Thomas Hardy’s Tess – a bitter satire of circumstance

Like most folk over the past weeks of coronavirus lockdown I’ve resorted to streamed box sets and old technology DVDs to while away some of the time.  I’ve even managed for the first time to read that largely unread work of Thomas Hardy, The Dynasts, and in the process learned an awful lot about the Napoleonic Wars.  But one of the DVD box sets that I recently alighted upon and watched contained a work of Hardy’s which will be much more familiar to most folk, namely Tess of the D’Urbervilles.   The DVD box-set (well only two discs) comprised a four-episode BBC production dating from 2008 which somehow I had missed at the time .

There are always the carping criticisms that one can make about the casting or the adaptation.  (“No, it isn’t quite like that in the book, surely?”  “He didn’t say that, did he?”  “Where is Alec’s moustache – why hasn’t he got one?”  “Wasn’t it dark when she set off? ” “What happened to the dressing-gown?”)  But overall, it was well worth the viewing.  There were some killer moments (literally, of course, in this tale), but oddly the one that stands out for me is the view of Tess we get when the hapless Angel finally turns up and finds her at her lodgings in Bournemouth, or rather “Sandbourne”, towards the end of the saga.

A semi-dolled up “Mrs d’Urberville” comes down from her rooms and greets her sickly husband (“mere yellow skeleton” says the book) at a distance.  The screen version conveyed to me Angel’s shock.  He had been thinking of his lovely Tess as a “cottage girl”.  “Where could she be amidst all this wealth and fashion?” he mused in the book.  Well now he knows.

Hardy wrote:

“Tess appeared on the threshold – not at all as he had expected to see her – bewilderingly otherwise, indeed.”  “… her hands… once rosy, were now white and delicate”.


As first published in the Graphic

Tess, of course, is no longer the peasant girl.  She is now nicely turned out.  And why?  Well, it’s obvious.  She’s been ruined.

And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?” —
“O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.

Lines not from the novel Tess, but from Hardy’s poem The Ruined Maid  written almost 30 years earlier.

This splendid piece of satirical verse is an important early poem, not least because it is a rare survivor of his early poetry from the 1860s.  It comprises six caustic quatrains of how a peasant girl can become quite the lady with fine clothes, adornments and delicate skin by being “ruined” – in other words by providing a ready supply of sex out of wedlock to a gentleman.   Tess’s circumstance echoes The Ruined Maid directly.  Her hands are no longer the working hands of a country girl, but are now “delicate”.  In The Ruined Maid we find:

— “Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!” —
“We never do work when we’re ruined,” said she.

The poem presents us with a dialogue of explanation between a current country girl and a former country girl  who – as Hardy put it in Tess – has become “bewilderingly otherwise”.  (What a great phrase that is.)

— “I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!” —
“My dear — a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,” said she.

Tess, abandoned by husband Angel Clare, has finally after much tribulation ended back up with Alec d’Urberville, the “relative” who caused her “ruination”.  The hands that would have been like “paws” in the “starve-acre” farm of Flintcomb-Ash are now white and delicate.

The theme of “ruination” (we need to see this word in “quotes ” since it is a highly charged term) runs through the labyrinth of Hardy’s works like a constant thread.  Pick almost any tale that comes to mind and you are likely to find in it some form of “ruination” or potential “ruination”, some incident where a woman has or could be compromised by a liaison with a man and would be “ruined” by the ensuing scandal.  Novels, stories, even his poetry are ripe with events and incidents related to this theme.

In our 21st century the notion that a woman can be “ruined” by a sexual relationship outside marriage seems rather curious and outmoded (though perhaps not as outmoded as it should be), but Hardy was a Victorian novelist writing in Victorian times and for his Victorian readers the portrayal of the so-called fallen woman was a very sensitive issue.  Of course, a Victorian gentleman would not likely be “ruined” in the same sort of way by such behaviour, as the immediate post-marital conversation of Tess and husband Angel bears witness.

Of course, for Hardy, who loved to tell a decent yarn, the excitement and dire consequences of dangerous liaisons were bread and butter for his creative imagination.  Sex and death are the staples of his tales of woe from Tess and Jude to The Withered Arm, and echoed in poems like The Dead Bastard, The War-Wife of Catknoll, and the  narrative verse of The Brother, who had killed his sister’s former lover not knowing that they had subsequently married – an act which – in the logic of the 19th century  reversed the “ruination”.  (Those poems I have just picked out at random from only one collection of verse.)

Hardy sometimes enhances a tale of woe by garnishing the compromise or fully fledged “ruin” with the inevitable need for secrecy about the matter and this can be further ornamented with a tale of epistolary woe – for example a letter written but not read, which is a significant feature of Tess.  In Tess, despite her intentions she marries without the secret of her past and her dead child being revealed, and then confesses on her wedding night to the shocked and unforgiving Angel, ignoring the sound advice from her mother to keep shtum.

I watch the film and am stupidly muttering at the screen.  “Tess, don’t tell him!  Don’t tell him!  It won’t end well!”  “You are in a Hardy novel,”  I add pointlessly.   “Take the hint.  He’s called Angel.  It’s ironic.  For goodness sake!  Shut up!”


But Tess is firmly in the fateful, and in her case, fatal hand of Hardy’s  Immanent Will, which doesn’t give a fig for her, for her love or her honesty.  Doing the right thing is not going to get reward.  The “purblind Doomster” “unblooms the best hope ever sown”.  I can’t help swearing at Angel and at the end once the tragedy has unfolded – I fear for Tess’s plighted – or should that be blighted – sister Liza-Lu,  as she trudges away from Winchester jail with the hapless Angel after Tess’s execution.  Some folk oddly see this as a glimmer of hope…


“Well that was a bundle of joy, Mr Hardy!”  “That has cheered me up no end.  What was the point of that?”  I am sure I am not the only one who experiences anger, despair and agony as well as the ecstasy of Hardy’s marvellous work.  And the point, of course, is that Hardy had to tell it like it is.  Hey folk – he’s telling us –  look at what our marvellous righteous morals have done to this poor woman.  As far as Hardy was concerned, she was “a pure woman faithfully presented”.  Hardy’s preoccupation with the “ruined maid” was also a bitter satire on the society which placed her in that circumstance.


Of course, though the quality of the novel shone through, much of the literary establishment and society were outraged.   Magazines surely could not print this stuff.  Hence why he had to butcher the tale in its initial serialisation and then try to patch it back together again afterwards.  The Victorian patriarch reader of the Graphic could not let his daughters be exposed to portrayals of such “ruination”.  It induced poor old Robert Louis Stevenson to spew the verdict it was “damnable”.  Henry James wanted to give Hardy a good kicking.  But, goodness me, Hardy made his point, and his readers bought the book in their thousands.  Even 30 years later women were writing personal letters to him in praise of the book expressing their thanks and appreciation:

“The book is more personal to me than any book I have ever read or I think any that I shall ever read. I loved the portrayal of ‘Tess‘, and the intricate workings of her beautiful soul.”

Many, I suppose, do not naturally associate satire with the writings of Hardy, but the use of satire, irony, tragic exaggeration and even wry humour are a staple feature of his work throughout his writings – from his early poems, through his Satires of Circumstance and Life’s Little Ironies right through to the “spirit ironic” of The Dynasts and the vital poems of his old age.  Nor does his focus just dwell on the ironic circumstances of individual men and women in his tales.  After all – as has been pointed out so often – the subject of Hardy’s literature is not just the individual man or woman pitted against circumstance, but the condition of “man” and “woman” writ large.


Hardy wrote because he had something important to say.  He needed to give voice to what he saw going on around him and right from the outset this involved a bitter and radical social satire.  We see this quite clearly even in his first – never wholly published – novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, dating from around the same time as The Ruined Maid.

How illuminating it is to read his correspondence with publisher Alexander Macmillan to whom he sent the manuscript of his first novel for consideration in 1868.  From the outset his aim was to get at “the upper classes” not by a full frontal assault, but by directing his “strong… feelings inserted edgewise… half concealed beneath ambiguous expressions, or at any rate written as if they were not the chief aims of the book (even though they may be)…”   So at the very start of his writing career we see how he grapples with what he needs to say and how on earth he might get such “utterances of strong feeling” published and read.

Macmillan’s incredibly thoughtful and detailed response picks up, of course, on Hardy’s “exaggerated” portrayal of “great and terrible” “frivolity, heartlessness, [and] selfishness”.   “Chastisement”, he says, which “would fall harmlessly from its very excess”.  “Indeed, nothing could justify such a wholesale blackening of a class, but a large and intimate knowledge of it.”  Thackeray, he notes, was more subtle in his approach, but even his “satire” and “mocking tone” didn’t do much good.  As for Hardy’s “black wash” – his “ignorant misrepresentation”  – well, Thackeray “meant fun”, but he could see that Hardy was “in grim earnest”. “You mean mischief,” he tells Hardy (twice).  But the perspicacious Macmillan, (the first publisher Hardy approached with his book) had already seen from this manuscript alone that Hardy was a force to be reckoned with.  After comparison with Thackeray, by the last paragraph, he is also bringing Shakespeare into comparative view and telling Hardy that on the evidence of what he has seen he is a writer “of power and purpose”.

In the end, Hardy does not publish this first novel.  And not, it seems, because ultimately no one would publish it, (he had in fact accepted an initial “fair and reasonable deal” from Chapman Hall).  Hardy declined to publish at the end of the day because he had been advised by none other than the established novelist and poet George Meredith that publishing such a “socialistic, not to say revolutionary” book would finish him as a writer before he had even started.  Meredith – who read the manuscript as a publisher’s reader – warned him against publishing such a “sweeping dramatic satire of the squirearchy and nobility, London society, the vulgarity of the middle class, modern Christianity, church restoration and and political and domestic morals in general”.  We are, I think, unclear whether these words – taken from Hardy’s “autobiography” – were actually Meredith’s or Hardy’s summation of them, but I think we get the drift.  Hardy’s biographer, Michael Millgate, has noted the “pervasive class hostility” of Hardy’s first book.

Meredith had told Hardy that “the press would be about his ears like hornets if he published his manuscript”.  “In genteel mid-Victorian 1869 it would no doubt have incurred, as Meredith judged, severe strictures which might have handicapped a young writer for a long time.”

Should Hardy have stuck to his guns, have published and be damned?  How interesting it is to speculate what might have happened.  But Hardy was a young unpublished writer, always thin-skinned, with limited prospects and desperate to pursue a literary career.  One can hardly blame him for taking the advice from leading publishers and established writers.  Even years later from his heights as the grand old man of English literature, he was pursued by malicious critics and always hurt dreadfully from their stinging comments.   And, of course, from the remnants of Poor Man emerged Desperate Remedies and Under the Greenwood Tree and scenes for many subsequent works.

Hardy – rather quietly – did eventually publish in 1878 a large chunk of the missing novel as An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress.  Though this was only a magazine publication and was notably never reprinted in his lifetime.  Even in this shortened state it is a valuable insight into the novelistic mind of the young Hardy and woven into the  tapestry of the tale are many of the early threads which are picked up again and again in his future works.

One of the threads is, of course, the theme of the “ruined” or potentially “ruined” maid.   The title – Indiscretion of an Heiress – gives the game away somewhat.  But, as we are told in Hardy’s ghosted “autobiography”, the missing novel also included “with every circumstantial detail” “the kept mistress of an architect… a dancer at a music-hall…  which would have brought down upon his [Hardy’s] head the cudgels of all the orthodox reviews”,

We can lurch here back into the autobiographical speculation that Hardy hated so much. Did Hardy meet such a young woman when he was working as an architect in London at around the time Poor Man was being written?  We certainly know he was familiar with some of the dance halls and must have been acquainted with the women who danced in them.  As his “autobiography” notes, “the most important scenes” for the book “were laid in London, of which city Hardy had just had between five and six years’ constant and varied experience – as only a young man in the metropolis can get it”.   By the time we get to the publication of An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress the kept mistress of the architect has disappeared, still, perhaps, one indiscretion too far even for the maturer writer to publish.

We don’t, of course, have to speculate about potential “ruination” and Hardy’s own conception out of wedlock.  Hardy biographer Millgate notes that the marriage of his pregnant mother, Jemima, and father (also Thomas) was “rather against the inclinations, so it is said, of both the contracting parties”, but goes on to note that family tradition “endorses the bridegroom’s hesitancy”.  This family tradition of his father’s reluctance to marry is set out in Celia Barclay’s fascinating book on Hardy’s cousin Nathaniel Sparks, where, we are told, “he was most reluctant” and Jemima’s eldest sister Maria “sent her husband to collect the philanderer and deliver him to the altar”.  For Hardy this business was very close to home and, of course, suitable fodder for a tale (Interlopers at the Knap).

