion of the novel permanently yoked to a re-encountered Marcia, who is now withered with age herself. He bursts into hysterical laughter at the irony of his predicament – 'it is too, too droll – this ending to my would-be romantic history'.

By 1896 Hardy was suffering regularly from rheumatism (an illness his father had also had to deal with on many occasions) and influenza, and took trips to coastal resorts such as Brighton with Emma for restitution. He shared with his sister Kate and brother Henry a dislike and distrust of the medical profession, and apparently didn't believe in the effectiveness of innoculations. Years later when in his late 70s and married to Florence Dugdale, whenever she was concerned about Hardy's health his response would be 'If you send for a doctor I shall be ill'. He considered paying for medical treatment to be a waste of money, even when Florence herself was ill, causing many to think he was a miser. Though this aspect of Hardy's personality is defended to an extent by Michael Millgate who notes that Hardy's 'broader reputation for meanness in old age seems traceable very largely to his having achieved affluence too late to be fully at ease with it'. Poignantly Florence wrote on New Year's Eve at the end of 1917 that 'My husband is very well & amazingly cheerful in spite of his gloomy poems. I wish people knew that he was really happy, for strangers must imagine that his only wish is to die and be in the grave'.

Hardy could also speak rather amusingly of his many illnesses. In March 1918 he blamed a severe stomach attack on 'eating a tart made of bottled plums', and in 1921 wrote of being somewhat unromantically reassured that what had at first seemed to be heart trouble was in fact indigestion. And in a letter to Edmund Gosse of 1887 Hardy wrote: 'One day I was saying to myself “Why art thou so heavy, O my soul, & why art thou so disquieted within Me?” I could not help answering “Because you eat that pastry after a long walk, & would not profit by experience”'. He was also partial to a bottle of stout each night and saw medicinal qualities in champagne, drinking two glasses twice a day to restore his energy and spirits during a low spell in October 1922. And by 1926 supper most evenings consisted of Burgundy, Stilton cheese and Dorset knob biscuits.

Would Hardy have agreed with Covid-19 lockdown restrictions? He was rumoured to abhor the thought of physical contact with other people, and was an intensely private man, preferring solitude with Florence at Max Gate to being amongst large groups of people, and even his terrier Wessex bit everyone who visited the house, with the exception of T.E. Lawrence. He was also plainly a contender for the 'highly vulnerable self-isolating' catergory. Perhaps he would have sat back and placidly observed the many and various reactions to the current situation, and attributed the causes to 'purblind doomsters'. He was after all 'a man who used to notice such things'.

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