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Reviewed by:
Thomas Hardy. The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, Volume 6: 1920-1925. Eds. Richard Little Purdy and Michael Millgate. New York: Oxford UP, 1987. 379 pp. $52.00.
Harold Orel. The Unknown Thomas Hardy: Lesser-Known Aspects of Hardy's Life and Career. New York: St. Martin's, 1987. 194 pp. $32.50.

"The whole time of the next generation will be occupied in reading the old letters of this," Hardy wrote, with some bitterness, to Harley Granville Barker in 1923. Letters from Hardy to Granville Barker had got into the hands of an unscrupulous collector and were being offered for public sale. That Hardy should find himself in such a situation was a result of his long life (he was now eighty-three) and of the high standing his reputation had reached in the thirty years since he stopped writing fiction. These dangerous incursions into his private life, growing more bold as time went on, stimulated anew Hardy's passion for biographical anonymity and immunity—which passion coexisted, of course, despite his constant protestations to the contrary, with his actively seeking to attain and finally being able to enjoy a cultural pinnacle: he was now the Grand Old Man of English letters, famous the world over. As Somerset Maugham once remarked, anyone can become respectable if he lives long enough.

During the years covered by the present volume—the penultimate one of this series—Hardy was preoccupied chiefly with two volumes of poems and two plays, one new and one old. Late Lyrics and Earlier (1922) and Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles (1925) were, respectively, his sixth and seventh volumes of poetry. The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall was published in 1923 and performed several times in various parts of the country. The dramatic version of Tess of the d'Urbervilles that Hardy had composed in the Nineties was now unearthed and became briefly a hit of the 1925 season in London, running for several months first in suburban Barnes and later at the Garrick Theatre in the West End. Hardy was bemused and excited by his sudden and unexpected entrance, at age eighty-five, into the playwriting profession, remarking (to Granville Barker) at the same time that in his opinion "to attempt to put a novel on the stage is hopeless, and altogether a mistake in art." Still, he did it, and enthusiastically too, for there was a good deal of money to be made out of the venture, and by money the once-poor Hardy was always dazzled.

During these years (ages seventy-nine to eighty-five) Hardy spent a good deal of time fending off would-be biographers and other seekers of information while attempting to control what was written about him by tossing at them, simultaneously, autobiographical fragments, mostly trumped up, and blinding cinders. Refusing to tell the truth about himself was a settled habit. And, as always, he pretended not to care whether his work got sold and into print, at the same time pursuing publishers, editors, and agents shrewdly and relentlessly to be sure that it did. He managed to make his own signature worth a great deal by withholding it as often as he could. He received honors; he grew rich. Foreign translations of his works, into languages as distant as Polish, Russian, Czech, Norwegian, and Danish, now appeared. He was offered, and accepted (always [End Page 672] in absentia), a quiverful of honorary degrees. The film rights to his novels were optioned, and optioned again. And he was now beginning to scour the rich American market, the copyright act of 1891 requiring U.S. royalties to be paid on all volumes published since that year. Americans, Hardy quotes someone (perhaps mythical) as saying, "are like children, and . . . read whatever is put before them without much judgment of their own." The first printing of Late Lyrics went through three impressions; the entire first printing of Human Shows (five thousand copies) was sold out in just a few days. The British reading public of the 1920s, whatever else might be said of it, gets high marks for buying up as he wrote them the poems...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 672-674
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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