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Bookmarks Issue: 
28-May-June-2007
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A-Thomas HardyThomas Hardy (1840–1928) could have been considered by many critics as a mere regional author from southern England. Or, by today’s politically correct scholars, he could have been consigned to that group of authors known as "dead white males." But perhaps because of Hardy’s fascination with daily life (and for other reasons both unclear and intriguing), most of his fiction and poetry continues to survive, imparting meaning to readers in the 21st century. In her biography, Claire Tomalin explores how Hardy became a novelist and a poet against the backdrop of his painful marriage, his travels, and his social interactions. Hardy set much of his fiction—from The Return of the Native to Tess of the D’Ubervilles—in his imagined county of Wessex, which strikingly resembled his home county of Dorsetshire. In his mid-fifties, he began to write poetry—which reflected the complex life of his later years. Although an enigmatic figure, Hardy remains one of our beloved writers, both Victorian and modernist.
Penguin. 486 pages. $35. ISBN: 1594201188

Chicago Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"How to make the daily activities of such a diffident, unassuming, almost mousy little man match that grand imagination? Claire Tomalin solves the problem neatly and efficiently, with the sort of spit-spot, no-nonsense, let’s-get-cracking attitude that occasionally masks the deeper profoundities of her gift." Julia Keller

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Three Hardy biographies have appeared in the last dozen years. … That Tomalin chose to write another suggests how rich a subject Hardy remains, and also how elusive. … Full of empathy and clear thought, Tomalin has written a compelling, riveting story as well as a thoroughly researched biography." Floyd Skloot

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Tomalin’s discussion of his poetry provides the book’s true through line, and it’s first-rate. … Neither hagiography nor warts-and-all, but a keen-eyed study of Hardy’s life, it sends us back—as biographies should—to the work itself." Nicholas Delbanco

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"[Tomalin’s talent is exceptional. … Her latest book… is as satisfying a portrait of the moody Victorian as we could hope to get." Mary-Liz Shaw

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"Despite the publication of letters, notebooks and personal writings; a posthumous autobiography; and many biographies, Hardy remains an elusive and contradictory figure. … [Tomalin] offers a sensitive and nuanced portrait of one of the greatest nineteenth century writers." Linda Simon

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"It is one of the strengths of Claire Tomalin’s biography that she conveys in full Hardy’s simple humanity. … Among the many useful things his life and work tell us is that professionalism is not the enemy of art, but its agent and handmaiden." Jonathan Yardley

Critical Summary

Besides viewing Hardy’s life from a 21st-century perspective, Claire Tomalin emphasizes his poetry as much as his novels. Her decision to do so may have stemmed from a newly found fondness for his poetry, or it may have been her rationale for writing a new Hardy biography among so many already available. Tomalin is a biographer so confident in her own voice that she can make any subject seem fresh and memorable. As in her biographies of Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Katherine Mansfield, among others, Tomalin demonstrates empathy for her subject, the ability to analyze her subject without falling into reductionism, first-rate research, logical thinking, psychological insights, and a compelling writing style.

Where to Start

In our book-by-book profile of Hardy in our May/June 2005 issue, we recommended Tess of the D’Ubervilles and Jude the Obscure. Both introduce Hardy’s most tragic characters and reveal his unconventional portrayal of a rapidly disappearing way of life. Also look for Thomas Hardy: The Complete Poems.