I’ve recently been reading the book by Vere Henry Collins which tells of his conversations with the great English poet and novelist Thomas Hardy in the early 1920s when Hardy was in his early eighties. The book – Talks with Thomas Hardy at Max Gate – was first published in 1928 following Hardy’s death in January of that year, and republished in 1978 to mark the 50th anniversary of the great man’s demise.
Collins was obviously something of a Hardy “groupie” though that is, perhaps, a strong word for a man from the Oxford University Press, a literary fellow and friend of Edward Thomas. But he does confess in the book’s introduction that in 1900 he had cycled round what we might now call the Hardy trail and twice held “vigil” outside Hardy’s Max Gate house “in the faint hope of catching a glimpse of him”. Twenty years later he managed to wheedle his way into the old man’s presence and – happily for other subsequent Hardy groupies – made an account of his conversations.
The conversations are presented in the form of a dialogue with the participating “persona” listed as Hardy (H), second wife Florence (Mrs. H) and Vere Collins (C). I am not sure how Collins noted down the conversations so apparently verbatim, whether Hardy saw the transcription or what he would have thought of them. I guess Collins waited till his death to publish them since Hardy could take exception – as the conversations themselves show – to what we might these days call “fake news”.
In his biography of Hardy, Michael Millgate says the conversations were “doggedly recorded” and another Hardy biographer, Martin Seymour Smith, describes them as “unconsciously comic”. Whatever one thinks of them, however, this slim volume is a fascinating read for those interested in the work of Hardy, not least for the enlightenment it provides on some obscurities in the great man’s verse and his views on other writers.
What caught my eye also, however, is a rather off-beat remark Hardy made about the journey he undertook to Aberdeen where he went in the spring of 1905 to receive from the University there his honorary Doctorate in law. The short poem, Aberdeen, was written to mark his visit. “That was the only time I ever went to Scotland,” Hardy reportedly told Vere Collins. “It was so expensive, and for the same money we found we could go to the Continent and get a more thorough change.” Hardy had travelled there by sleeper-car on the railways. In his sanitised “autobiography” (under wife Florence’s name) the long return journey was described as “easy”. Not so, apparently, on his purse. It was probably both Scotland’s loss and Hardy’s that he never set foot there again, particularly when he seemed to have had such a good visit. Even more of a loss given the view expressed in Claire Tomalin’s biography that far from Dorset and London “his spirits rose, and he was ready to speak out”.
As the grand old man of British literature, with many editions of his works published, Hardy must have been relatively well-off by this time, but his accumulating wealth was now famously becoming accompanied by a distinctly parsimonious attitude to expense. Memoirs and comments written by others relating to his latter years at Max Gate, for example, are often notorious for references to his stinginess and thrift. “He was parsimonious to the pitch of niggardliness,” the introduction to his parlour-maid’s reminiscences tells us, and the parlour-maid tells the story of how one winter’s day soon after she had made a fire in the dining room she found that all the coal not actually burning had been taken off and carefully placed upon the hearth. She replaced the coals on the fire only to witness Hardy take the tongs and remove them from the fire again. In the “grim, cold” house he would not permit good fires, she says.
The same maid’s memoir about Hardy relates that a Christmas gift of half a crown was “indignantly refused” by the cook who viewed it as “an insulting amount”. (Florence later upped it to ten bob.) “He lived a rather stingy life”, the maid laments. Florence Hardy struggled with getting him to spend money modernising Max Gate. The kitchen needed upgrading; there was no bathroom in the house until 1920. It must have been a nightmare for the domestic staff having to pump water every day to the house from the well, heat up water in the kitchen and scurry up and down stairs with jug fulls for the Hardys’ baths. We don’t have to worry about frozen pipes, Florence once wrote, because we don’t have have any pipes. She had to “fight”, Tomalin says, to have a bathroom and hot water installed. Tellingly Millgate’s biography even has an index reference to “old-age frugality”.