One curiosity of the unpublished novel is Hardy’s original notion that this mischievous satire was “a story with no plot; containing some original verses”.  Hardy had been mainly writing verse at this time and failing to find publishers for his poems.  Perhaps he conceived this hybrid genre as a way of getting his verse into print.  The notion certainly continued into the writing of Desperate Remedies which contains Hardy’s early poem Eunice.  Indeed, Hardy also at some point rehashed the narrative theme of Poor Man into a poem with virtually the same title (A Poor Man and a Lady).  We do not seem to know how Hardy intended to weave into the lost novel his original verses.  Each chapter in An Indiscretion is prefaced with – initially unattributed – lines of verse – though here we have not verses by Hardy, but by other famous poets (for example, Tennyson, Shelley, Byron, Browning, Shakespeare etc).  One is tempted to think that this was how Hardy’s own verse was to be displayed.

The satirical poem The Ruined Maid was written in 1866 around the same time that Hardy was conceiving and writing his “socialistic” satire Poor Man with its “original verses”.  One is equally tempted, therefore, to speculate that this “ruined maid”, may initially have almost seen the light of day in Hardy’s first – unpublished – novel.  As it was,  the world had to wait until 1901 to witness the “ruination” of this maid, long after poor Tess had paid the price.

The critical appraisal of Hardy’s Tess is almost an industry unto itself.  An academic could devote a whole life to the study of this stunning tale and the critical response; and Hardy enthusiasts will cry, rage and enthuse long after I have disappeared.


True, Hardy also saw “the passion of love” at the heart of his fiction.  The letter submitting his lost novel to Macmillan importantly made this clear too and “the passion of love” shines through the bitter satire of Tess’s circumstance which leads ultimately, of course, to her murder of her lover and her own execution.

But let’s try to end on a more optimistic note.  In Hardy’s ghosted “autobiography”, published posthumously under second wife Florence’s name, and written and compiled long after Tess had been penned, we find an entry relating to December 1882:

“Hardy was told a story by a Mrs Cross, a very old country-woman he met, of a girl she had known who had been betrayed and deserted by a lover.  She kept her child by her own exertions and lived bravely and throve.  After a time the man returned poorer than she, and wanted to marry her; but she refused.  He ultimately went into the Union workhouse.  The young woman’s conduct in not caring to be “made respectable” won the novelist-poet’s admiration…  The eminently modern idea embodied in this example – of a woman’s not becoming necessarily the chattel and slave of her seducer impressed Hardy as being one of the first glimmers of woman’s enfranchisement; and he made use of it in succeeding years in more than one case in his fiction and verse.”

“Not caring to be ‘made respectable'”.  Bitter irony from Hardy again.

And so back to Tess – the “maiden no more” and at this point the mother of a young child:


“If she could have been but just created, to discover herself as a spouseless mother, with no experience of life except as the parent of a nameless child, would the position have caused her to despair?  No, she would have taken it calmly, and found pleasures therein. Most of the misery had been generated by her conventional aspect, and not by her innate sensations. Whatever Tess’s reasoning, some spirit had induced her to dress herself up neatly as she had formerly done, and come out into the fields, harvest-hands being greatly in demand just then.  This was why she had borne herself with dignity, and had looked people calmly in the face at times, even when holding the baby in her arms.”

The wonderful defiant dignity of Tess towering above the narrow-minded conventional judgements of her bitter circumstance.


June 2020

A brief postscript: a few weeks after writing this blog on Tess, I came upon a most interesting article by Aaron Matz in the ELH journal vol. 73, No. 2 (Summer 2006) entitled “Terminal Satire and Jude the Obscure”, which demonstrates the importance of satire for Hardy as he finished Tess and began to write his final novel – the “terminal satire” Jude.  Matz references the “ghastly satire” in Tess and notes that Jude “exists at the remote frontier of Victorian realism, where the detachment of the novelist blurs into the scourge of the satirist”.

July 2020

For letters to Hardy, see the splendid website Hardy’s Correspondents – Angelique Richardson and Angear, Helen, editors. Hardy’s Correspondents, Phase One, 2019. University of Exeter.
A dozen or so books have piled up around me while writing this blog:  many editions of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, including the first serialisation in the Graphic;  the “autobiography” – The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy edited by Michael Millgate; Hardy’s Complete Poems and the individual collections of his verse;  the Official Handbook of the Thomas Hardy Festival held in July 1968;  Michael Millgate’s Thomas Hardy – A Biography Revisited; An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress, edited and with an introduction by Terry Coleman; A Commentary on the Poems of Thomas Hardy by F. B. Pinion; The Poetry of Thomas Hardy – a Handbook and Commentary by J. O. Bailey; and Nathaniel Sparks – Memoirs of Thomas Hardy’s Cousin the Engraver by Celia Barclay.


Thomas Hardy – sister Mary and the Denchworth church organ

It was some months now, back in late winter, I think, that a sudden burst of unseasonably spring-like weather got me out of miserable housebound winter words and across the flat fields of the Vale of the White Horse in southern Oxfordshire.  I’d been meaning to pay a visit to the village of Denchworth again for some time and the coincidence of warm weather and the recollection of a recent visit to the village and church of Fawley –  the early home of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure – prompted me to take a look at another village and church with Hardy connections.

I had been wary about making this walk again since the most direct path from Wantage to Denchworth bizarrely and hazardously traverses one of the busiest railway lines in England.  The last time I had attempted the crossing I couldn’t open the gates and (not being as nimble as I used to be) almost impaled myself upon the fence, escaping with only minor injuries (the hazards of an old man walking). What a transient spectacle it would have been for the high-speed commuters.

This crossing will have been a relatively tolerable amble in Hardy’s day of slowish steam. Wantage Road Station opened in the 1840s and old maps show that the path will have been there when Hardy visited the area. However, in these days of 125 mph trains whizzing along and with my eyes and ears not as sharp as they used to be, I cross the lines with great trepidation.


It’s a relief to look back across the flat vale with the Ridgeway in the distance and hidden just beyond it the village of Fawley.  Hardy will have surveyed this scene (at some point with Jude in his mind’s eye) from both vale and hill.

This path to Denchworth happily ends up at the exact place I want to visit –  the splendid ancient parish church of St James the Great.

All these old village churches in the parishes of England have treasures in abundance for the idle visitor, but for those with an enthusiasm for Thomas Hardy, the great man of English literature, the church at Denchworth has a special bonus, for tucked away in the gap between the vestry and the chancel is an old Victorian organ at which, back in the early 1860s, sat none other than Thomas Hardy’s sister, Mary.  And brother Thomas will have some time surely sat in the church and heard her play.


Mary Hardy – this photograph was apparently taken when she was teaching at Denchworth

Most testimonies concur that Hardy was very close to his sister Mary.  She was born in December 1841, only a year and a half after Thomas and they grew up together at the Hardy cottage in Higher Bockhampton, a few miles from the Dorset county town of Dorchester.  Mary was  – in the words of Hardy’s second wife Florence – his “earliest playmate”, the “dearest and kindest sister”. According to commentator Professor Bailey she was “his intellectual and artistic comrade in his youth”.  “In childhood she was almost my only companion… and she had always been the one with the keenest literary tastes and instincts,” Hardy wrote in a letter in the days following her death in 1915, adding;  “she could paint a good likeness too – particularly of women”.  “She had a real skill in catching the character of her sitter,” he wrote in another letter.  Robert Gittings had the view that Mary “adored her brother and would never have complained at anything he did, even if she secretly disliked it”.  Biographer Michael Millgate noted the “central importance of his [Hardy’s] emotional and intellectual intimacy with Mary”.

His poems record her significance for him.  She was his “country girl”, climbing apple trees with him “her foot near mine on the bending limb, / Laughing, her young brown hand awave” and in later life they shared “middle-age enthusiasms”, “jauntings” in the countryside; singing and gardening at their homes.  He could only conjecture on the “strange aspect” of how life would have been without her companionship. His inscription on her tombstone “sacred to the memory” was no mere stone-carved convention, he wrote in one poem, “but stands deep lined / upon the landscape, high and low”.  Her death  depressed him deeply and expressly made him consider the value of his own continuing life: “Tired, tired am I / Of this earthly air”.

His closeness to Mary is evident from the important few extant letters that Hardy, in his early and mid twenties, wrote during his time living in London.  A love of art, a “keen appreciation of literature” and of music is shared.  They went to the theatre together.  He recommends Thackeray to her.  He sends her Trollope’s Barchester Towers.  He gives her a copy of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury.   He had high regard for her talent as an artist and encouraged her (“you have no right to say you are not connected with art”). Robert Gittings talks of “this lifelong sympathy between them, perhaps deeper in its way than any other love”.

So what brought Hardy’s beloved sister Mary to the small Berkshire – now Oxfordshire – village of Denchworth?  Well Mary had trod what seems to have been a common path for bright, educated, unattached young women in the mid 19th Century.  She became a teacher – in the words of Robert Gittings that “symbol of class emancipation in the 1860s”.  It is certainly a familiar path if one takes a cue from other women in Hardy’s life:  younger sister Kate, cousin Tryphena, second wife Florence and of course from Hardy’s fictions which in turn derived impetus from the facts of his life:  Fancy Day in Under the Greenwood Tree and notably Sue Bridehead in Jude, which relays brother Tom’s take on Mary’s experiences at the Salisbury teacher training college, which Mary attended in the first years of the 1860s (escorted thither by brother Tom when she started in April 1860).  And it was at the National School in Denchworth that in 1863 Mary took up her first teaching post after completing her college course to become a certified teacher.  This venture into work away from her Dorset home coincided with brother Thomas’s own escape to London in 1862 where he found work as a draughtsman.

It is this period of the siblings’ lives that are documented in Thomas Hardy’s early letters and by February 1863 he is already expressing to Mary his “uncommon interest” in the requirement for her to play the organ in the Denchworth church.  “Tell me about the organ and how the Sundays go off – I am uncommonly interested.”


Indeed in late April 1863 he paid her a visit and on Sunday April 26th drew a sketch of the school where she was working, located immediately adjacent to the church.  In autumn of the next year Hardy was again in the area with his sketch book – this time also making his first important acquaintance with the village of Fawley which had been the home of his paternal grandmother and which – some 30 years later – featured so prominently in Jude the Obscure.  According to a local historian, Hardy was back in Denchworth at Christmas in 1865 where he attended the Christmas service.  He sent Mary music from London and gave her a large edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern.  Previously Mary had played the harmonium and the piano but playing the organ was, of course, rather a challenge.  It was, she is quoted as saying, “difficult to play at first, but I practised four hours a day”.

A letter from Mary to brother Tom in late November 1862 (published recently online as part of the wonderful Hardy’s Correspondents project) shows Mary’s concern at the musical aspect of her new job.  “On account of this [I] wanted, of course, to give it up & Mr Rawlins, (the clergyman) was informed of it but he wrote to say he would pay a little for me to learn & also give me a little time to practice when there, before playing in Church.”

And so here I am, in the church where Mary and Thomas will have sat some 150 years ago and still there in front of me is the Victorian organ Mary played, its candle holders, its six stops and original pumping mechanism still surviving.

I sit by the organ and commune with past echoes. “Yea, old notes like those/Here are living on yet!”  And I recall the scene in Two on a Tower where church organist Tabitha Lark is practising her voluntaries amid the feeble glimmer of the organ’s candle with a youthful blower at her side.

Of course music was a significant part in the life of the Hardy household and subsequently in Thomas’s writings.   Their father and grandfather played in the Stinsford Church choir.  Younger sister Kate also played the piano and the church organ.   Thomas was a good violinist and was still able to play old English dance tunes on the fiddle in his seventies. A local musician who played with him in his later years has commented that “it should be emphasised that for a man over 80, who had not been a professional musician he gave a remarkable performance on the fiddle”.  Mary, too, will have started her musical education with brother Tom as they were growing up in Bockhampton and surely will have played her mother’s old table-piano which Thomas, already an able fiddler, kept in tune.

On leaving the church,  I decide, before walking back home, to take a look at the school and school-house – now a single converted residence like so many of their counterparts – where Mary will have lived and taught and where Hardy himself will surely have stayed. With a marvellous stroke of Hardyan coincidence, I fall into conversation with someone walking a dog, who not only turns out to be the current owner of the house but promptly and kindly invites me in to look around.  What a marvellous stroke of serendipity!  The spacious former school room contrasts with the cramped living quarters of the adjoining school house where Mary will have resided.

Mary must have been quite lonely and homesick during her few years teaching at the Denchworth school, so much so that she persuaded her mother to let her much younger – six-year-old – sister Kate to come and live with her and be schooled by her.  Further evidence of the strong Hardy family ties.  Their father Thomas senior visited them, Kate later recollected.

By 1867 Mary and Thomas were already both back in Dorset, Mary to continue her teaching career, first at Minterne Magna, then Piddlehinton and finally Dorchester, Kate also eventually teaching alongside her; and Thomas to continue his architectural profession while at the same time pursuing the writing to which he would (happily for us) later devote his life and which would ultimately bring him fame.

