- Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revisited
Although at least sixteen biographies of Hardy have been published, since Michael Millgate's magisterial Thomas Hardy: A Biography appeared in 1982 there has been a consensus about its pre-eminence. Now Millgate has outdone himself by producing a thoroughgoing expanded revision that is in very large measure the fruit of his own research and reflection in the more than twenty-year interim between the original and the present volume - a time in which he critically edited Hardy's autobiography (1984) and The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy (1978-88), as well as Thomas Hardy's 'Studies, Specimens &c.' Notebook (1994), Letters of Emma and Florence Hardy (1996), and Thomas Hardy's Public Voice: The Essays, Speeches, and Miscellaneous Prose (2001). The result of those studies - and of very much more meticulous scholarship of his own as well as that of many others - is scrupulously documented in over fifty pages of endnotes. But it is above all in Millgate's characteristic way of interpreting the products of his research that this biography earns special distinction.
In no way is Millgate's success more evident than in his even-handedness in treating complex human relationships - as in the remarkably balanced way he presents the strains between Hardy's family and his first wife, Emma. He quotes, for example, Emma's extraordinary letter to Mary Hardy, which ends, 'You are a witch-like creature. ... I can imagine you, & your mother & sister on your native heath raising a storm on a Walpurgis night.' But he then continues, 'The letter shows Emma at her paranoid worst, but it also generates sympathy for the difficulties of her situation - outnumbered by the Hardy family, excluded from its conclaves, and powerless in the face of its solidarity - and for the energy and independence with which she nevertheless sought to make her voice heard.' Such passages reflect some of the truly outstanding qualities of Millgate's [End Page 311] biography - his remarkable capacity to enter into the predicament of his subjects, his ability to render the complexities of their motives, his readiness to call attention to extenuating circumstances, and his insights into how humans caught in webs of trying relationships with others often behave in ways which can be illuminated by sympathetic attention to their own sense of their situations. It is precisely the absence of those qualities which has led many biographers - those less committed than Millgate to a circumspect and sympathetic view of human life - to reduce aspects of Hardy's biography to more simplistic and often thesis-driven judgments.
Equally circumspect are Millgate's comments on intellectual influences on Hardy's work. His discussion of Matthew Arnold's ideas on Hardy's fiction is characteristic both for what it flatly asserts and what it cautiously qualifies. After spelling out what is known of Hardy's readings of Arnold, Millgate comments: 'Although he found Arnold's idealism somewhat remote and rarefied and his specifically religious arguments tiresomely "hairsplitting," Hardy was deeply sympathetic to his ethical approach and found in his analyses of such phenomena as the "modern spirit" formulations which gave eloquent expression to some of his own deepest and most instinctive feelings about the great social and intellectual currents in which he was himself so ineluctably caught up. Arnoldian ideas are clearly apparent - which is by no means to say unambiguously endorsed - in novels as diverse as The Return of the Native, A Laodicean, and Jude the Obscure.' This short passage is characteristic of another major aspect of Millgate's style - the conjunction of clear assertions of well-established facts with judicious qualifications. In this case, there is an extended opening qualifying clause - 'Although he found ... '- followed by a firm assertion of Hardy's 'deeply sympathetic' approach to Arnold. That, in turn, is followed by a flat statement of how Arnold's ideas are 'clearly apparent' in certain specified novels - only to be followed by the monitory clause, 'which is by no means to say unambiguously endorsed.'
In short, Millgate's A Biography Revisited sets a new standard of excellence...