Thomas Hardy was both drawn to city life and repelled by it…
Statue of Hardy in Dorchester
From London Review of Books:
Ford makes the convincing claim that London turned Hardy into ‘a modern type’ (a tag the novelist bestowed on Clym Yeobright in The Return of the Native); in city life he discovered ‘deracination, thwarted idealism, distrust of established religion, sexual anxiety (or indeed helplessness), a heightened sensitivity to the complexities of class privilege and to the ruthless depredations of the economic system’, sensitivities he passed on to many of his characters. (Grace Melbury, in The Woodlanders, combines ‘modern nerves with primitive emotions’.)
While Baudelaire’s ideal artist quickens to the crowded urban scene with detective-like avidity, Hardy was a somewhat reluctant painter of modern life, both drawn to city life and repelled by it. He couldn’t really imagine or bear the idea of congested London without the idea of his childhood landscape as release. Out of that pulsation, Ford argues, was born ‘the concept of Wessex’: the rural scene, eternal but eternally threatened by overweening urbanism, the pastoral redoubt far from the madding crowd, where Hardy could ‘know some liberty’, as he puts it in his poem ‘Wessex Heights’. Ford reminds us that in the maps of Wessex that Hardy drew and which were first included in the 1895-96 edition of his fiction, there are no railways, despite the many appearances of trains in his work: in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, ‘modern life’ is described as stretching out its ‘steam feeler to this point three or four times a day’ and quickly withdrawing, as if what it found there was ‘uncongenial’. Wessex was where Hardy could stage his feeling for cosmic conservatism; a late formulation appears in ‘In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”’, written in 1915, which pits the Continental catastrophe of the Great War against the longer histories of the English countryside, peopled by ‘a maid and her wight’: ‘War’s annals will cloud into night/Ere their story die.’ If Hardy was half a modern Londoner, the other half had a weakness for the pastoral-oracular. The two halves changed shape, feeding and modifying each other.
He first visited London as a small boy, in 1849, two years after the opening of the Dorchester to Southampton railway line. But the family’s relationship with the city went back to Hardy’s mother, who as a young servant in the household of the vicar of Stinsford had spent several months in London, where her employers decamped annually for the ‘season’. It is one of several breathtaking inversions in Hardy’s life: the eminent author made a habit in later life of spending the same period each year in the capital, where he would stay in areas like Kensington and Marylebone, and see his friends at the Savile Club. (Better still: when the Prince of Wales visited Max Gate in 1923, Hardy may have reflected with some complacency on the fact that he had bought the land on which his house was built from the prince’s grandfather.) Ford is alive to the long arc of Hardy’s class triumph, a journey which undulated with social anxieties and uncertainties. For instance, the city may have offered Hardy various possibilities of erotic fantasy, but his elderly infatuations were largely unrequited; and as if to ensure that such encounters would remain so, he tended to affix himself to married women of ‘superior social status’, as if, Ford suggests, understanding himself to be fulfilling his mother’s thwarted metropolitan ambitions.
During the 1860s and 1870s, he made several runs at that triumph. In 1862, as Hardy’s own account blazons it, he ‘started alone for London, to pursue the art and science of architecture on more advanced lines’. He took lodgings off the Kilburn High Road, where he lived for a year, before moving to Westbourne Park Villas, ‘a street parallel to the Great Western Railway line running west out of Paddington’. Though he was working in an architect’s office near Trafalgar Square (for a salary of £110 a year), he was really cramming for literary success.