Mary Hardy
(Mary – from the Piddlevalley. info website)

The family ties between Thomas and Mary and his other younger siblings, Henry and Kate, were undoubtedly strong.  Thomas was keen to protect and nurture their interests.  But these ties were also famously tested by the other main women in his life, first wife Emma and second wife Florence.

Initially Mary Hardy and Emma Gifford (whom Thomas married in 1874) seem to have got on tolerably well, some evidence for this being the visit paid by Mary and sister Kate to the recently married couple in Swanage in 1875 and the various excursions which took place during the visit.  A picnic together at Corfe Castle was apparently regarded by Emma as a “splendid day” and – as Denys Kay-Robinson  has noted – while “the sisters’ opinion is not on record… from the cordiality of their subsequent letters they evidently liked Emma”.  Over the years, however, relations deteriorated dramatically, the culmination being perhaps best exemplified in the extraordinary letter written by Emma to Mary in 1896 in which Emma accuses Mary of spreading “evil reports” about her, of alleging that Emma was being unkind to her husband and that Emma was unhinged (having “errors” in her mind).

Emma writes:

“Your brother has been outrageously unkind to me – which is entirely your fault: ever since I have been his wife you have done all you can to make division between us; also you have set your family against me…  I defy you ever to say… that I have done anything that can be called unreasonable, or wrong, or mad, or even unkind!  And it is a wicked spiteful and most malicious habit of yours….  You have ever been my causeless enemy – causeless, except that I stand in the way of your evil ambition to be on the same level with your brother by trampling upon me…  And doubtless  you are elated that you have spoilt my life as you love power of any kind.  But you have spoilt your brother’s and your own punishment must inevitably follow – for God’s promises are true for ever.”

Crikey!  We all know that family divisions can run deep, but this one offers eternal damnation.  And Emma – with her “extravagant sense of class superiority” (as noted by Michael Millgate) – doesn’t stop there but invokes the spectacle of Mary and her kin – those (in Emma’s eyes) primitive country “peasant class” women – practising their evil witchcraft on a stormy Egdon Heath.

“You are a witch-like creature and quite equal to any amount of evil-wishing and speaking  – I can imagine you, and your mother and your sister on your native heath raising a storm on Walpurgis night.”

One inevitably hears echoes here of Wessex Tales and The Return of the Native.

An interesting imagined encounter between Emma (“the lady”) and the womenfolk from Hardy’s family was written and staged in the garden at Max Gate by Peter John Cooper.  “Ladies?  Ladies? They are not Ladies.  They are women.  Village women” – declares Emma.  Indeed Mary herself is said to have once confided to Emma that “nobody asks me to dinner or treats me like a lady”.


How difficult it must have been for Thomas to manage these tensions, when all he wanted to do was to retreat into his study and write. Biographer Millgate puts it succinctly when he writes: “Hardy’s own life at Max Gate was intensely private centred primarily upon his work and secondarily upon the maintenance of family ties and the observance of family pieties – often at the expense of those marital obligations he had contracted in the face of family opposition.”  One must, however, have a little sympathy for Emma too, stuck alone in rural Dorset and surrounded by Hardy’s hostile family whom eventually she seems to have banned completely from visiting Max Gate.

Of course, some of the tensions found release in Hardy’s writings, but it can’t have been an easy situation.  Even second wife-to-be Florence was soon introduced to these tensions before first wife Emma’s death, when a huge row broke out on Christmas Day 1911 between Hardy and his wife. Hardy had wanted to take Florence to see Mary and Kate in Bockhampton but Emma declared that this would poison Florence’s mind against her.  Hardy went off sullenly on his own, leaving Florence to vow that “no power on earth would ever induce me to spend another Christmas Day at Max Gate.”  Little did she know…

In the 1890s Hardy, now “seriously rich”, according to Claire Tomalin, purchased a house for Mary and Kate in Wollaston Road Dorchester.  Mary gave up teaching in 1897 when she was in her mid-fifties – about the same time as the serious spat with Emma. She became deaf as she aged and – in Tomalin’s words, “her world closed around her”.  She was asthmatic and already in poor health.  By around 1911 (one source says later) she was living in Talbothays  – a substantial house built by brother Henry in the 1890s on Hardy family land.


This house was not far from the former ancestral home at Bockhampton and Thomas’s house at Max Gate and so within easy reach for Thomas to cycle over.  Here (just outside West Stafford – resonant with Tess of the D’Urbevilles) Mary lived comfortably for her final few years with younger siblings, Henry and Kate. In later life, while her interest in music may have waned, her interest in art certainly continued and she regularly went up to London to visit the annual Royal Academy exhibition, even apparently into her seventies when she must already have been ailing. In late 1915 her illness became more severe. Hardy visited and talked with her on 23rd November.  Mary died the next day from emphysema, a month short of her 74th birthday.  Although she had been “such an invalid”, Thomas “did not think it would be so soon”.

He was grief-stricken.  She was buried on 29th November in the churchyard of St. Michael’s in Stinsford where the rest of the Hardy family lay.  The weather was awful – cold and wet – “drizzling rain all day”.  Hardy himself was soon laid up with “violent bronchitis and a racking cough”.  “I mope over the fire all day.”  Moreover brother Henry was also ill.  What a miserable Christmas it must have been.

Hardy’s “autobiography”, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy – published posthumously  under Florence’s name, gives a rather downbeat view of this beloved sister’s life.


“…she had been doomed to school-teaching, and organ-playing in this or that village church, during all her active years, and hence was unable to devote sufficient time to pictorial art till leisure was too late to be effective.  Her character was a somewhat unusual one, being remarkably unassertive, even when she was in the right, and could easily have proved it”.

Is this one wonders a reference to the spat with Emma?

The Life continues with what must have been a contemporaneous note by Hardy:

“Nov. 29.  Buried her under the yew-tree where the rest of us lie. As [the Stinsford church vicar] Mr Cowley read the words of the psalm ‘Dixi Custodiam’ they reminded me strongly of her nature, particularly when she was young:  ‘I held my tongue and spake nothing.  I kept silence; yea even from good words.’  That was my poor Mary exactly.  She never defended herself, and that not from timidity, but indifference to opinion.”

There is something curiously reticent about these remarks – something sorrowful about a wasted life. “Poor Mary.”  “Doomed” to teaching or playing music in “this or that village church”, “unable” to pursue her art, ineffective in her application.  An “unusual character”, “unassertive”, “indifferent” to opinion.  “An unusual type,” Hardy echoed in one letter.

Claire Tomalin’s biography of Hardy picks up on this reticence, referring to Mary as “hovering like a pale shadow behind him… so close to him in age and so little mentioned in his own accounts of his life”.  And while “there was no doubt of his importance in her life… his affection was more occasional”.  “Although devoted to his sister,” Tomalin also writes, “his devotion to her had always been in the style of accepting her love rather than demonstrating his.”  “He had made very little effort to involve her in his life.”  She lived “like a hermit,” Hardy had said.  “In practice,” Tomalin maintains, “he shared almost nothing with Mary.”

I am struck by Hardy’s own comments and by Tomalin’s knowledgeable and quite reasoned point of view; and I wonder if Hardy’s own unsigned obituary of sister Mary published in the Dorset County Chronicle and Somersetshire Gazette on 2nd December in 1915 might shed some light – after all this would be a brother in mourning writing about a sister he loved.

I search in vain for the text among the dozens of books I have by and about Hardy.  Some contain tantalising snippets from the obituary.  It is listed, but not quoted, in Richard Purdy’s marvellous Thomas Hardy A Bibliographical Study.  The most likely source for the text, Thomas Hardy’s Personal Writings, edited by Harold Orel, most irritatingly does not republish it, regarding this “uncollected contribution” as being one among “the many, brief, unimportant items”: “their interest is limited”.  All we get is a brief sentence and a briefer summary.


And so some weeks later, as spring moves into summer, I find myself in Dorchester picking up yet more Hardy memorabilia from Duke’s auction house and taking advantage of the visit by walking up to the splendid Dorset History Centre by Top o’ Town and the old Depot Barracks.  I am soon ensconced with boxes of microfilms containing copies of the Dorset County Chronicle and am reading the notice entitled Death of Miss Mary Hardy, Sister of Mr. Thomas Hardy , O.M.

The first part of the notice is factual concerning the death and the bare outline of Mary’s life – her schooling, her attendance at college, her certification as a teacher and her role for many years as Headmistress of the Dorchester Elementary Girls’ School.  Hardy then continues:

“Miss Mary Hardy was endowed with a large share of the family taste and talent for art and music.  While living in Wollaston Road she studied assiduously and used her pencil and brush with skill at the Dorchester School of Art, and acted as church organist.  Under an often undemonstrative exterior she hid a warm and most affectionate nature.

“In addition to Miss Hardy’s long practical connections with school-teaching, there was a side to her activities of which less is known, except among her immediate acquaintances. This was her almost life-long devotion to sketching and painting, which, had it been developed and tended carefully, might have made a noteworthy artist of her.  It took the direction of portraiture.  Her facility in catching a likeness was remarkable and hence in respect of a family record on canvas – that which, whatever its shortcomings, is valued in proportion to its reproduction to us of the faces we wish to remember – she painted to good purpose.  Her picture in oils of her mother is a visible instance of this to those who recall the latter.  It may be said indeed that her whole interest in the brush lay in this direction.

“In early life she was often called upon to play the part of village organist, musicians not being so plentiful then in the country as they are now; and well the writer remembers her girlish consternation when at the age of two-and-twenty, she was suddenly called upon to take the musical service in a strange church, in a strange parish on the following Sunday, upon an organ with pedals and two manuals, her previous experience having been entirely with  piano and harmonium.  How she got through her duty cannot now be estimated; but she speedily settled down to the instrument and performed regularly upon it as long as she resided in the parish, becoming an efficient choir mistress amid the somewhat disconcerting vagaries of a rural choir.  She was not, however, a born musician, and her familiarity with music decreased during the latter part of her life.”

Then follows the details of the interment, of the family mourners, of the friends (including Mr and Mrs T. C. Duke) who attended despite the “inclement weather” and the floral tributes.

A number of things strike me.  First I am taken by this obituary back to Denchworth, to the young nervous schoolteacher and the church organ of St James the Great.  This memory of the Denchworth church organ had lived remarkably long in Hardy’s mind.  So much so that some fifty years later he was dwelling on it again in this remembrance of Mary.  It clearly laid quite a mark on his memory. And the depiction is affectionate, even if it is – specifically so here – “occasional”.  Second I am struck again by the curious, almost curmudgeonly, tone that big brother Tom has taken.  Had she developed her devotion to painting and sketching she might have made a noteworthy artist – but she didn’t.  Her facility to catch a likeness was remarkable – but let’s not forget the “shortcomings”.  She performed regularly on the organ and was an efficient choir mistress – but let’s not forget to mention that “she was not, however, a born musician”.

Goodness.  She was his sister.  She is just in the grave.  And I am thinking of what I always tell myself as another funeral approaches – nihil nisi bonum de mortuis…  And I too reflect on Psalm 39 – Dixi: custodiam vias meas ut non delinquam in lingua mea.  (I will keep a watch on my ways so that I do not offend with my tongue).

We do, though, have to remember that here Hardy was writing formally and anonymously in the press and so surely had to distance any familial fraternal emotion.  But how this obituary contrasts with his vivid and luminous portrait of William Barnes’ daughter, Lucy, when he penned his recollections following her death some years earlier.

Hardy himself, of course, famously did develop his talent and tend it carefully.  He was not going to hide his light under a bushel like his “unassertive” sister; and he was certainly, demonstrably, not indifferent to opinion.

I am loath to tread more on the difficult path of musing about “poor Mary”.  And I can sense the ghost of Hardy bristling with rancour.  But there will still be some interesting pickings for anyone with the temerity and inclination to delve into archives.

And there is one more thing.  In 1925 on the anniversary of Mary’s birth and 10 years after her death – as conveyed to us in The Life – Hardy wrote:

“Mary’s birthday.  She came into the world… and went out… and the world is just the same… not a ripple on the surface left.”

What a profoundly sad reflection this is on his sister’s life, again hauntingly reminiscent of Psalm 39:

like a moth you eat away all that is dear to us; truly, everyone is but a puff of wind“.

And what of Thomas and the ripples that he has made on the surface of the world?

Seamus Heaney – a great admirer of Hardy’s verse – at one point wrote expressly of this:

Once, as a child, out in a field of sheep,
Thomas Hardy pretended to be dead
And lay down flat among their dainty shins.

In that sniffed-at, bleated-into, grassy space
He experimented with infinity.
His small cool brow was like an anvil waiting

For sky to make it sing the perfect pitch
Of his dumb being, and that stir he caused
In the fleece-hustle was the original

Of a ripple that would travel eighty years
Outward from there, to be the same ripple
Inside him at its last circumference.

