- Thomas Hardy Reappraised: Essays in Honour of Michael Millgate
This collection’s subtitle straightforwardly characterizes its contents, a Festschrift for the distinguished Hardy scholar Michael Millgate. The first half of the title, however–Thomas Hardy Reappraised–is more ambiguous. As Keith Wilson writes in his preface, the biographical and historical work on Hardy that Millgate began publishing in the 1970s opened up “an essential context for serious discussion of Hardy’s work” (ix). Millgate himself thus “reappraised” Hardy in two ways: first, by replacing speculation and sensationalism about Hardy’s life with scholarly research; and second, by establishing Hardy’s work as deserving of critical attention. He was soon joined by other scholars, many of them featured here, so that Hardy now “occup[ies] an assured position at the very centre of contemporary literary and cultural studies” (xiii). If Hardy’s position is “assured,” then, in what sense does this collection “reappraise” him? Does the word suggest that it is time to decenter, recenter, or reconsider Hardy’s work or Hardy studies? Or does it signal an homage to and continuation of Millgate’s initial, generative reappraisal?
These fifteen previously unpublished essays suggest the latter interpretation. They offer not radical rereadings of Hardy’s work or cultural location but rather careful reconsideration, by distinguished scholars, of its significant themes. The two opening essays, for example, consider Hardy’s relation to religion. Pamela Dalziel places a previously unpublished homiletic exercise, written by Hardy when he was eighteen, in the context of some of his other comments on religion to argue that his Christian convictions were more serious and longer-lasting than many readers have recognized. Mary Rimmer’s essay on Hardy’s “biblical and liturgical allusion” follows nicely from Dalziel’s, surveying Hardy’s poetry and fiction to produce a conclusion similar to Dalziel’s: “Few agnostics present such vexed and contradictory attitudes towards the sacred as Hardy” (32). In favoring such nuanced rereading over more radical claims, these essays typify the volume’s spirit.
Wilson has sequenced the essays so as to highlight thematic or methodological connections. The four essays following Dalziel’s and Rimmer’s track allusions (to Hamlet, other poets, children, and stones) in groups of Hardy’s works; among these, Marjorie Garson’s, “Written in Stone: Hardy’s Grotesque Sublime,” stands out for its wide-ranging analysis of Hardy’s representation of stone as a medium that both expresses and resists human history. Drawing on Derrida and Darwin, Garson argues that for Hardy, “though human subjectivity is nothing but writing, it has evolved…in a universe that cannot be written upon,” a situation that “while it renders the human situation ironic, renders the poet’s apprehension of that situation sublime” (112).
Each of the next five essays focuses on a single novel to discuss themes ranging from the “erotics of dress” (in Simon Gattrell’s essay on A Pair of Blue Eyes) to [End Page 383] Platonic idealism (in Jeremy Steele’s essay on The Well-Beloved). Of this group, three share a concern with the location of individuals on continuums of natural and social history that also links them to Garson’s essay. Hardy subtitled his second novel, Under the Greenwood Tree, “A Rural Painting of Dutch School,” and Ruth Bernard Yeazell analyzes the tension in the novel between the static scene-painting in Hardy’s description of a group, the Mellstock choir, on the one hand, and his growing “allegiance to plot” (149), adumbrated by the courtship narrative of an individual character, Fancy Day, on the other. J. Hillis Miller’s essay, which follows Yeazell’s, also analyzes a tension in Hardy’s representation of individuals. He juxtaposes Raymond Williams’s emphasis on community with Martin Heidegger’s celebration of radical individuality (“Dasein”) to conclude that Hardy’s pessimistic plotting, in The Return of the Native, endorses neither. The Egdon heath-folk are happy only in their ignorance of “humankind’s true conditions of existence,” but claiming individuality by “detaching onself from the community,” as do Eustacia Vye...