So what caused this grand old man with his “accessibility and charm” – as described by his secretary in later years, Mary O’Rourke – “a gentle lion, friendly and with a sense of fun” also to embody characteristics more reminiscent of Pushkin’s Miserly Knight?
The answer, I think, is not too difficult to discern. Like Pushkin’s knight, Hardy knew “how much human care and woe, how many lies, tears, prayers and curses” were expended to drive away penury and poverty. His first – never published novel – was The Poor Man and the Lady. On the day he went to London, desperate to secure its publication, the same date is noted in his prayerbook against Psalm 86 “Bow down thine ear, O Lord, and hear me: for I am poor and in misery”. Hardy’s father was a builder and his mother had been a servant. They were not well off and at times struggled to make ends meet. His father-in-law reportedly regarded Hardy as a “low-born churl”. Arthur Benson remarked on his “peasant background” and elsewhere talked of his “kindly” face which was rather that “not of a peasant… but of a village tradesman”. When Hardy gave up architecture to become a man of letters he knew he could be signing himself up to a future of impoverishment. No wonder he counted the pennies in later life with, as Millgate puts it, his “careful record-keeping” and the “anxious zeal with which he watched over his publishing affairs”; and wife Florence could remark “that T. H. honestly believes that poverty & ruin stare him in the face”.
But it is more than this. The way he lived was almost akin to a profession of faith. Hardy was decidedly not Tolstoyan, but, although comfortably off, he made a profound statement in his daily habits. He worked in old clothes. He wore trousers, which – according to Tomalin – “he mended himself with string”. He was devoted to living a simple life, hating wastefulness, donning his old work clothes in the morning and routinely toiling away every day, like a labourer, at his writing. He was a working man. This is how he kept himself going successfully into advanced age.
Although Hardy would bristle at biographical features being identified in his fictional characters, there is undoubtedly something of this spartan diligence in Clym Yeobright – the character “loveable” to Hardy – in The Return of the Native, and the tensions between poverty and wealth, between the simple life and excess, are palpable throughout his fiction. One only has to think of Tess and Jude. On different levels we can also see distinct flashes of this in his poetry as well: the “simple self” in the poem Wessex Heights; the lack of expectation from life in the late poems Epitaph and He Never Expected Much; and the pointed reflections in the poem in the Winter Words collection, A Private Man on Public Men where the latter are
“driving their coach through Life with strain and striving,/ and raking riches into heaps”
while the “private man”
“…lived in quiet, screened, unknown,/pondering upon some stick or stone,/ or news of some rare book or bird”
and, (far from the madding crowd, one might justifiably add) was
“shut from the noise of the world without,/ hearing but dimly its rush and rout,/ unenvying those amid its roar,/ Little endowed, not wanting more.”
So the frugality of this parsimonious poet may have raised eyebrows and irritated kith and kin and Hardy may sadly have missed out on the riches of a return visit to Scotland, but perversely the parsimony of this poet, his deeply engrained need for a simple “little endowed” life enriched his verse, and in his parsimony we, his readers, have become wealthy indeed.
This blog has mainly referenced the following books:
Talks with Thomas Hardy at Max Gate, by Vere H. Collins, published by Duckworth, London 1928, reprinted 1978
Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revisited by Michael Millgate, published by OUP, 2004 (To my mind this contains the best account and reasoning I have read so far of Hardy’s “frugality”).
Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man by Claire Tomalin, published by Penguin Books, 2007
Hardy by Martin Seymour-Smith, published by Bloomsbury, London 1994
The Later Years of Thomas Hardy 1892-1928 by Florence Emily Hardy, published by Macmillan & Co., London, 1930
Thomas Hardy: His Secretary Remembers by May O’Rourke, Toucan Press, 1965
The Domestic Life of Thomas Hardy (1921-1928) by Miss E. E. T. (Hardy’s Parlour-Maid), Toucan Press, 1963
The Little Tragedies by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Nancy K. Anderson, Yale University Press, 2000