December 2019


For examples of Mary Hardy’s art see here

For more information about the splendid Hardy’s Correspondents project – led by Professor Angelique Richardson from the University of Exeter and in collaboration with the Dorset Museum see here

The books that piled up around me as I penned this blog were (in no particular order):

Thomas Hardy – A Biography Revisited by Michael Millgate, Young Thomas Hardy by Robert Gittings, Thomas Hardy – The Time-Torn Man by Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy’s Personal Writings edited by Harold Orel, Thomas Hardy – A Bibliographical Study by Richard L. Purdy, A Hardy Companion by F. B. Pinion, The Poetry of Thomas Hardy by J. O. Bailey, Thomas Hardy at Max Gate – The Latter Years by Dr Andrew Norman, Thomas Hardy as a Musician by J. Vera Mardon, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy by Thomas Hardy edited by Michael Millgate, The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy edited by Richard Little Purdy and Michael Millgate, Hardy by Martin Seymour-Smith, Thomas Hardy – the Complete Poems, The First Mrs Thomas Hardy by Denys Kay-Robinson, Letters of Emma & Florence Hardy by Michael Millgate, A Commentary on the Poems of Thomas Hardy by F. B. Pinion, She Opened the Door – The Wife and Women Who Haunted Thomas Hardy by Peter John Cooper, The Dorset County Chronicle and Somersetshire Gazette, The Parish Church of St James The Great Denchworth



The “genius” George Barker – a “very peculiar fellow” in rural Norfolk’s earth

In the mists of my early manhood (when searing emotions reigned and before the joy of  dogged bitterness set in), I mixed with creative folk and found myself one day at a poetry reading in an arts centre in Berkshire, southern England.  Three poets read at the session – John Heath-Stubbs, W. S. Graham and George Barker.   I would think them now to be a very illustrious crew.  Morever the reading had been arranged by Barker’s son Sebastian, who was writer in residence at the arts centre and no mean poet himself.  Of the poems recited I can, alas, remember absolutely nothing, but the physicality and the images of these three poets are still etched vividly in my memory some 40 years later – the angular grey-haired Graham, the wonderfully monstrous block of the almost blind Heath-Stubbs and the bemused and deceptive diffidence of Barker.

Of these three poets, the one to whose works I kept returning intermittently was George Barker.  Well, I say works, but it is one work in particular which has stood out for me and which has been a fairly constant companion.  This is the marvellous long poem called The True Confession of George Barker which I had serendipitously found in a second-hand Penguin Poets volume I possessed at the time of the reading.  This volume, entitled The Mid Century: English Poetry 1940-1960 was edited by David Wright, a fellow poet and acquaintance of Barker.  Wright – happily for me – had decided to include in his anthology some exemplary long poems.  George Barker was thus represented singly and singularly by Book I of The True Confession.

This Penguin edition was published in 1965, the same year that saw the publication by MacGibbon & Kee of Barker’s own volume, The True Confession, which also contained the first publication of Book II of the confession, written more than ten years after its companion piece.

It seems rather trite to say this, but George Granville Barker (1913 – 1991) was a true poet, a poet to the core.  He never knew any other life.  He was the embodiment of his fabulous flamboyant verse and verbal magic.  He lived a mischievous, chaotic, Bohemian poet’s life, treading a littered trail of loves lost and found, leaving in his wake the many children he fathered in those embraces.  His poetry, siren-like, lured women to him.  He was passionate, physically argumentative, difficult and controversial, extreme, obscene and, at times deliberately one might think, cocking a snook by spoiling a good line with an outrageous pun.  “I cannot bear poems that do not have dirty marks on their faces,” biographer Robert Fraser (in his book The Chameleon Poet) quotes him as saying in later life.  And in his teens Barker was already declaring “I like poetry to be dirty with earthly mould, finger marks on it, and its napkin… not quite deodorised.”


Berated by poet and editor Geoffrey Grigson as a producer of “nauseating poems” and a “loose rhetorician”,  Barker made his name initially in modernistic prose and free verse famously gaining the patronage of T. S. Eliot (who called him both “genius” and “a very peculiar fellow”) and, less famously, of Graham Greene. But he was also technically adept at form and rhyme, wanting to move away from “Latinate bullshit” towards rigorous simplicity.  He was deeply impressed by A. E. Housman.  “I wanted to write a hundred little poems of eight lines, rhymed.  I did this, and I saw how terribly, terribly hard it is to do”. The rhymed eight-lined stanzas of True Confession exemplify this rigour while at the same time retaining a wonderful Whitmanesque declamatory extravagance and energy.

The sulking and son-loving Muse/Grabbed me when I was nine.  She saw/It was a question of self-abuse/Or verses. I tossed off reams before/I cared to recognize their purpose./ While other urchins were blowing up toads/With pipes of straw stuck in the arse,/So was I, but I also wrote odes.

His True Confession is his take on the first forty to fifty years or so of his disordered life as an “Augustinian anarchist”. As well as rhyme, there is a persistent physical rhythmic quality to the poem, which may have taken a lead from the motions of travel.  Barker routinely wrote the stanzas of Book I while journeying on a bus.

When I call devils from the deep/The damned brutes answer only too pronto,/skipping up out of the beds of sleep/Not at my call, but because they want to.

The first part of the “confession” dwells idiosyncratically on his childhood years, his early dalliances with sex and God, musings on morality and faith and his beginnings as a poet:

The literature that I prized/Was anything to do with the nude/Spirit of creative art/ who whispered to me: ‘Don’t be queasy./Simply write about a tart/And there she is. The rest’s easy.’//And thus, incepted in congenial/Feebleness of moral power/I became a poet.

He usefully gives a cryptic nod to his own exemplar Francois Villon:

I entreat you frank villain,/Get up out of your bed of dirt/And guide my hand.  You are still an/Irreprehensible expert/At telling Truth she’s telling lies./Get up, liar; get up, cheat,/Look the bitch square in the eyes/And you’ll see what I entreat.


He writes of his first marriage and child.  Moments of elegiac lyricism are followed by declamatory self-deprecation.  He notes his ill-timed departure for Japan where the ridiculous and sublime blend together in typical Barker fashion:

I sat one morning on the can/That served us for a lavatory/composing some laudatory/Verses on the state of man:/My wife called from the kitchen dresser:/’There’s someone here from Japan./He wants you out there.  As Professor./Oh, yes.  The War just began.’

And he confesses to his “Good God” of his omissions and commissions (“Every man knows well/He rides his own whores down to hell.”)

I confess, my God, that in/The hotbed of the monkey sin/I saw you through a guilt of hair/Standing lonely as a mourner/Silent in the bedroom corner/Knowing you need not be there.


Book II of the confession takes us to his time in Italy, the end of the war, the atomic bomb and original sin (“What, has the Ideos gone quite mad/Not to be frightened of the Atom?/I hear its joke, both rude and bad:/’Sir, it was I split the Adam’). He notes the birth of a son. He dwells on his deep preoccupation with St Francis of Assisi, contrasted with the Italian penchant for roasting song birds.  And there are some remarkable part reverential, part irreverential ode-like verses to Cardinal Newman, who loomed large in Barker’s Catholic upbringing. He muses on art, religion, pagan gods, Bacchus and drink.  And in this context introduces us to Louis Macniece and Dylan Thomas and that “deaf poet” (is this David Wright?) “whom the fishy/Girls upon their ragged rock/Chant vainly to, and close their ears”.  He records the death of love (and the death of a love affair).  Death, love and sin merge in one embrace:

“The lovers lying at their ease/Like coldblooded snakes that creep/And curl together half asleep/Eating each other by degrees/Until these heart-shaped heads of Satan/Stare bodiless at each other:/So, fattening as we’re being eaten,/ We devour one another.”

There is a diatribe from this ever-poor poet about moneyed poets (‘Three great bards, whose Income Tax/(What with Professorships and perks)/Filled more pages than their works”);  a nod to the Jesuits and the confession ends.

O bed of roses!  Let the man/Here in the prisons of the Night/And dreaming with a second sight/Look up to see, like Aldebaran,/The gold sunsetting mask of God/Christening us with our day’s/Apotheosizing blaze/Like Death on fire overhead.

As biographer Fraser rightly notes, this True Confession is far from autobiography.  What we have here is a poetical reflection from a mature and practised poet, with biographical elements a kind of motivator, a skeleton around which Barker threads and shreds his “psychological history” and “theological disquisition”.

Eliot at Faber wouldn’t publish it.  When, in April 1953, Barker was broadcast reading passages from Book I of the poem on the BBC’s Third Programme, there was outrage.  The Daily Sketch – keen to get at the broadcaster – branded it “gilded filth”, sending reporters down to Barker’s home to garnish their offering.  “Dirty thoughts are presented under the guise of culture. It is a challenge to basic dignities, a sexual meandering.  It commits blasphemy in a condescending prayer.”   The poem even featured prominently in Parliament where, in a debate in the House of Lords, Barker’s “piece of pornography” was used as a stick to beat the BBC.

Barker didn’t leave us with a similar take on the last 30 years of his life.  Though perhaps he did, because his output never flagged and anyone dipping into any of these volumes will find a confessional treasure trove, be it the cleverly turned dialogues of Gog and Magog or the epistolary odes to fellow poets such as David Archer and Heath-Stubbs.

There is a cornucopia of prosaic philosophical reflection on love, life and death formulated in free verse – more reminiscent of Pascal than St. Augustine.  (One remembers Grigson’s strictures.)


Indeed the volume Dialogues etc has a free-verse poem entitled Pascal’s Nightmare; and yet in the same collection, we have the perversely playful rhymed quatrains of Dialogue VIII where the stopped heart becomes a cuckoo clock with the cuckoo fled to cloud cuckoo land and poem itself beats to berate the silent heart:

‘There there is no sun arising/or circles of the moon,/there is no kiss in the morning/and no gun at noon./ There is no river running into a future tense;/ and long though you look down, it bears no image hence… The waves are always breaking/although they never break/and the footprints of the wind have gone/from the surface of the lake./There the suns hang for ever/in the eternal tree./ – The cuckoo will never call again/for you, my love, or me.’

Barker could be truly offensive and deliberately outrageous.  The anecdotes of his life can read like a Dostoevsky novel.  At one moment he is as perverse as “the underground man”, at another point his antics are reminiscent of a scene from The Idiot.  He takes umbrage when he decides (second wife) Elspeth is smirking while reading verse from his Villa Stellar and he grabs the completed typescript of the collection and hurls it on to the fire.  An appalled visitor tries to retrieve the burning manuscript only for Barker to clout him on the head with a coal shovel.  On another occasion son Christopher describes Barker’s explosive and furious reaction when this son’s attempt at reconciliation ends with the poet – in tears – smashing his fist down on a vinyl recording of Ave Maria as the record plays on the turntable, and storming out, declaiming “How dare you! How dare you!”  As a young man Barker had the misfortune accidentally to put out the eye of his brother in a play sword fight (recounted later in poem XXXVII of the In Memory of David Archer collection), an act which he dubbed “an enormous natural calamity”.  He must have been both joy and despair for those who knew him.


Back in the early 1980s, in my youthful self-centred arrogant naivety I paid too little attention to what went on round about me.  The blind Heath-Stubbs could see clearer   than ever I could.  But a life lived is a life learned and to anyone in reflective mode who wants help in wondering what the hell happened, I heartily recommend George Barker’s  True Confession.

And so in my East Anglian travels this past summer, I found myself embarking on two pilgrimages on the same day.  In the morning I drove across the Suffolk/Norfolk border to Walsingham and visited the Anglican and Catholic shrines of Our Lady.  George Barker who struggled all his life with Catholicism and original sin and whose verse is deeply, at times angrily, imbued with this struggle must also, surely, have made this trek.  From Walsingham I drove a few miles east to the easily accessible but curiously remote village of Itteringham – the English equivalent of  “France profonde”.   And, as the sun was setting, and some forty years after my one and only encounter with the poet, I visited another religious establishment, the Itteringham village church where in the far end of the graveyard lies buried the mortal remains of George Granville Barker.

Like his verse, the handsome tombstone has both solidity in form and flamboyance in expression with its white lettering and the carving of a bird, immediately recognisable as a phoenix rising from flames and ashes.  And beneath all this – the Latin word “RESURGAM” – I shall rise again.  Barker, who had battled with – and against – his faith throughout the whole of his life and told the priest who married him to Elspeth that there was only one of the ten commandments he hadn’t broken, pledges he’ll be back.

The image of the phoenix is no random choice, of course.  And I do not know whether this was Barker’s doing or the act of his family and friends.  But the phoenix – the bird that rises from the flames and ashes of its predecessor, this universal symbol of renewal – was the emblem not only of D H Lawrence.

