- Thrust beneath the Carpet:Hardy and the Failure of Writing
In his 1912 postscript to the Wessex edition of Jude the Obscure, seventeen years after the original publication of this novel, Thomas Hardy referred to the hostile reception of Jude as an experience that had “completely cur[ed] [him] of further interest in novel-writing” (6). The violent attacks on Jude the Obscure in the mid-1890s were indeed followed by Hardy’s decision to give up novel writing. During the three remaining decades of his career—with the exception of his 1897 revision and publication of The Well-Beloved (serially published in 1892) and the composition of The Dynasts, his epic drama in verse (1903–1908)—Hardy composed nothing but poetry.
In an 1896 letter of refusal to a critic who had asked for an interview and offered Hardy an opportunity to answer the hostile reviews of Jude, the author wrote back: “My respect for my own writings & reputation is so very slight that I care little about what happens to either, so that the rectification of judgements, &c., & the way in which my books are interpreted, do not much interest me” (Jude 343). Yet nothing about Hardy’s reaction to the harsh reviews that met his two last novels indicates indifference to what his readers thought about his work. He saw the hostile response to Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891–92) and Jude the Obscure (1895) as based on gross acts of misreading that annoyed him deeply, a feeling that he stated explicitly (see F. E. Hardy 309).
However, some critics have doubted the view that Hardy’s decision to abandon fiction writing was the result of hostile reviews and instead suggested that, with Jude, Hardy in fact completed what he had to say in the novel.1 Indeed, it is unreasonable to assume that Hardy’s entire artistic career for the remaining three decades was shaped by a few bad reviews. However, as insufficient as Hardy’s own explanation of this shift may seem, his feeling that [End Page 198] he was misunderstood and misread may tell us something profound about his concept of writing, reading, and the connection between the two.
Hardy’s relationship with his readers was not an easy one to begin with. Critics have shown that throughout his career, much earlier than the 1890s, he was fully aware of the likely response of his readers; he carefully preserved reviews of his works in a scrapbook that survives in the Dorset County Museum. Hardy’s mistrust of his readers’ ability to appreciate his work probably began to emerge following the rejection of his first (and eventually lost) manuscript, The Poor Man and the Lady, by publisher Alexander Macmillan in 1868.2 Macmillan’s terse explanation for returning the manuscript was that the readers might “throw down the volume in disgust”; after it had been rejected by five publishers, Hardy destroyed the manuscript (see Gibson 192). Although wide selections of the lost work have survived—revised and reused by Hardy in later works (see Dalziel 350-351)—the failure of the readers in this case was perhaps registered in Hardy’s mind no less as the failure of the writer.
Hardy’s assumption, however, was that, at least ideally, there was such a thing as an “adequate” reader. In his 1888 essay “The Profitable Reading of Fiction,” he described the process through which the ideal, “perspicacious” reader would, “by affording full scope to his own insight, catch the vision the writer has in his eye” (Widdowson, Thomas Hardy 247). The idea that there could be a reading that fully grasped the author’s intended meaning sadly clashed with Hardy’s ongoing feeling that his meaning was grossly misread. As a poet, he expected to fare better.3 The readers of poetry were fewer, but Hardy believed that these readers were select, isolated, and more intellectual than the readers of novels.4
The gap between what Hardy envisioned as an ideal reader and what he felt to be his actual reception experience was reflected in a continuing anxiety about the medium of writing as a mode of communication, an issue that had begun...