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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

What the Biographers Never Knew

Updated: Jun 24

"What the Biographers Never Knew"…A short piece from a Fact-Fiction course during summer 2000 at Merton College, Oxford, to answer a question: Why Thomas Hardy stopped writing novels and devoted the last 32 years of his life to poetry? I credit my interest in Thomas Hardy to British Literature with Mr. James Hines in 1960-61 at Fullerton High School in California.

Jude the Obscure, published in late November 1895, did not bring cheerful Christmas mail to Thomas Hardy’s cottage in Dorset. Vile letters arrived, along with vitriolic criticism in newspapers. “Hardy the Degenerate,” the Pall Mall declared. “Jude the Obscene,” The World’s headline stated. Hardy was to be castigated. His sin? Having minced no words in his depiction of the war between flesh and spirit.

Two days before Christmas, Thomas told his wife that the criticism was outrageous and untrue. Emma agreed. That evening at supper Thomas stormed again. “Sensational headlines sell newspapers.” Though Emma agreed with Thomas, she mentioned that attention would increase sales. She spoke softly, wishing for a husband whose disquiet was less blustery.

The next morning after breakfast, Hardy paused at the door before setting out for his daily walk in the vale of Blackmoor.

“Jude will be my last novel."

“I doubt you mean this, Thomas. The criticism has exhausted you.”

“You have not heard me. I am withdrawing from the great grey plain.”

“The great grey plain! Whatever do you mean?”

“Look to London. Now I must walk.”

“Fish or fowl?” Emma asked.

“Fowl,” he replied, and closed the door.

That morning Hardy walked in his fictional Wessex, envying each bird its solitary flight.

At mid-day, as he and Emma ate their main meal, he pulled the wing from a plump chicken and, sticking his fork in the white breast, told his wife that he felt detached and disembodied.

“Is it not age?” Emma asked.

Hardy looked at his wife’s face above a plate littered with wings, bones, and yellowed skin. Thought felt skeletal now. Why stew over tart disparaging criticism? His finances were secure. He was free to leave prose.

“Do you hear the thunder?" he asked. "A continual shaking of creation?”

Minutes passed before Hardy spoke. “To age is to realize what one has always been.”

“And what have you always been, Thomas?” Emma asked, ringing the bell for the servant, who came to clear the table.

Hardy remained silent until the girl left.

“What have you always been?” Emma repeated.

One word would burn away wintry sneers on the great grey plain.

“A poet, Emma. I am a poet.”

Next week: The Mayor of Casterbridge and the teacher who taught his students how to read literature.

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