Barker and his younger brother Kit in their creative adolescent years – and with an expressedly clear nod to Lawrence – had set up a pottery in their garden shed and – as biographer Robert Fraser recounts – “devised a logo of a stylised phoenix rising from some equally stylised flames, which they stamped on the base of their pots.”  “They called the enterprise the Phoenix Pottery.”  And as they acquired a printing press and began to publish their own works, this enterprise soon transmogrified into the “Phoenix Press”.  This tombstone looks like its last production.

I stand by Barker’s tomb, loath to move on, quietly paying my respects and thanking the dead poet for his verse, but my wife urges me away, sets off back to the car and then suddenly reappears accompanied by a tall silver-haired man.  “This is the church warden,” she says.  “He knew George Barker.”

And so, for ten minutes I am privileged to hear some reminiscences of the poet’s time in the village and yet another anecdote about his outrageous behaviour and his banishment from the local pub.  After he died the Itteringham church was used for a commemorative reading of his verse.  “It was packed full!” my interlocutor tells me in disbelief.  “Packed!”

I drive back as darkness descends, reflecting inevitably on faith, life and death.  I think of Barker’s own mock epitaph in his True Confession.  “Essex gave me birth, and Sex/Death.  I lie here, poet/of hawkers, bottles and bad cheques”.  I think too of the terrifying scope of Barker’s self-taught knowledge and wide reading.  The asides, allusions and references in his work range with ease through the vast halls of thought and culture, ancient and modern.  The reader reels with vertigo as these dizzying horizons unfold.  Beliefs, ideas, thoughts vie in his verse with an emotional honesty and force.

Barker lists in True Confession a pantheon of poets ancient and modern ascending the  heights of the “Matterhorns of intelligence”: “…at/A crevasse in the icebound soul/Cowper sits imbibing tea;/Pound whistling in an iron cage/over an avalanche; Eliot/Roping down an untamed gale,/ And old Yeats, frozen in majesty.”  Byron, Pope, Clare, and Catullus (inevitably) are there, “old Blake/Like a bald prophet on a tricycle/Riding the Trinity…” and Leopardi.  I am surprised at the absence of Housman.  But, then, who is this – the last on this list of pioneering poetical mountaineers, the one nearest the summit?

“…the good guide Thomas Hardy/Lost in vast mist; and the metaphysical/Fury assaulting them all alike.”

Typical Barker.  Goodness me!  The great man Hardy – his leading mountaineer of poetry, last in the list.  And so good a guide is he, that with life’s little ironies and with a satire of circumstance, he is lost in the mist.

December 2018

Book I of True Confession can be found here or here
Robert Fraser’s splendid biography of George Barker is titled: The Chameleon Poet: A Life of George Barker, Published by Jonathan Cape, London 2001
Peter Wilby published a most informative short account of Barker’s life in the Guardian newspaper in 2008
See also the piece by Christopher Barker published in the Guardian
An interesting piece by poet Paul Potts who also knew Barker –  “the world of George Barker is a place for sinners…”
See also the blog – the diary review 


W G Sebald, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy – a literary wander along the Suffolk coast

I have been in Suffolk over the summer months and, as usual, during my trips to this wonderful county in the east of England I was accompanied by The Rings of Saturn.  Most folk with a literary bent will immediately understand that I am not referring to interplanetary travel and the actual rings which circle the planet Saturn, but the most memorable book of that name by Winfried Georg Sebald, first published in English 20 years ago.

I first came upon this book not long after its publication in English which, magically, coincided with my first adult visit to the county.  Reading this book was, for me, one of those rare breathtaking moments when you realise that you have come upon something special.  Curiously, the experience was rather like actually seeing with my own eyes those entrancing rings around the planet Saturn when a few years later I managed to assemble and use a telescope on the grass verge outside my house.  Memorable in the extreme.  And memory, of course, figures large in Sebald’s musings.


Sebald’s Rings of Saturn is a book about walking in Suffolk, well, superficially at any rate, and walking in Suffolk is one of the things I do when I go there.  Of course, saying that Sebald’s book is about a walk through Suffolk is rather misleading (a bit like saying War and Peace is about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia).

The range of Sebald’s journey takes you not only through Suffolk and through many other parts of the world, but also beyond geography, through history, time and, perhaps most importantly, memory.  This world is populated not only by Sebald, his friends, colleagues and acquaintances, but also by a whole gamut of figures – incidental (as much as anything can be incidental in Sebald’s work), historical and, of course, literary.  His narrative reminisces about his own life and the lives of others.  He creates a multi-dimensional melancholic world which not so much traverses time as transforms it.  And he punctuates this with premeditatedly grainy, predominantly uncaptioned, photos which not so much illuminate the narrative as gloomily interact with it.  These images, Sebald himself apparently thought, served not only as a verification of the narrative, but were, more pointedly, time busters.  They arrest time, they seize us, they engulf us, they take us out of time and communicate directly with us.

There is plenty elsewhere about W. G. Sebald, about his life, his tragic death, and his writing – there are books devoted to him, journalistic pieces, blogs and academic studies.  And rightly so.  He deserves the attention he gets and deserves more, though there will be some (and I understand why) who do not appreciate his idiosyncratic musings.  For me, I come back to this book in some measure every year when I arrive at the Suffolk coast, as the long frenetic drive finally succumbs to country lanes, as the speed of life slows and the relativity of space and time begins to manifest itself.  And when I walk, I take his book with me and I try, inadequately, to make both my feet and my head traverse the same sort of territory.

Take for example, the walk from Pakefield to Lowestoft, along the promenade past Kirkley Cliff.  This inevitably evokes for me not only thoughts of the prolific Joseph Conrad who first set foot on English soil in Lowestoft 140 years ago, but also of Sebald who muses in Rings of Saturn on Conrad strolling in the evening along this very esplanade, a 21-year-old foreigner alone amidst the English, “intrigued”, speculates Sebald, “by the ease with which he is absorbing a hitherto quite unfamiliar language”.  As I walk down towards the harbour where Conrad’s ship will have docked, I too hear the chatter of a foreign tongue, Conrad’s own, Polish.  Poles play on the beach and shout happily to each other, unaware perhaps of the faint passing step of the ghost of their compatriot.  Unless, of course, that is, they frequent the local Wetherspoon pub  which is located in what goes – misleadingly – by the name of Station Square and which proudly proclaims itself The Joseph Conrad.


What on earth the well-travelled Conrad would have made of this tribute, I am not sure.  Sebald would perhaps have given us a handsome few pages on Ebenezer Tuttle, Mayor of Lowestoft, whose shop used to occupy the premises.  And I myself speculate whether Sebald would have welcomed the brash conviviality of this public house or whether it would have increased “the feeling of wretchedness that instantly seized hold of [him] in Lowestoft” and which for many other visitors still persists.

Sebald wrote in his native German tongue, despite living for years in England.  His works were translated into English. He espoused the cause of literary translation. He taught creative writing courses at his English University apparently with reluctance and reservations because he was not a native English speaker.  And yet here we have the cosmopolitan Conrad ultimately churning out his well-respected prose in what was probably his third language.  (French being the second.)  Conrad’s first tutors of English, Sebald recalls in Rings of Saturn, were the Lowestoft Standard and the Lowestoft Journal.  Without meaning to be disrespectful to any jobbing journalist, one can, however, hardly imagine Sebald taking these as his cue.

Heading south from Lowestoft towards Kessingland, alternating between beach and cliff top, the pedestrian traveller finds much of the cliff top path gone, eroded by wind, rain and sea and one treads such paths with care and irritation.  Care, because a misplaced step could prove disastrous and irritation, because so often one sets off along such a path only to find it has vanished into thin air and one has to turn back.

The cliffs hereabouts are literally made of sand and at some point the path inevitably ends up on the beach or in the sea. A traveller feels like one of Conrad’s pedestrian pilgrims – “unhappy souls” – cited in an epigraph to The Rings of Saturn or indeed like the rings themselves, battered into fragments, we are told in another epigraph, by the planetary tidal effect.

This amorphous, shifting nature of the Suffolk coastline is not only portrayed so admirably in Sebald’s Rings but actually infects the very structure and narrative of the work itself as it moves seamlessly through time and space.  The fishermen on the coast are “the stragglers of some nomadic people”.  “They just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness.”  Transformation and transience abound.

As I walk the coastline the solidity of old military fortifications is collapsing and crumbling into the sea.  The remnants of a history deeply embedded in Sebald’s own consciousness are transformed from lofty carapaces of conflict into beach ornaments.  What was – is now no longer or is utterly estranged.  What wasn’t – is now substance, like the curious desert of a beach in Kessingland which has emerged, usurped the sea and now stretches out way beyond the crumbling cliffs.


As I walk through Kessingland I look in vain for Henry Rider Haggard’s house, recalling now not Sebald, but the childless Thomas Hardy, who – in comments shockingly hurtful to our modern ears – commiserated with Haggard on the death of his 10-year-old son from measles by telling him: “I think the death of a child is never really to be regretted, when one reflects on what he has escaped”.  A cruel harbinger of Jude, no doubt:  pessimism absent the meliorism.  Hardy then, typically,  goes on to talk about the weather.


On the beach towards Southwold the subverted dislocation of military concrete is enhanced by transformations of the natural world.  Trees, taken by the sea, are transformed into beach sculpture. It is like an art installation.  Sebald himself noted:

“…dead trees lie in a confused heap where they fell years ago…  Bleached by salt water, wind and sun, the broken barkless wood looks like the bones of some extinct species, greater even than the mammoths and dinosaurs, that came to grief long since on this solitary strand.”

A walk on a beach transforms into a view of time without end:  “…that day, as I sat on the tranquil shore, it was possible to believe one was gazing into eternity”, writes Sebald.


I walk into Southwold past the pier (blazoned with reminiscences of George Orwell and thus tangentially another pier); and up into the town. The midday drunks of Lowestoft have been replaced by a chauffeured limo waiting to ferry some well-heeled folk back to their town house in London or some other residence: a scene, no doubt, which has been rehearsed for well over a century.  I pass the Sailors’ Reading Room and the Crown Hotel, where Sebald muses in Rings on the horror of ethnic “cleansing” in World War 2, punctuating his narrative with a, mercifully and purposefully indistinct, photograph of a cross-bar gallows “on which Serbs, Jews and Bosnians, once rounded up, were hanged in rows like crows or magpies”.  The nausea in my stomach, as I take a sideways glance at this awful picture, reminds me of a visit to Berlin when I fled, uncomprehending, feeling violently sick, from the museum called the Topography of Terror.  The Rings of Saturn suddenly encircle me and time stands shockingly still.

My own travels come again to the fore as I recall Sebald’s musings in Southwold on the curious connections between the Congo, Conrad and Roger Casement and Conrad’s dispirited journey south along the west coast of Africa past “trading posts with names like Gran’ Bassam or Little Popo, all of them seeming to belong in some sordid farce”.  And, once home, I dig out some old photos I took in Grand Bassam, almost a lifetime ago.

Grand Bassam

I recollect the haunting, dreamlike, decaying grandeur coupled with the shocking physicality of abandoned mansions taken over haphazardly by those in need of more than shelter.  I wonder what Sebald would have made of Grand Bassam unmediated by Conrad’s passing glimpses.  Inevitably, I dig out my copy of Heart of Darkness and read the unmediated Conrad:

“…we passed various places – trading places with names like Gran’ Bassam, Little Popo; names that seemed to belong to some sordid farce acting in front of a sinister back-cloth. The idleness of a passenger, my isolation amongst all these men with whom I had no point of contact, the oily and languid sea, the uniform sombreness of the coast, seemed to keep me away from the truth of things, within the toil of a mournful and senseless delusion.”

And I am just recollecting fleeing Grand Bassam by taxi to the greater terrors of Abidjan when in my copy of Heart of Darkness, marking the page, I find two receipts from a Georgian restaurant in Moscow dated March 1996 of which, terrifyingly, I have no recollection at all beyond the fact that I have traversed ten years of life in the blink of an eye and with time arrested once again am still no nearer the truth of things, nor further away from mournful and senseless delusion.


At least when I have traversed that splendid beach at Sizewell, where folk nonchalantly walk their dogs adjacent splitting atoms, and have reached genteel Aldeburgh, I have escaped momentarily the gravity of Sebald and moved into a more comfortable orbit.  I pass Benjamin Britten’s first house in the town and move on to my destination further down along what passes as the Aldeburgh promenade.  I am in search again of Strafford House.  This residence, with its striking yellow wash, rings with literary resonance. I always pause here and take a photograph.  I am back again to Thomas Hardy.


Hardy stayed in this house a number of times.  He was familiar with the streets around it, with the railway station, with the beach, with the river Alde that runs down from Snape. His shade is everywhere.

