Everybody has to establish how badly Thomas Hardy writes. “The novels therefore are full of inequalities; they are lumpish and dull and inexpressive… It is as if Hardy himself were not quite aware of what he did…” (400-1) writes Virginia Woolf. “The book [Tess of the d’Urbervilles] is handled with very uncertain skill, botched and bungled” moans D. H. Lawrence, who loves Hardy (410). “I will say that Tess is one of the worst, weakest, least sane, most voulu [forced] books I have yet read” howls Robert Louis Stevenson. Hoots Henry James, in reply:
But oh yes, dear Louis, she is vile. The pretence of “sexuality” is only equaled by the absence of it, and the abomination of language by the author’s reputation for style. There are indeed some pretty smells and sights and sounds. But you have better ones in Polynesia. (388, the James and Stevenson from letters, not reviews)
The page numbers refer to the “Criticism” section of the 1979 Norton Critical Edition of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the 1891 novel in which Hardy leads, cajoles, and forcefully shoves poor Tess, the unluckiest heroine in English literature, to her Doom. The incessance of the Hardy-bashing amidst – as part of – the serious attempts to understand Hardy are clearly an editorial decision. Perhaps the editor is letting undergraduates know that it is okay to loathe Hardy’s writing. Now, get that out of your system and, like Lawrence and Woolf and many others, move forward.
I have come across Hardy fans who deny that the bad Hardy sentence exists. I wonder what they see when they come across something like this, which starts poor and crashes:
Here’s one that starts pretty well:
The ‘appetite for joy’ which pervades all creation, that tremendous force which sways humanity to its purpose, as the tide sways the helpless weed, was not to be controlled by vague lucubrations over the social rubric. (Ch. 30)
His thought had been unsuspended; he was becoming ill with thinking; eaten out with thinking, withered by thinking; scourged out of all his former pulsating flexuous domesticity. (Ch. 36)
The Latinate weirdisms like “vague lucubrations over the social rubric” are one side of Hardy’s bad writing. They always belong to the narrator. The other side is also always the narrator’s fault.
Like all who have been previsioned by suffering, she could, in the words of M. Sully-Prudhomme, hear a penal sentence in the fiat, ‘You shall be born,’ particularly is addressed to potential issue of hers. (Ch. 36)
Her future children, that last phrase means, although that’s nothing compared to the four sentences of indirection in Chapter 5 in which the narrator tries to say but not say that Tess has a big chest. But I am here more interested in the strange intrusion of the irrelevant, alien reference, so odd in a novel about a milkmaid.
If before going to the d’Urbervilles’ she [Tess] had vigorously moved under the guidance of sundry gnomic texts and phrases known to her and to the world in general, no doubt she would never have been imposed on. But it had not been in Tess’s power – nor is it in anybody’s power – to feel the whole truth if golden opinions while it is possible to profit by them. She – and how many more – might have ironically said to God with Saint Augustine: ‘Thou hast counselled a better course than Thou hast permitted.’ (Ch. 15)
Within a page there are quotations from Roger Ascham and Jeremy Taylor. If only Tess had spent more time with their gnomic texts! The way to save the narrator, both his vile style and private references, is to break him off from Hardy a bit, to make the narrator part of the argument of the novel. Make him a little nuts. I can kind of see how to do it.
The other way to go is to ignore him, I guess, to just focus on big, vital Tess, who overshadows the narrator, the other characters, and even the landscape. The people who love the novel love Tess.
All right, that’s out of my system. Forward.