- Hardy in Context
Phillip Mallett’s edited collection Thomas Hardy in Context contains forty-three essays, each approximately ten pages long, divided into five sections: Life and Works, Critical Fortunes, The Literary Scene, The Historical and Cultural Context, and Legacies. Across the five sections authors, including Angelique Richardson, Jenny Bourne Taylor, Ann Heilmann, and Mallett himself, explore the historical and cultural contexts of Hardy’s life, novels, short stories, poetry, and biographies The Early Life of Thomas Hardy 1840–1891 and The Later Years of Thomas Hardy 1892–1928, “compiled” by Hardy’s second wife Florence Emily Hardy.
Mallett’s prefatory materials include a short note on the editions of Hardy’s works scholars used in the collection, a list of abbreviations for Hardy’s many works and some of the critical pieces cited, and a comprehensive chronology that spans Hardy’s life. This chronology includes not only notable moments in Hardy’s personal life but also important acts of Parliament; cultural events such as the expansion of the railway, the Great Exhibition, and British military skirmishes; and the publication dates of prominent works by writers such as Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, and Anthony Trollope. The breadth of the time line helps readers recognize the inclusiveness of topics in the rest of the collection. The text also includes a Further Reading section, which highlights Victorian biographies, critical works, and more contextual [End Page 553] secondary studies of the Victorian and Edwardian periods. The collection is not an evaluative or interpretive look at Hardy’s oeuvre; rather, it explains the different cultural forces at work in Victorian and Edwardian Britain over the course of Hardy’s literary career, making it appropriate for undergraduate students beginning research on Hardy as well as more experienced researchers looking to expand possible critical avenues for Hardy or his contemporaries. The essays and further readings suit researchers looking to integrate history and culture especially well.
The first section, Life and Works, includes six essays addressing Hardy’s biography, friendships, the illustrations included in his works in either their serialized or volume forms, and the different ways in which the public saw Thomas Hardy. These essays focus primarily on the distribution of his writing and how his lifestyle influenced it. One of the strongest parts of this entire collection, but especially in this section, is the extensive use of primary source material. In “Memoirs and Recollections,” for instance, Trish Ferguson uses letters to and from Hardy, recollections published in periodicals like the Fortnightly Review, and passages of Victorians’ memoirs to create a clearer understanding of the man that Thomas Hardy was, both when he lived in London and after he returned to Dorset.
The second section, Critical Fortunes, addresses Hardy’s work in three essays: “Critical Responses I: The Novels to 1970” (Sarah A. Maier), “Critical Responses II: The Novels from 1970” (Tim Dolin), and “Hardy’s Poets as His Critics” (Peter Robinson). These three essays serve as a review of Hardy criticism. They provide examples of the cultural atmosphere surrounding Hardy and analyze the different ways in which scholars read his prose and poetry, both before and after his death. Maier’s essay on Hardy criticism before 1970 again draws on primary research, looking almost exclusively at the reviews of the novels published contemporaneously to the works themselves, whether in their serial or volume forms. Dolin explains that since 1970, poststructuralism and Marxist criticism have largely driven the critical work on Hardy. Both essays point out that Hardy’s novels have been noted for their realism while at the same time criticized for their attention to working-class, rural, and sexually explicit topics.
While the first two sections focus primarily on Hardy’s life and the critical reception of his works, the middle two sections, The Literary Scene and The Historical and Cultural Context, contextualize Hardy and his works in relation to other writers; the scientific, sociological, [End Page 554] and psychological theories developed and refined during his life; and discussions of gender including marriage, masculinity, and the New Woman. In The Literary Scene...