This was the house of Edward Clodd, one of those great Victorian polymaths – banker, anthropologist, folklorist.   He was a man of many parts, born the same year as Hardy, and, like Hardy, not averse to controversy in his writings. The sociable Clodd routinely opened up his seafront home to the intellectual elite of his time.  Writers, scientists, adventurers all enjoyed hospitality and each other’s company at Clodd’s Suffolk home.  But for Hardy, Strafford House was, on occasion, much more than a holiday retreat or venue for literary conviviality, since it was here that he was able to meet up with his helpmate and wife-to-be, Florence Dugdale, before first wife Emma had died.  It was here, on the beach not far from Strafford House, that the famous photo of Hardy and Florence was taken in August 1909 on what was, probably, the most memorable of the many visits he made.


Hardy had already travelled up to Aldeburgh in July of that year and confided in Clodd about the state of his troubled marriage.  A few weeks later – after the farcical marital manoeuvres around the opera of his Tess – he was back, but this time with Florence.  Emma will not have known.  Just as she did not know about the manoeuvres keeping Florence away from her at the opera.  She never, as far as I know, visited Strafford House, and soon afterwards there began that curious deceitful charade with Florence who became a regular visitor, not only to Strafford House, but also, having separately – and some would say insidiously – befriended Emma, to Max Gate, the Hardy homestead in Dorchester.

Clodd notably remarked about the August visit – “Hardy and the Lady are enjoying themselves”; and there has been much speculation about the relations at this time between Hardy and his amanuensis Florence, not least the opposing views of biographers Millgate and Seymour-Smith (and the latter’s sensational, if not scurrilous, conclusions).   Hardy, who did not take kindly in his lifetime to prurient interest in his personal affairs and who (with the help of Florence) attempted to manage such interest even after his death, would be beyond outrage.

Walking south out of Aldeburgh I ponder, without much insight, commonalities in the writings of Sebald and Hardy.  The shared interest in history and the Battle of Waterloo; the curious coincidence of the models of Jerusalem in Jude and the Temple of Jerusalem in Rings; and the rings of Saturn did, of course, cross Hardy’s horizon too, most patently in the astronomically themed Two on a Tower, where hero Swithin gives Lady Constantine a telescopic tour of the heavens:

“…’we see a world which is to my mind by far the most wonderful in the solar system.  Think of streams of satellites or meteors racing round and round the planet like a fly-wheel, so close together as to seem solid matter!'”

“The most wonderful in the solar system.”  But the “flywheel” that circles this wonderful planet is deceptive to the distant eye.  That which is not solid appears to us with solidity.  Those cursed rings.  Ice crystals, meteorites, satellites, the fragments of a moon – spinning round with a dizzying intensity, seeming to us from afar not quite what they are.  Transformed and transient.  A bit like this Suffolk coast, I think.  You look at the sea as it moves in and out, and the landscape as it shifts and turns, full of memory, full of shades

…which take me by the hand,
and lead me through their rooms
In the To-be, where Dooms
Half-wove and shapeless stand:
And show from there
The dwindled dust
And rot and rust
Of things that were.

‘Oh Memory, where is now my youth
Who used to say that life was truth?’

September 21st 2018

Some references for the ramblings above…
On W G Sebald, there is an interesting piece by Mark Fisher  commenting on the “essay film” Patience which references Rings of Saturn.  And there are some excellent insights made inée
particularly the last piece by Spring Ulmer.
There were also my perennial hard copy Hardy companions – Oliver Millgate’s Thomas Hardy, A Biography Revisited; and Martin Seymour-Smith’s Hardy; and The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, edited by Millgate and Richard Purdy.

The final verse quotes are from Hardy’s I have lived with Shades; and Memory and I.

In pursuit of a battered book – far from the madding crowd

I recently spent a couple of days driving back and forth to Dorset.   Two hours there, two hours back, and doing it twice, on consecutive days – that’s eight hours’ driving.  I would have stayed over and indeed I did book a room in a guest house in Dorchester via one of the many online websites only to get a phone call late in the evening prior to departure saying “sorry” the room had already been taken.  So, in my stubborn stupid way, and initially not really sure whether I would need to stay over, I ended up driving there and back – twice, in two days.

My wife – whose opinion I value dearly – made the obvious point: “You realise you are completely crazy,” she said.  My granddaughter will say the same when she hears about it.  And whom should I blame for this onset of madness?  Well, it’s Thomas Hardy.  At least (for those few who read my last blog) Emily Dickinson can take a rest.  And it’s not really blame, of course.  I need to thank the great man, not curse him.

My current preoccupation with Hardy occasionally leads to feverish hours of expectation as I sit at my computer waiting for a distant online auction to begin and then attending impatiently, blocking out all shouts and commands, as an auctioneer finally gets to lot 632 or whatever and announces: “And now we have blah blah blah Thomas Hardy”.  Then in a thirty second rush it’s all over, my blood pressure is 180/85 and I am either greatly disappointed or greatly impoverished; and I scuttle downstairs to express relief that we still have money in the bank or confess to our sudden poverty and my sins.  Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.  Hardy would think me most profligate.

But the Dorchester auction last week was not online.  There was a book that interested me.  So, I thought, what the heck!  I’ll go and have a look.  And I did.  I suspected the book on offer was a first edition but couldn’t quite figure out why it was bundled with a load of other stuff; and if there is one thing I have learnt in book buying, it is that if you have a hunch, keep shtum and follow it.


So… first edition it was: sadly, a few pages missing, a couple of illustrations gone, one even rejigged and taped into the wrong place (crikey! what was that about?), backstrip flapping, bits falling off… and battered.  Definitely battered.  But for me sometimes the more battered the better. (I am not keen on those pristine rebound jobs all gilt and glitter in a special box.)  For 150 years folk had given this book a good going over.  Nevertheless it still cost me a fair few quid and I was at my point of quitting when I won the bidding.  But this book now sits on a shelf in my little library (half a converted garage) along with other books on the floor and in piles all over the house.  And my dear wife goes through her usual routine:  “I don’t understand.  What are you going to do?  Take it down from the shelf every day and look at it?  And when you are dead, it’ll get thrown into a skip with all the others, despite the stupid little notes you put in them.”  “Heck,” I say.  “I’ll be dead.  Why should I care?”  But of course, at the moment still in the land of the living, care I do.  Perhaps my granddaughter will step in at the right point in the future and make folk see sense.

So I am in Dorchester.  It is hot and sunny.  I have my walking boots in the car and a bottle of my favourite water (yes… favourite… sad, isn’t it).  What else would I do but trek off to the great man’s cottage and walk over the fields from Higher Bockhampton to Kingston Maurwood House and on to Stinsford Church to pay my respects, returning by Lower Bockhampton where Hardy started school as a young boy.  As I walk I turn over in my mind not only his early school day trek, but also his first and second published novels, Desperate Remedies and Under the Greenwood Tree where the locations often are… well… precisely those that I am passing as I walk.  

The imposing grand house itself, in Desperate Remedies the home of Miss Aldclyffe; in Hardy’s boyhood the residence of Julia Augusta Martin who was “passionately fond of Tommy almost from his infancy”.  The Tudor manor nearby, in Desperate Remedies the ramshackle dwelling of Aeneas Manston, illegitimate son of Aldclyffe.

The village school – now a private house – in Lower Bockhampton, where Hardy was first educated and where Fancy Day taught in Under the Greenwood Tree.  Stinsford Church itself, which Hardy attended as boy, where his father played the fiddle and which features so prominently as Mellstock Church in Under the Greenwood Tree.  And, of course, the churchyard there which is home to the Hardy family graves and where Thomas Hardy’s heart lies buried. This burial in itself a desperate remedy attempting and failing to resolve the conundrum of how he might be buried in two places at the same time.

How desperate at times, I recall, was the plot of Desperate Remedies!  After being told by publishers that what he really wanted to write about needed to be toned down in case  posh folk took umbrage, (biographer Millgate deemed it “pervasive class hostility”), his remedies were indeed desperate as he veered off in the direction of Wilkie Collins with a dead body being hauled across a wood with a detective in pursuit.  And then in Under the Greenwood Tree he lurched off desperately in a different direction with the portrayal of rustic life – this being prompted by comments made by reviewers who, Hardy thought, had made “very much” of the rustic characters in Desperate Remedies.  So we move from a desperation of plots into a tale where plot is not so much slight as almost entirely absent.  Fearing to “dabble” again in plot, he surmised that a “pastoral story would be the safest venture”.

But how could he combine the two and let his own voice speak out at the same time? Well a few years later, he managed just that.

IMG_0507At the cottage, just like the great man and his second wife did a hundred years ago in the summer of 1918, I looked up at the bedroom window with its little table where Hardy finally penned the book that made his reputation and set him thankfully and rightfully on the path to… well stardom, I suppose.  And what was the book?  Well I now have a battered, incomplete, copy in my bag.  Two volumes.  1874.  Only a thousand published first time round.  It was Far from the Madding Crowd.

So as the sun is setting on a glorious summer day, I sit on the bench in the country churchyard at Stinsford and think, for once, not only of Thomas Hardy, but also of another Thomas – Thomas Gray, of his elegy written in country churchyard in a county distant from Dorset but really as close to Hardy’s heart as the bench I am sitting on.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade, 
         Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap, 
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid, 
         The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife, 
         Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray; 
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life 
         They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

22nd June 2018

Emily Dickinson and the titling of poems

My wife often gets to the essence of a matter while I just thrash around feeling grumpy.  This is probably why she is on Twitter and I spend my time on blogs like this. She can tweet and move on while I am still doing homework for another essay and being tiresome in the process.  And after the other morning I owe her not only the usual apology for unwarranted grumpiness but gratitude as well.  The reason for this?  Well it’s Emily Dickinson.  Now there’s a thing!  And it’s not some lady of that name from down the road with whom I have recently been smitten in my dotage, causing domestic outrage, but rather THE Emily Dickinson, the hugely talented 19th century American poet.

I have come to Emily Dickinson rather late in life and am always interested when I catch mentions of her, when, for example, she features in the blogs of other folk, such as Oliver Tearle’s splendid interesting literature.  I’ve also recently taken to carrying around with me a handy pocket-sized volume of Dickinson’s I picked up for a song in a local charity shop.  It is a tiny book in The Illustrated Poets series published by Parragon Books and edited by Daniel Burnstone.  (The cover picture is Destiny, 1900, by John William Waterhouse – it’s not Emily Dickinson…)


So the other morning as I sat down in the kitchen for a coffee and a croissant, my wife pointed to the Emily Dickinson volume still on the table where I’d left it and said: “I can’t tell where one poem begins and another ends.  There aren’t any titles.  Most poems have titles.”  Being my usual grumpy defensive self, I counter sardonically by noting that I am not familiar with the overall world stats on percentage of poems with titles v poems without and, in any case, it is surely quite clear typographically in the said book where a poem’s first line is.  And – amidst berating her further – I look at the volume again and remember sheepishly how I too had been at times (literally) initially confused.


And so – tangentially – I got to thinking about why lots of poems have titles and why Emily Dickinson’s poems don’t and how – well yes – you could quite easily read “across” Dickinson’s poems and on many occasion happily let one poem seamlessly merge into the next, leaving yourself wondering if and where one ended and another began. And, of course, I began to realise that my wife had again hit the nail right on the head and that for Emily Dickinson that is, sort of, the point.

So as I was thinking through all this, I headed for my shelves of poetry and, of course, soon discovered that, unless you know where to look, finding poems without titles is not an immediately straightforward matter.  My wife was right.  Most poems do have titles.  Indeed I would hazard a guess that the overwhelming majority of poems have titles.

A predominant reason, as many have pointed out, is that publishers and editors hate poems without titles.  They need poems to have a name, to be called something, just like a story or a novel.  They can’t go faffing about every time, naming the poem by just reproducing all the words in the first line.  True, you can frequently pick up volumes with an Index of First Lines, but these are almost always referring to poems which also have titles.  The first lines are handily indexed by publishers because we awkward readers often know the first lines independently of the titles of the poems and use them as our reference point.

Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud” is, it seems, a prime example of where a title has come to trump the first line since in my Oxford Book of English Verse I see this poem is called Daffodils, but if I seek out a digital copy of the original publication in Poems, in Two Volumes it seems to have no title at all.  Whether Wordsworth himself came up with the rather obvious Daffodils, or whether a publisher/editor imposed the title upon him I do not know.  Certainly for many, many poets the title of a poem is their own creation, rich in nuance, and a well thought out addition to the lines of verse themselves.  But I digress too much…

So where would I look routinely to find poems without titles?  Well sonnets are a good bet, the marvellous Edna St. Vincent Millay – a good example.  And there is that other fellow…  What’s he called?  Oh Shakespeare! (Or is it Francis Bacon?) But his sonnets were, I think, numbered even in the first edition which helps the publishers call them something even if it is just i and ii etc.  Haikus are another good bet (at least the first line is only five syllables).  You are also likely to find an absence of titles more in lyric or epigrammatic poetry than longer forms.


