The anniversary of the death of Thomas Hardy was a few days ago. He died on 11 January 1928 and Virginia Woolf published an essay the same month called ‘Thomas Hardy’s Novels’ in ‘Times Literary Supplement’ as a kind of eulogy.
In the introduction of ‘Genius and Ink’, which is a collection of Woolf’s essays, it says that in 1919, Virginia Woolf “opened a fresh notebook to gather her thoughts on her father’s friend Thomas Hardy, in response to a request from Richmond” – the Editor of the ‘Times Literary Supplement’ at the time – “to ‘be ready with an article on Hardy’s novels whenever the evil day comes’. She worked sporadically on the piece for the next ten years.” Hardy died at age 88.
To mark the occasion, I read out the whole essay in my video, you can watch it above, and tried to summarise the key points paragraph by paragraph and pointed out a few things that I found interesting.
This essay was published immediately after Hardy died in 1928. It’s almost a hundred years now since Hardy died, he’s still one of the most read classic writers. Woolf gives him high praises right from the start; she uses words like, the “head” of the art of fiction in England, “crowned”, “sovereignty”. “It is no exaggeration to say that while he lived there was a king among us and now we are without”. She draws attention to his greatness and influence among the contemporary and says let a later generation judge his greatness as a writer.
I don’t know what happens in the academic or publishing world. But you can tell he’s been popular and is still popular just by looking at how many of his books are still available in bookshops and how often I find his books in secondhand bookshops. And then Woolf says, I’m not going to speak pretty words like people usually do when someone dies, I’m going to speak my mind.
Woolf says explicitly my job here is not to rank all his novels but to talk about what makes him the kind of great writer he is. The first novel was not masterful in terms of techniques, but he has started to use nature as a force in his story. His techniques matured in ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ and you can tell his love for the old-fashioned way of life in English countryside and the farming community. But Hardy seemed unable to control his gifts because he saw the romance of this old way but he also saw the unavoidable reality of this old way dying away.
Woolf identifies two groups of writers, one is aware of the whole writing process and is in control, and the other is not. Hardy belongs to the second group. As the result, some parts of the novels are genius some are quite ordinary. And Hardy just leaves them as they are.
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Woolf talks about ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ here and thinks it is Hardy’s highest achievement.
‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ is the only Hardy I read so far. But I have to say watching the excellent film completely ruined my reading experience. It’s obvious but just let me say it, you can only read a book fresh once, beware of film and TV adaptations!
Back to Woolf, in ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’, men feel very small in contrast to the landscape but the never-changing landscape also gives men an eternal quality. The story of Bathsheba, Troy and Oak happens and ends, but the farmhands and their work, spring, summer, autumn and winter, stay the same.
Woolf compares the three-main-characters structure in four of Hardy’s novels. They represent certain types of people and they have a lot in common. I haven’t read them all so I can’t tell. Though Hardy sticks to his trio framework, he gives life to his characters abundantly. Hardy makes each character unique, but at the same time, he or she represents us all in some ways.
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What makes Hardy different from other writers is that we as readers do not know his characters well, not in the same way we know Jane Austen or Thackeray’s characters. Hardy’s characters don’t relate to each other, they relate to the world and the nature as isolated individuals.
Here Woolf contrasts ‘impression’ and ‘argument’. I’m not 100% sure I get what she means. In ‘How to Read a Book’, there’s a chapter called ‘Coming to Terms with an Author’. I don’t think I have come to terms with Virginia Woolf here. But anyway, Hardy seems to do a way better job giving impressions unconsciously, than going against what comes most natural to him.
‘Jude the Obscure’ lies on the other end of the spectrum where argument dominates impression in the story. Comparing it with ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’, the latter provokes more intense emotion in the readers.
The ordinary tests don’t apply to Hardy. If you do, he might fail. But his style does what it needs to do and does it brilliantly. His plots might look too dramatic and improbable for real life but life is stranger than fiction.
At the end of the day, at the end of Hardy’s life, what’s the most important thing he gives us and leaves with us? It’s an attitude towards the world, which is more important than the old world itself. We laugh heartily, we admire the beauty of the landscape, we feel tenderly for the characters, because Hardy himself always felt tenderly for the characters.
That’s the end of the essay. I applied my limited intelligence to the text and felt greatly challenged! The summaries are all my own so don’t quote them in your essay writing. But hopefully it’s of some value and interest to you. Happy reading!