Thomas Hardy was born on this day, 2 June, in 1840. (Seventeen years later to the day, composer Edward Elgar would be born.) Let’s raise a glass of something (cider?) to one of the great poets and novelists of English literature.
1. Much of the common perception of Thomas Hardy is incorrect, or, at the very least, inaccurate. Many people, if asked to describe Hardy’s background, would probably paint us a picture of a rustic, poor, and self-educated man who worked his way up the social ladder to become a celebrated author. Whilst his upbringing was certainly rural rather than metropolitan, he wasn’t exactly poor: his father was a successful builder who had six men working for him. They were hardly on the breadline. Whilst it’s true that Hardy’s family lacked the funds to send him to university – instead, he left school at sixteen to train as an architect – he had had a perfectly sufficient school education prior to this. He was hardly an ‘autodidact’, or wholly self-taught, man. As Terry Eagleton puts it in The English Novel: An Introduction, ‘Far from being self-taught, he was considerably better educated than the great majority of men and women of his age. As Raymond Williams sardonically points out, the patronizing adjective “autodidact”, which has been used alike of Hardy, George Eliot and D. H. Lawrence, probably means simply that none of them went to boarding school or Oxbridge.’
2. At his birth, Hardy had been presumed stillborn until the midwife pointed out that the baby lived. Thus the great writer of ironic circumstances and strange twists of ‘fate’ had an appropriate induction into the world. He went on to live – and live for a long time, to the ripe old age of 87.
3. Hardy had left instructions that his body was to be interred, without great ceremony, in the churchyard in his local village of Stinsford, Dorset. But… The government had other ideas: the author of such classic novels as The Mayor of Casterbridge and The Return of the Native should be buried, with full honour, in Westminster Abbey alongside the likes of Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Dickens. Eventually, a compromise was reached: Hardy would be interred in Poets’ Corner but his heart would be buried in his native Dorset. (The rumour that Hardy’s heart, which was kept in a biscuit tin prior to burial, was eaten by his cat before it could be interred, is unsubstantiated.)
4. At his funeral in 1928, Hardy’s pallbearers included Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, John Galsworthy, A. E. Housman, J. M. Barrie, Edmund Gosse, the Leader of the Opposition, and even the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. He had become part of the literary establishment, although he hadn’t written a novel for over thirty years, after the adverse criticism his 1895 novel Jude the Obscure received from reviewers – and the Bishop of Wakefield, who reportedly burned the book for being immoral. Instead, Hardy had concentrated on poetry in his later life (he had started out as a poet before taking up novel-writing in the early 1870s). He has a reputation for being something of a gloomy author, and it’s true that his favoured – and, it must be said, more artistically successful – mode was the tragic rather than the comic, putting him at odds with many of his fellow Victorian novelists, whose books often end in union and marriage rather than death and isolation. But it might be more accurate to say that, like many great English writers, Hardy enjoyed the fine line that separates comedy from tragedy. ‘All comedy is tragedy, if you only look deep enough into it,’ he opined in a letter to John Addington Symonds in April 1889.
5. The ‘Hardy Monument’ near Weymouth is often assumed to commemorate Thomas Hardy, and it does … but not the writer Thomas Hardy. Instead, the monument memorialises Vice Admiral Thomas Hardy, a commander at the Battle of Trafalgar – the one, in other words, whom Nelson, in his dying moments, wanted to kiss.
Image: Thomas Hardy, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.