I find many more untitled poems among Russian poets than I do among those writing in English.  I am not sure why this is or about the practice in other languages or cultures.  I suppose scribbled untitled stuff like jottings and juvenilia published posthumously would also be another likely candidate for the untitled work.  Ancient poets also may well be absent titles.  After all we are often darn lucky we have the works at all.  Catullus would be a good example.   Where else?  Well “modernists” I suppose, like e. e. cummings, who as a matter of principle eschewed much of the “normal” poetic tradition, though there is a link to sonnets in his work.  And, of course – let’s not digress further – Emily Dickinson.  Almost the whole of Dickinson’s output is absent titles and she, of course was writing (mid to late 19th century) at a time when titles reigned supreme.  So why did she not title her poems?

Certainly one of the main reasons must be that she did not write for publication in her lifetime and did not have to grapple much with editors and publishers who would have demanded them.  But it is more than this.  There is something about her aesthetic, her approach to verse, her poetry itself which defies naming, which is unnameable.  Reading Dickinson is like reading the book of life.  Her poetic world is so vast that to nail it down with titles would almost be a travesty.  Fortunately, having begun to ponder this conundrum, I soon came upon the splendid article by John Mulvihill which tackles the issue head on.   I won’t rehearse here the reasons posited by Mulvihill for Dickinson’s disinclination to title her poetry, since folk can read the article itself, but he gives a very cogent and convincing account of what seems to be going on and how, in a sense, her poetry reaches beyond words and into the unnameable.  And he mentions others who have noted the lack of finality in her work and how for Dickinson each poem was a process in a stream of creativity where one poem serves as a gateway to the next poem.  I overegg it, I am sure, but it is as though all those individual poems, each one echoing another, are just part of a single marvellous whole.  How could you pin such a thing down with a title?

Well, hey!  I’m getting too carried away and I haven’t quoted even a single poem of Dickinson’s, but even my six-year old granddaughter was enthralled by I started early, took my dog…  (though we do wonder what happened to the dog)…  and here’s a link to a stash of wonderful stuff.  Well worth a browse.  There are, of course, more discerning selections elsewhere.

And so now I’d better find my wife and apologise for being such a prat and thank her for the literary journey that she started me off on, only to find, of course, that she was already there when I began.

It’s funny how the day turns out.  For the Latinists among you it might be more a case of ex rebus ad librum than ex libris ad rem.

6th June 2018


Wilfred Macartney – writer, adventurer, soldier, spy

This black, grubby, battered volume had been sitting in one of the many piles of books in my house for some months.


I had been moving books around… yes, you might have guessed it, looking for a book… and, as often happens, before I found it, this volume emerged at the top of a pile to confront me and I thought – “What on earth is this?”  Dirty, stained black cloth covers,  dinted and scuffed in the middle of the spine, twisted in shape – or in booklovers’ parlance – “cocked”.  Overall, very unattractive indeed.  Just the sort of thing, of course, that would have caught my eye in a junk shop somewhere some time, though where and when, I could hardly remember.

Even the title and author’s name – once in gilt – at the top of the spine were barely readable.



So I opened the book, read the name of the title and of the author, neither of which were familiar, started to read page one…  and the rest of the day and a couple of succeeding days disappeared before I emerged again.  I can’t remember now what book I was looking for in the first place, but the one I found  – or which found me –  and absorbed me for the best part of three days was:

Zigzag , by W. F. R. Macartney, published in London by Victor Gollancz in 1937

and I am heartily glad I came upon it, the opening paragraph hooking me and drawing me in:



I suppose one would call it an autobiography, and one containing enough adventures for a dozen such reminiscences and written by a man not yet forty and with even more adventures yet to come.  But it reads at times like fast-paced fiction and, although  I haven’t researched the events described, seems to prove the old adage – “you couldn’t make it up”; or as a review of the book in the Perth Western Mail put it – stranger than fiction:

“If some of the lifetime experiences of Wilfred Macartney had been incorporated in a novel the universal criticism would have been that the character had been overdrawn and the incidents impossible.”

Moreover there is topicality in these pages since, in these centenary years of the First World War, much of Macartney’s action takes place in the global arena of this awful conflict and the story concludes with dastardly deeds by the Russians and Macartney  being sent to prison for ten years for spying.

So how can one describe in some sort of shorthand the extraordinary Wilfred Francis Remington Macartney?  He was a global adventurer – a citizen of the world (or as someone might say, a citizen of nowhere).  It is almost certainly a good job he didn’t end up in the Russia of the 1930s where his political sympathies eventually inclined.  Stalin would have dubbed him a “безродный космополит” – a “rootless cosmopolitan” (aka citizen of nowhere) and he would undoubtedly have disappeared without trace or died in the gulags.

He was a Scot – or was he born in London?  Father Irish, but brought up in the US.  Mother American of French origin, or was she Canadian?  He lived and was schooled, for a few years at least, in England. Saw Jamaica, no doubt passing through.  Was in Ukraine to see his mother wrongfully arrested as a spy by the Tsarist police.  Lived in Malta where he seems to have been happiest.  Lived in the USA, where he ran off to enlist, lying about his age.  Spent war years in Egypt, Palestine.  Was fighting as a swashbuckler soldier in the Greek islands with Compton Mackenzie, both already involved in the murky manoeuvring world of intelligence.  He captured whole islands, commanding ragtag troops, managing the politics.  He was only 18 for goodness sake!   Then he was fighting in France, was wounded, a prisoner of war taken to Germany.  He escaped by leaping from a train; got back to England via Belgium and Holland. Then ended up as part of the Berlin-Baghdad Railway Mission in Turkey.  At nineteen he was “friendly” with Kemal Ataturk.  He travelled to Spain, France, north Africa…  You lose track of his travels. Worked in the City.  Engaged in financial and entrepreneurial wheeling and dealing.  Gambling, boxing, nightclubs, drink, women, the underworld of London.  Criminality – breaking and entering, drunk and disorderly.  Jail.  Communism.  Journalism.  And, apparently, spying…  And still only in his mid-twenties.  And jail again.

Travelling as the son of his father had been “good fun”, Zigzag tells us.  His father was an engineer, an entrepreneur, the Macartney in Macartney, McElroy & Co. Ltd.  He made a fortune.  He built tramways all round the world. Wilfred’s early days were “vagrant”, he says, but so were his later ones. Thirteen when his father died, he was already running the company with his brother, holding meetings, negotiating deals.  This autobiography doesn’t even seem to cover his months in the Spanish foreign legion in Morocco, or his apparent duties in the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary.  I suspect his involvement in the dark arts of intelligence and potential legal action may have led to some omissions in his already full and remarkable tale.

In 1946 he was charged and fined yet again with an offence under the Official Secrets Act. (An offence Compton Mackenzie also endured for his revelations.)

How such an adventurer as Macartney coped with ten years in Parkhurst prison in the Isle of Wight, I do not yet know, but there is another – more available – book he wrote entitled Walls Have Mouths (called “remarkable” by George Orwell) which will shed some light.

And I haven’t even mentioned yet Macartney’s involvement as the first commander of the Republican British Battalion in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and the curious (and yet again murky) circumstance of how he ended up getting shot and wounded another time.  Accidental?  Intentional?

Towards the end of Zigzag when Macartney relates the events of the espionage which led him into Parkhurst, he switches from the first person narrative of autobiography to the third person narrative of… well what?  A biographer?  A biographer who “must surmise… must often be content with comparatively exiguous material…”  Unlike the autobiographer,

“The biographer… can write attractively of a character who was certainly not always attractive, and he can be judicial and like a lecturer at a dissection can examine and apportion blame or confer praise where these were due.

“So therefore I come to the position where writing an autobiography becomes distasteful to me, where the character of whom I write seems to be outside myself, and about whose life for the succeeding two years I propose to write of in the third person…  The more detached ‘he’ of the third person will carry the story to its conclusion.  The biographer will attempt to be objective.”



And so for the last three chapters of this remarkable tale, in his curious idiosyncratic “objective” way Wilfred Macartney tells us how he ended up in jail, found guilty of spying for the Russians.   He was in his late twenties.  Sentenced to ten years, he served eight.

And the “zigzag” of the title?  He certainly zigzagged his way through life and the world, and his circuitous journeys in war and peace zigzagged from one destination to another.  But Macartney had more in mind the tactics of political manoeuvring.  Referring to a journey which took him to Greece via Rome, Sicily and Malta, he writes:

“From Malta to Mudros I travelled in a ship which zigzagged all the way.  Zigzag became one of the best known words of the war and was particularly liked by Lenin.  He always used it when recommending caution to those who thought revolution was a kind of smash and grab.”

He then continues to narrate yet another tale of smash and grab which fills this splendid book.

Macartney died in London on 4th November 1970.  Apparently his death was noted in the Times, but there was no obituary.  One of the few comments I found about Macartney on one internet site noted that “Wilfred Macartney is one of the most interesting people in history”.   Bit of a superlative, one might think, but it is not far wrong.  And the comment continues: “Yet there is virtually nothing on him on the web.”  Well, with this blog about this rare book Zigzag there is a bit more now, and perhaps other folk will be spurred on to read and write about Wilfred Macartney’s extraordinary life.

25th May 2018

The following websites have some good information about Wilfred Macartney.…-a060358409

Detailed information about the espionage case for which Macartney went to prison can be found in: Churchill’s Man of Mystery: Desmond Morton and the World of Intelligence by Gill Bennett, published by Routledge in 2007.  Morton was the intelligence officer who pursued Macartney.


In Praise of Illustration (and Thomas Hardy yet again)


The few folk who have come upon my intermittent blog will have gathered that one of my favourite authors is the English novelist Thomas Hardy.  Like many readers, the “reading copies” I have of his works are no longer the battered paperbacks strewn around my house but the digital editions I have on my iPad.  These digital texts do have great advantages, not least that you can read them in the dark and that many of them are free.  So why then are the several thousand books I have in my house not diminishing in number but rather increasing?  There are at least a couple of reasons.  One is that I have a fascination for older books and editions and another is that these books often contain wonderful illustrations which usually feature neither in modern battered paperbacks nor in digital copies.

So when my long-suffering postman wearily knocks on my door to unburden himself of yet another vast parcel, and my nearest and dearest call out “What on earth have you bought now, you sad old man?”, they naturally despair when I proclaim: “Well, it’s another copy of the Mayor of Casterbridge.”  And when they declare “But you’ve got five copies of that already!”, I can proudly say – as I unravel the packaging of a book well over a foot in height – “Yes.  But not this one!”

And what is so great about this edition of the frequently published Mayor?  Well it is the very first publication of the great work serialised in the wonderful Victorian magazine The Graphic; and serial publication in Victorian times usually means, of course… illustration.


In the 1886 publication of the Mayor in The Graphic, over a period of almost five months, each of the 20 weekly instalments carried a splendid illustration by Robert Barnes.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles was illustrated in its first serial publication in The Graphic in 1891.  Similarly, the (even more) controversial Jude the Obscure (or as it was initially entitled – The Simpletons and then Hearts Insurgent) contained illustrations by William Hatherall when first published in Harper’s Magazine in 1894-95.  IMG_4284

Hardy was so taken by Hatherall’s illustrations that he wrote to him in November 1895 expressing his “sincere admiration” for the illustration of “Jude at the Milestone”.

“The picture is a tragedy in itself: & I do not remember ever before having an artist who grasped a situation so thoroughly…  Would that I possessed a copy or photograph of it!”


Hatherall sent Hardy a complete set of the illustrations which Hardy liked so much he had them framed and hung in his study at Max Gate.  He will have seen them every day when he sat down to write.

Hardy was often engaged with the practicalities of the illustration of his work, providing advice and sketches of his own. As an architect drawing up plans to renovate churches he could – and did – sketch and draw.  At times he even contributed and published his own illustrations, the prominent example being the first edition of his Wessex Poems.


Typical of Hardy, so prone to infatuations with the opposite sex, he even appears to have developed a romantic attachment to one artist, Helen Paterson, who illustrated Far from the Madding Crowd in the Cornhill Magazine.  Helen Paterson married the poet William Allingham (the same year that Hardy wed Emma Gifford), hence the change in the illustrator’s name during the publication of Madding from H. Paterson to H. Allingham.  How characteristic that some 30 years later “with his memories – imaginatively inflated” – so described by biographer Michael Millgate – Hardy could declare in a letter to Edmund Gosse in July 1906 that this was the woman he should have married “but for a stupid blunder of God Almighty”.  He even penned a poem about this attachment (The Opportunity).  What, if anything, Helen Allingham or Emma Hardy knew of this “romantical” (Hardy’s own word) attachment, I do not know.  But he could now declare that Helen was: “the best illustrator I ever had”.

