PETER TAIT, THOMAS HARDY'S WOMEN: IN LIFE AND LITERATURE
A Thomas Hardy Society Book Review by Dr Tracy Hayes
(2020) Halsgrove Publishing £14.99
This is the third of Peter Tait's books on Hardy's women, the first being the biographical novel Florence: Mistress of Max Gate (2011), followed by Emma: West of Wessex Girl (2013) (subsequently retitled A Woman Betrayed), a second biographal novel. Tait's third book is strictly non-fiction, though it is not an academic biography in the vein of Michael Millgate and thus should not be read as such. Rather, Tait is an historian with a keen interest in the life and works of Hardy which has spanned a number of decades, and makes no claim to being a specialist, but rather a devotee. This is evident in Thomas Hardy's Women, for it does not contain academic jargon, nor is it saturated with analyses adhering to specific disciplines of literary criticism. This is a book of appreciation written by an appreciator.
Tait's book begins with an introduction aptly titled 'A Lover of Women', and a quote from Rosalind Miles emphasizing Hardy's 'deeply intuitive understanding of female nature' (6). This of course pertains to Hardy's fictional creations such as Tess Durbeyfield and Bathsheba Everdene rather than the real women in Hardy's life, for as Tait rightfully points out Hardy was the 'perennial wooer or suitor', for whom 'the idea of marriage, perhaps, appealed more than its actuality' (6). Tait also makes the salient point that Hardy was not infallible, no matter how much we may revere the man and his prolific oeuvre – 'Insensitivity to causing hurt by slighting women in some way was a part of his person, as his sisters and wives found out, yet when made aware, he could choose to show contrition and guilt' (7). Mary and Kate adored their gifted older brother, but were very much sidelined and never a part of Hardy's public life. The story of how his first wife Emma was alienated and found Hardy to be insufferable in his treatment of her is well documented, as is the outpouring of grief in the 'Poems 1912-13' published after her death. Hardy's second wife Florence was mortified by this publication, and when she later required hospital treatment for the cancer that would eventually lead to her death, Hardy refused to pay the expenses, as he felt this was her responsibility. These are facets of Hardy's nature that sit uncomfortably with us, but they co-existed with his genius for literature and his seering indictments of the hypocritical patriarchal society he found himself a part of. The two are not mutually exclusive.
We are also reminded of Hardy's 'penchant for pretty women', and his 'inability to sustain a long and loving relationship (possibly the exception being with Florence Henniker, largely because she kept him at arm's length)', which Tait sees as being largely down to Hardy's upbringing 'and the exhortations of his mother' (7). Jemima Hardy certainly exercised an incredible influence over all four of her children, with three of them not marrying at all, as was her wish. But to Hardy himself I would attribute what Tony Fincham has called 'Fitzpierstonism', a perpetual longing for the unattainable ideal, with immediate cessation of interest once obtained.*1 Fincham names Fitzpierstonism after the characters who most exhibit this trait – Edred Fitzpiers from The Woodlanders and Jocelyn Pierston in The Well-Beloved, and we can see a great deal of Hardy himself in the latter character, who pines for something that never truly exists, and when he comes within the possibility of claiming it for his own, all attraction dissolves and the object is relinquished, mourned for when death guarantees that possession will never again be possible. There is obviously no better example of this than Emma Lavinia Gifford.
Peter Tait notes that 'the crossover between fact and fiction in Hardy is often hard to separate', which is certainly true to an extent, as it is with most authors, but we must be very careful of conflating an author with a narrator and a character (9). While there are biographal elements in the various novels, short stories and poems, we cannot claim any character to be definitively Hardy himself. However Tait does reiterate the claim, made by previous biographers, that Hardy was 'emotionally immature', that it was 'not that he did not feel love or affection for either Emma and [sic] Florence at times in his married life, but that he was unable to sustain any feeling for another, except through his writing' (8). One obviously needs to discount Jemima Hardy here. Tait's best summary of Hardy is as follows:
[H]e was a strange combination: a cynic on love, yet a romantic, albeit one who eschewed commitment; shy and socially self-conscious, yet in his writing, provocative and controversial. His heroines are the hub of much of his fiction just as the women hew knew through kin and friendship shaped and moulded his own life and writing (9).
And thus we are able to read of Eustacia Vye who wishes to 'be loved to madness' but in fact has what may be viewed as fickle ideas of what love entails, and Sue Bridehead who wishes to live as soulmates with Jude Fawley, but not to be 'licensed to be loved on the premises by you'.
