Trial by Ordeal: Thomas Hardy and the Critics by Edward Neill, and: Thomas Hardy, Femininity and Dissent: Reassessing the 'Minor' Novels by Jane Thomas (review)
- Victorian Review
- Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada
- Volume 25, Number 2, Winter 2000
- pp. 106-111
- Additional Information
Reviews Edward Neill, Trial by Ordeal: Thomas Hardy andthe Critics (Columbia , SC: Camden House, 1999) Jane Thomas, Thomas Hardy, Femininity and Dissent: Reassessing the 'Minor'NoveIs (London: St. Martin's Press, 1999) Forsome time now, there have been at least two "Thomas Hardys" constituted by the critical reception ofhis works: the firstis thegenerally conservative, melancholy, and hyper-sensitive writer who rose out of "humble" village artisan beginnings to become a London literary lion in the 1890s and the "greatest living man ofletters" by the time ofhis death in 1928. The second is what we might call -indeed many have called the "radical" or "alternative" Hardy, a revolutionary, visionary novelist and poet who resisted the bourgeois ideology of his time. Two recent books on Hardy fall into the second category of reading this much-examined writer, but while the first, Edward Neill's Trialby Ordeal: Thomas Hardy and the Critics, spends most ofits pages simply excoriating studies ofHardy that do not agree with its author's view ofthe subject, the second, JaneThomas's ThomasHardy, FemininityandDissent— as its title suggests - goes beyond this kind ofreductively negative position to offer some new and valuable reassessments ofHardy's neglected, so-called "minor" novels. Somewhat paradoxically- given that he is writing a book on Hardy — Edward Neill sets out to challenge the perpetuation ofHardy studies, targeting, in the process, the work ofmany prominent scholars and critics . This is a veiy polemical book, divided into four chapters, the first of which is entitled "Sitting inJudgement: The Biographical Assize." Here and in the second chapter, "Convergence ofthe Twain? Hardy and the Forms of Critical Appropriation," Neill builds his case against what he sees as the anti-theoretical, even occasionally aggressively anti-intellectual stance ofmuch ofHardy criticism. With the notable exception ofKevin Z. Moore, virtually all ofHardy's recent critics come under fire in these two chapters for refusing to see Hardy's radical side and for reproducing received notions of"good littleThomas Hardy" as benign, working-class, V i c t o r i a ? R e ? i e w 106 reviews and therefore inevitably "minor." Certainly, Neill has a point to make, and he makes it with a great deal ofvigour and passion. However, in his zeal to rightwhat he seesas the deep wrong ofthe dominant tradition in Hardy studies, he barely acknowledges the contribution made by this tradition and, in particular, by the meticulous textual scholarship that has done more than any critique for the survival ofthe Hardy canon in out time. More troubling perhaps, and symptomatic ofa certain carelessness in the handling ofevidence, are such errors as Neill's assertion that after Farfrom the Madding Crowd, Leslie Stephen "accepted nothing from [Hardy] subsequently" (2-3), when, in fact, Stephen published Hardy's TheHandofEthelberta in the Cornhillin 1876, having commissioned a newstoiyfrom Hardy in December 1874 (Millgate 169). Similarly , Neill attributes Hardy's phrasepredilection d'artiste to the novella An Indiscretion in the Life ofan Heiress (1878: he misdates it as 1876) (Neill 8); it actually appears in A Laodicean (1881). Neill may justifiably disagreewith the value ofHardy biographies (and bibliographies): this does not, however, let him off the hook of having to pay some careful attention to those works. Not onlydoes Neill's approach verge on the mean-spirited- he speaks early on of Hardy's biographers biting the hand that feeds them (4), when he himselfappears to be doing a fair bit ofhand-biting- but I also question the originality ofhis thesis. His study ofthe critical construction of "Thomas Hardy, novelist and poet" might have been groundbreaking , except for the fact that it does little more than rehearse what PeterWiddowson already did, ten years ago now, in Hardy in History: A Study in LiterarySociology, the first part ofwhich presents a "critiography" ofHardy showing how the early and late reception ofHardy's work has operated to elide elements of his life and art that did not fit into the commerciallyviable "Hardy ofWessex" so beloved ofthe British tourist industry and film and television adaptations (Widdowson 1 1-76). Neill's rather quixotic addition to this critique ofthe Hardy industiy is to tilt at theThomasHardy Society and Hardy's biographers, particularly Michael Millgate and Robert Gittings...