And so I can at least turn to my 1877 edition of Madding which, happily, contains some of these illustrations to get a glimpse of what had captivated Hardy; and certainly the last illustration in the volume, depicting the dramatic scene where Troy unmasks himself immediately prior to being shot by the hapless Boldwood, has much to recommend it.


There is a fascinating interplay between the images in the illustrations and the text and any serious study of the illustrations to Hardy’s works reveals in them some curious traits and inconsistencies, but they make a significant accompaniment to the text, even – and perhaps now particularly – for the modern sophisticated reader.  Anyone wanting to delve more should have a look at the detailed insights offered on the splendid website

And there have been at least two books written specifically about Hardy’s illustrations, which I have yet to explore.

The mid 19th Century was a time rife with the serialisation of novels by established writers of the day –  Dickens, Eliot, Collins, Trollope, Thackeray, Hardy to name but a few. Most magazines which published such works employed or hired illustrators to depict key scenes.  Although a publishing convention, these illustrations were more than artistic icing on a verbal cake.  For the unsophisticated readers of the day these illustrations and accompanying vignettes were an integral part of the presentation of the fiction, helping readers to visualise the narrative.  Indeed it seems to have been these copies, bound into volumes, that the libraries on occasion purchased for their general – unsophisticated – readership in preference to the unillustrated book-form editions.

However, if a novel had not been serialised, then likely it would not be illustrated; and when full first editions were produced, purchased by the more affluent and educated reader, if there were illustrations, then they often went by the wayside.  And subsequent editions tended to omit the illustrations.  So if the avid reader of today wants to get a taste of what the first serialised (and often bowdlerised) editions looked like, that reader needs to seek out copies of the magazines which first carried them.

Throughout the years many publishers have – fortunately – sought to produce new illustrated editions of Hardy’s novels, notably, for example, the edition of Tess with the wood engravings by Vivien Gribble.

Nora Lavrin illustrated some translated editions of Hardy.  Illustrations are a feature of the Folio editions too, and not just of Hardy.   There is, of course, a whole tradition of writings across a plethora of works where illustration is integral to the production of the work, from William Blake, to the Moxon edition of Tennyson, to the Russian Futurists, to W. G. Sebald, not to mention the wonderful illustrated editions of books for children and young readers.  For some writers illustration was an intensely integral part of their work.  For others it is a practical or inspirational enhancement or adornment.

For me, whatever the images that have formed in my own visual imagination (enhanced or diminished by our cinematic presentations), with my own copy of Harper’s magazine for 1895, I can return to an image of the desperate Jude, of which Hardy himself was so enthralled he framed it on his wall.  And no wonder the illustration of his work preoccupied him. He had, after all, a supremely visual imagination.  References to paintings and pictures abound in his works.  He had a stunning capability to paint a picture in words, not just in his poetry but in his novels too.  I recall Melvyn Bragg on the radio being bowled over by Hardy’s Tess.  “He’s Constable.  He’s Turner.  He’s amazing.”  Not even I can top that.

April 2018

The two books I am aware of on Hardy and illustrations are: Arlene M Jackson, Illustration and the novels of Thomas Hardy, published by Rowman & Littlefield Pub Inc (1981); and Philip Allingham (who has written much for the website), Hardy’s Illustrated Fiction, Published by LAP Lambert Acad. Publ. Mrz 2011 (2011)
Unusually Under the Greenwood Tree had an interesting illustrated edition published very soon after the first unillustrated edition – see the volume published by Tinsley as a “Christmas book” dated 1876.
Melvyn Bragg’s comments came in his BBC Radio 4 programme In our Time, broadcast on 5th May 2016
Hardy’s letters can be found in the Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, published by OUP and edited by R. L. Purdy and Michael Millgate

To Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and back to Thomas Hardy’s Wessex

I’ve recently read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.  I’d like to say “re-read”, but while I am very familiar with the story, I can’t properly recollect ever reading the whole novel.  I think I must have had it as a child in some illustrated abridged version and filled in missing bits from the many Hollywood films.


I came back to Treasure Island when my granddaughter was off school recently and needed entertaining and I also had a mind for inspiring the pirate costume she might don for World Book Day (in the end she went as Miss Jump the Jockey without anyone having to fork out anything for pirate gear – so much for granddad’s inspiration). I read Treasure Island, or rather summarised the tale for her, book in hand, until after a few chapters she moved on to something else. Then, over the next few days, I just carried on reading it on my own.  It was certainly a distraction from Thomas Hardy’s Desperate Remedies which I was reading and finishing around the same time.  More on that some time soon.

There has been a plethora of writing about Treasure Island, since it first appeared in the early 1880s.  A first edition now will cost you several thousand pounds. I suppose it must be one of the most famous books in the English language and is very collectable.  A tale for children – yes.  But it is certainly more than that and, like all good books, works on more than one level.  I am not going to rehearse here any well-worn analyses of the tale or characters.  There is plenty of that elsewhere.  What struck me, though, as so often, are the off-beat things I gleaned in a little more reading around the tale.

The edition I picked up from my huge piles of books was the Thomas Nelson edition in their “Teaching of English Series” (already in its 32nd impression in 1964!).  This contained as an appendix the article which Stevenson wrote not long before his death in 1894, called My First Book, telling of the origin of the tale which, famously, began, literally, with a map.


Stevenson explains how he was  kept indoors by the inclement Scottish weather along with “a schoolboy… home for the holidays”  who spent his time painting and drawing.  Stevenson joined the young fellow – actually his stepson Lloyd – in this pastime and “on one of these occasions… made the map of an island” – a “treasure island”.  “As I pored upon my map of Treasure Island,” Stevenson wrote, “the future characters of the book began to appear there…”  “The next thing I knew, I had some paper before me and was writing out a list of chapters.”

Many tales have maps associated with them.  The first edition of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe  had a map of the world showing Crusoe’s voyages.  Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings would be unthinkable without the joy of the detailed maps the books contain.  I think my earliest recollection of such things would probably be the map of the village in Milly Molly Mandy.   But I suspect none of these books has the actual map itself as the genesis of the tale.  Maybe Treasure Island is wonderfully unique in this regard.  And Stevenson has some very sensible things to say about how important it is for the author to know his countryside – real or imaginary.  “The distances, the points of the compass, the place of the sun’s rising, the behaviour of the moon, should all be beyond cavil.”  And with a tilt at Walter Scott, he notes that once an author has “the map before him, he will scarce allow the sun to set in the east”.  Ahh, the pitfalls that lay in wait for the unwary novelist!

This central preoccupation with the map set me thinking: who else, writing around the time Treasure Island appeared, gets so preoccupied with his topography that he has to include a map?  And the answer, of course, is Thomas Hardy, whose Wessex was already taking shape in the mid 1870s with Far from the Madding Crowd.  Then in 1878, before Treasure Island came out,  Hardy published The Return of the Native and, for the first time, suggested in a letter to his publishers that they include as integral to the work  “a Sketch of the supposed scene in which the ‘Return of the Native’ is laid – copied from the one I used in writing the story”, declaring that this “would be a desirable novelty, likely to increase a reader’s interest”.  It is notable that this self-made map was used by Hardy during the writing.


The map itself I have always found to be a rather disappointing affair, helpful true, but containing little detail.  Hardy’s maps of Wessex – penned by folk other than him -certainly improved over time.  But one needs to acknowledge that this first sketched map of Egdon Heath is not a patch on the map of Treasure Island and is certainly not the genesis of the tale. I would have thought it fair to say that the countryside itself – rather than a map of it – was Hardy’s inspiration for his tale.  However, there’s no denying that here is a map heading up the novel, just like Stevenson’s map fronted Treasure Island, and before Treasure Island was published.

Stevenson doesn’t give any acknowledgement to Hardy in his article about the inspiration of his map for the writing of Treasure Island.  But he does write the following:

I am told there are people who do not care for maps, and find it hard to believe.  The names, the shapes of the woodlands, the courses of the roads and rivers, the prehistoric footsteps of man still distinctly traceable up hill and down dale, the mills and the ruins, the ponds and the ferries, perhaps the Standing Stone or the Druidic Circle on the heath; here is an inexhaustible fund of interest for any man with eyes to see or tuppenceworth of imagination to understand with!

I cannot help but wonder, mischievously, whether hidden in this is a reference not only to Hardy but also specifically to his The Return of the Native which – predating Stevenson’s yet to be published Treasure Island – also had the map centre stage as a frontispiece.

Stevenson was well acquainted with Hardy’s work.  He praised A Pair of Blue Eyes (published 1873), he was one of the first visitors to Hardy’s new house, Max Gate, in August 1885, having a few days earlier written to Hardy from nearby Bournemouth saying that “my acquaintance with your mind is already of old date”.  He read “with admiration” Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and wrote to Hardy asking if he could “dramatise” it. Hardy – who also at the time admired Stevenson’s writing – replied “yes, by all means” and shortly afterwards they dined together in London.  Stevenson apparently sought out a copy of Woodlanders to take with him when he travelled to the USA.

But there was a massive reversal in Stevenson’s view of Hardy’s work upon the publication of Tess of the D’Urbevilles in 1891.  Writing in December 1892 – two years before his death – in correspondence with Henry James (openly known as a rather hostile critic of Hardy), Stevenson – by now ensconced in Samoa – denounced Tess in vitriolic terms as “one of the worst, weakest, least sane, most voulu books I have yet read”.  Stevenson continues:

I should tell you in fairness I could never finish it; there may be the treasures of the Indies further on; but so far as I read, James, it was (in one word) damnable. Not alive, not true was my continual comment as I read; and at last- not even honest! was the verdict with which I spewed it from my mouth. I write in anger? I almost think I do;… I cannot read a page of Hardy for many a long day, my confidence [in him] is gone.”


Goodness gracious!  Tess did provoke a certain storm (“coarse and disagreeable story” – one reviewer wrote), but overall it was well received.  Even Henry James didn’t damn it fully when he reviewed it.  But Stevenson’s response here seems visceral in the extreme.  It was certainly sufficiently shocking for most of it to be redacted or censored in 1899 by the publishers of his letters after his death.  One wonders what angered Stevenson so?  The intensity of the complaint seems to go beyond what one might expect in terms of a literary squabble.  Perhaps Stevenson’s Calvinist upbringing is coming into sway here, though his own life seems to have been a rather bohemian affair. Perhaps those more immersed in Stevenson’s biography and work will be able to enlighten me.

One cannot also but be struck by James’s response to this vitriol against Hardy.  James’s return letter regretted that he – James – had not been more condemnatory of Tess, and, egged on by Stevenson, he denounced the book as “vile” and said:

“I grant you Hardy with all my heart and even with a certain quantity of my boot-toe.”

Crikey!  So Henry James, spurred on by the angry Stevenson, wanted to give Hardy a kicking!  Similar to how Stevenson’s comments were dealt with, the words containing this threat were suppressed when James’s letters were published in 1920, after James’s death but still in Hardy’s lifetime.


Thomas Hardy was sensitive to criticism and, in deference to the great man of English literature, these letters seem to have been censored by publishers and editors.  However, as is clear from the biography of Thomas Hardy which was initially published, after Hardy’s death, under his wife’s name but which Hardy himself oversaw, he had certainly seen what hadn’t been censored and most likely had heard something elsewhere of Stevenson’s change of heart.  He sardonically dubbed James and Stevenson “the Polonius and the Osric of novelists” and made some rather sarcastic remarks about the indecency of “those two virtuous females” exposing their “mental nakedness”.  But from my perspective here, the most interesting comment – in the same publication – is a specific reference by Hardy to the map in Treasure Island.  Hardy, noting his suggestion at the time for including his own map of Egdon Heath in the first edition of The Return of the Native, goes on to say:

The publishers fell in with the idea and the map was made.  It was afterwards adopted by R. L. Stevenson in Treasure Island.

And so I seem to have travelled from Treasure Island to Wessex and back to Treasure Island again.  What basis, if any, there is for this assertion by Hardy that Stevenson had pinched the idea off him, I do not know.  Others may.  But Hardy could nurse a literary grudge for many a year and he wanted to have the last word even when he was already dead.  It is a characteristically mischievous ironic dig; a posthumously published riposte to a once friendly fellow writer who had the temerity to declare one of his books “damnable”.

March 2018

In addition to Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Hardy’s The Return of the Native, the books I’ve been consulting for this blog were: Michael Millgate’s Thomas Hardy: a Biography Revisited; Richard Little Purdy’s splendid Thomas Hardy: a Bibliographical Study; the autobiographical Life and Work of Thomas Hardy, edited by Millgate, Vol 1 of The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, edited by Millgate and Purdy; and the rather idiosyncratic biography Hardy by Martin Seymour-Smith.


Thomas Hardy – a parsimonious poet

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 (although I have seen reference elsewhere to at least two other visits Hardy made).  And Hardy went on: “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.

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.

February 2018


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