The book is divided into three parts: 'Family', which concentrates on Hardy's mother, sisters and wives; 'Friends and Muses', discussing Tryphena Sparks, Florence Henniker, Agnes Grove and Gertrude Bugler; and 'Fiction and Fantasy', an analysis of many of Hardy's female characters, especially Bathsheba, Eustacia and Tess; followed by a conclusion which asks if Hardy was a misogynist, a fantastist, a romantic or a femininist. Perhaps it is possible that all four of these things in various aspects can be found in his personality throughout his life. Tait makes a number of observations about Hardy's muses, one of particular interest being that Hardy was an avid collector of photographs of said muses. Alas, as Tait reminds us, Hardy did not have any tangible reminder of Tryphena Sparks at her death, prompting his poem 'Thoughts of Phena' with its powerful lines 'And in vain do I urge my unsight/ To conceive my lost prize/ At her close'. I would have liked to have heard more about Hardy's relationship with Eliza Nichols and her sister Jane, who comprise only one paragraph. This is surprising in view of Tait's inclusion of a quote by Stephen Mottram to the effect that 'Of Eliza's importance to Hardy there can be little doubt – so many aspects of his early life and early writings seeming to fall into place around her' (54). I would also have liked Tait to provide more of his own interpretations of the influential women in Hardy's life, rather than summarizing the ideas of others, particularly Robert Gittings, Andrew Norman, Martin Seymour Smith and Lois Deacon and Terry Coleman, all of whom have since been discredited. However I do agree with Tait's central thesis:
Hardy separated parts of his life at his own convenience and his lack of empathy with those closest to him. He saw no contradiciton in what he wrote or said and would have meant Florence no harm; but by acting as he did [regarding the 'Poems of 1912-13'], Florence felt he was saying to her that she was not sufficient to nurture his soul and imagination or feed his libido; for that he needed a Gertrude (82).
It was Hardy's obsession with Gertrude Bugler that led to what Tait describes as Florence's 'paranoia', which he notes 'manifested itself in such embarrassing incidents as her cruel response to Gertrude's stillborn child' (86). By separating the important parts of his life into independent compartments, Hardy was able to become a literary genius, but he also alienated anyone who ever got close to him.
When discussing Hardy's female characters Tait wisely points out that everything is open to interpretation, no two readers will read a text in quite the same way. He notes that personal interpretations will change over time according to prevailing social conventions – 'We start with a heroine who is seen as honest and well-meaning yet find also a woman charged with sensuality and eroticism' (92). However I don't quite agree with his statement that 'Few heroines escape Hardy's feminine cloak – Tess perhaps and Marty South, but most others are afflicted by female posturing in some form or other' (94), or that 'Hardy's heroines could not stray far before being put back into their boxes' (121). I also don't agree with the observation that 'it is apparent that being cast as a woman in one of Hardy's novels is a life sentence for if fate does not do for you, then a woman's foibles will' (95). This repeats Tait's earlier assertion that 'survivors in his fiction are more often than not meek and obsequious' (7). I can think of many exceptions to this rule, particularly Arabella Donn, Felice Charmond, Suke Damson, Avice Caro the second and Martha Bencomb. Arabella indeed is far from being meek or obsequious, or viewing her womanhood as a 'life sentence', she is in fact Hardy's most alpha-male character throughout his entire oeuvre. Arabella Donn is forthright, practical and a survivor who flies in the face of traditionally received Victorian patriarchal gender conventions. She is the ultimate Darwinian survivor, exploding stereotypical notions of femininity while remaining distinctly feminine. The second Avice Caro turns the tables on Jocelyn Pierston by exhibiting what might be termed 'reverse Fitzpierstonism', an equally forthright female character not afraid to speak her mind. Another thing I cannot agree with is Tait's defence of Grace Melbury's character, that she is 'a good woman at heart who suffers from a bad marriage and then is twice cursed by the end, first losing the man she truly loves and then being reunited with her faithless husband' (123). Grace is vain, fickle and ignorant. She only 'loves' Giles when he is dying, and then voluntarily chooses to return to Fitzpiers at the conclusion of the novel for decidedly fleshly reasons. But this of course is only my own opinion – two readers can peruse the same text and reach wildly different conclusions.
Tait refers to Claire Tomalin categorizing five of Hardy's novels as 'failure (Ethelberta), masterpiece (The Return of the Native), slight historical novel (The Trumpet-Major), failure (A Laodicean), interesting oddity (Two on a Tower)' (104). I would very much like to have read what Tait himself thought of these novels, rather than repeating the opinions of others. Did he find The Hand of Ethelberta and A Laodicean a failure? And if so why? Two on a Tower is certainly an 'interesting oddity', but in no way can The Trumpet-Major be viewed as a 'slight historical novel', especially in light of Hardy's 'Trumpet-Major Notebook' which runs to over 100 pages of research he had gathered about the period and the military before writing the novel! A little later in his book Tait does put forward an observation of his own, but this reviewer finds it to be an uncomfortable assertion:
Hardy was by now well-aware of the new woman, those free spirits who were being paraded in society, a few daring and unconventional, like Rosamund Tomson, or more often dull and shallow flirts who populated the soirées and dinner parties he attended in London. He observed them, occasionally toyed with them and often criticised them, but always enjoyed them (134).
There are no sources or quotes provided to back up this assertion, and it seems to verge a bit too close towards misogyny for my liking. If this is an ugly truth being revealed about Hardy, I would be much more comfortable in accepting it with the provision of proof for such accusations. We know that Hardy had some unlikeable qualities, but did he really find many New Women 'dull and shallow flirts'? Did he 'toy' with them and 'criticise' them? I don't recall reading anything to this effect in the eight volumes of collected letters, or the auto/biography. I may be wrong, but I detect a whiff of Robert Gittings here. A much safer observation is when Tait compares Hardy to Pierston in that 'Unlike Pierston, who abandoned his pursuit of his ideal of beauty, Hardy did not' (143). Tait points out that Hardy married a woman almost forty years younger than himself, and then well into his eighties fell in love with an even younger woman whom he considered to be the embodiment of his Tess. 'Sometimes with Hardy the reality becomes more compelling than the fiction' (143). I don't think anyone can disagree with that.
Towards the conclusion of his book on Hardy's women Tait puts forward a very interesting idea:
There is much of the Pygmalion in Hardy. Having created Tess as his ideal woman and faithfully presented her as a Pure Woman, Hardy embarks on his own love affair with one of his own creations. He takes pleasure in listing the actresses lining up wanting to play the part of Tess and sees in Gertrude Bugler, his last great infatuation, the embodiment of Tess. Little wonder that Emma and Florence stood so little chance of becoming his 'well-beloved' (155).
This could be the starting point for an excellent study, but Tait doesn't make any more of the idea than that. Hardy as Pygmalion would provide much fruitful investigation for a future essay should it be pursued, and it would provide an interesting and original dimension to the already prolific research available on Hardy's women, both real and fictional.
I do have a couple of quibbles with this book. There are many typos that could have been remedied with better editing, and there are an unfortunate number of mistakes, such as attributing the quote that 'all romances end at marriage' to Bathsheba rather than Troy (27, thankfully corrected on 99); stating that Hardy and Emma were married in September 1874 (29) and then in March 1874 (30, it was in fact September 17th); the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926 was awarded to Grazia Deledda not George Bernard Shaw (49, Shaw was awarded it in 1925); noting Fancy Day as a character in Far From the Madding Crowd instead of Under the Greenwood Tree (58); claiming Stanley Cockerell as a friend of Hardy and Florence when it was Sydney Cockerell (80); Gabriel Oak was not a 'childhood friend' or the 'first love' of Bathsheba Everdene (97); Sargent Troy most definitely does not 'find Fanny' when she falls ill or 'bring her back to Weatherbury' (98, he has no idea about her 'illness' and she drags herself, slowly and painfully, back to Casterbridge); Festus Derriman cannot be considered a 'suitor' for Ann Garland but instead a stalker (110); Susan does not refer to Newson in The Mayor of Casterbridge as 'her present owner' but to Henchard as such (121); and Grace Melbury does not 'stay with' Giles 'in the cottage' in The Woodlanders, but occupies his cottage herself while he insists on risking exposure in a hovel (124). Again these mistakes could have been amended with careful proofreading, although in a book about Hardy's women, stating that Tess of the d'Urbervilles was published in 1889 rather than 1891 is unforgivable. There is also the repeated assertion that not much is known about Hardy's London years, when this is exactly the subject of Mark Ford's excellent book Thomas Hardy: Half a Londoner (2016), not listed in Tait's bibliography and thus perhaps not read, which is a shame as it provides a wealth of information on Hardy's life in the capital, the women and the poetry.
However, Peter Tait here has written a sincere appreciation of an author whose life and work he obviously admires and enjoys greatly. An academic monograph it is not, but as an introduction to Hardy for the general reader, it is very enjoyable.
1Tony Fincham, 'Les Intermittences du Coeur: Love in Hardy, Proust and Beckett', Thomas Hardy Journal, 28 (2011), pp: 13-42.
Signed copies of this book are available directly from the author via his website: www.petertait.org