Friday, September 30, 2016

sundry gnomic texts and phrases - the botched and bungled Tess of the d'Urbervilles

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:

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)

Here’s one that starts pretty well:

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.


  1. There are also, occasionally, passages of great power, mostly about landscapes or buildings, but yikes, it's hard to understand how we ever reach them, stumbling as we must over barnacled monsters like these! Somebody somewhere has patiently compared his "greatness" to Henry James, surely? One of them has a heart (or something) so big it overwhelms his lousy writing, the other has writing so marvelous you often can't discern the heart beneath...

  2. I'll pull out some of the great stuff soon. You can say "Hey, where's {some great passage}?"

    The James - Hardy blow by blow comparison is a good idea (for somebody). Such different aesthetic assumptions.

  3. Now, I love Thomas Hardy, both the novels and the poems. Henry James shouldn't throw stones; "The Ambassadors" may be the best 50 page short story in English, but it is a 500 page novel. There. It's still worth reading.

    Hardy conveys story like almost no other. One of my writing teachers once said, "The best story can't be ruined by bad writing, but good writing doesn't cover up bad storytelling." Hardy always has a compelling story to tell, whereas, as Rohan says above, James's exquisiteness often masks or belies emotion beneath, although I would argue that the end of "The Golden Bowl" is one of the most satisfying endings in an English-language novel.

    Comparing authors is dangerous; let's take them for what they bring. Hardy's unique vision--and its clarity and consistency across his novels and poetry--is one of his most compelling artistic achievements. You're not likely to forget the scene of Tess at Stonehenge near the end of the novel--and that's a testament to Hardy's greatness, no matter how clumsy his "gnomic texts" may be from time to time.

    Read "The Oxen" or "Drummer Hodge" and bow before his greatness.

  4. There is maybe some irony in the complaint of James, yes. But there is an aesthetic difference there that is worth understanding, although it would involve comparing authors.

    Comparing authors is not dangerous, but necessary, the base of criticism. Or it is dangerous, which explains why critics are so cool, like surfers and dirtbike racers - because of the danger.

    If we could identify the best story, I will bet I could find a version so howlingly bad that I would call it ruined. And good writing hardly requires story at all. But there are many assumptions in that paragraph I do not understand. I don't find Tess's story especially compelling. I have not yet found James to be especially exquisite. Maybe you mean late-James? It is middle-James who is whining about Hardy up above.

    I remember many scenes written by writers much worse than Hardy, so I cannot take memorability as a measure of greatness.

    (Bow! No way! Look 'im right in the eye!)

  5. I would say that it's by comparing authors that we sometimes realize mot clearly what it is exactly that they bring. The goal is not to rank them but to marvel in the different ways of being great (and/or awful).

  6. I like to think of Hardy as a practitioner of balls to the wall eloquence. He was always reaching for the clever formulation, the word with just that extra spice to make his sentence memorable, the image that would push his formulation over into immortality. Sometimes I browse in his more florid and ghastly passages just to remind myself that truly singular writing requires a draft where it all hangs out. And then he also reminds me that *good* and singular writing also requires revision, ruthless distillation of ineffective complexity, and a heartless attitude to errant imagery—second and third drafts, in other words. (Actually, this makes me wonder: do we know about Hardy's drafting habits? I wonder if the monstrosities you quote are polished turds or the detritus of haste.)

  7. Tess is a strange case because at some early point, Hardy was drafting two parallel novels, one for himself (and for an eventual book, the one we all read now), and a heavily self-censored one for magazine serialization. He found the process agonizing and insulting. No wonder he gave up on novels.

    So he revised a lot, but not necessarily the parts that catch my attention.

    Tess and Jude have, to my eye, far more "singular writing," great, good, and bad, than say Casterbridge or Return of the Native. I think Hardy is having trouble with the form of the novel - growing out of the form. He can't get it to do what he wants. No wonder he gave up on novels.

  8. It's been a while since I read Hardy and I can't remember when Tess is set, but isn't it possible that "smells like whale" is shorthand for "smells like whale oil"? I expect that by 1891, kerosene had probably replaced whale oil most places, but it probably would have been a familiar smell in the nineteenth century.

    The polar horror section reads a lot like Poe's Arthur Gordon Pym - how likely is it that Hardy read that?

  9. Smells like whale oil, smells like polar bear oil, smells like iceberg oil - maybe!

    I don't know if Hardy read Poe, but I do know that people who enjoy Poe and Lovecraft and the "weird tale" tradition are cheating themselves if they don't read Tess of the d'Urbervilles. The Stonehenge scene, the sleepwalking scene, the "layer of live rats" - this is that kind of book, among other kinds.

  10. Those are some deliciously bad sentences. They really do look like they were just place markers that never got edited.

  11. Place markers - yes, sometimes they really do look like that. I doubt they are, but they look like it.

  12. AR(T), not to trust writers and to keep looking them in the eye at all times is the right course of action. After all, when those suckers are not trying to grab us and shake us (like Elizabeth Costello), they're trying to break open the frozen sea of our hearts with their axes (as if we were characters inside Sorokin's Ice, oh the nerve!).

  13. Exactly, I gotta keep dodging that ax.

  14. I have read Tess twelve times. I have not felt compelled to read of Henry James' novels more than once. Enough said, but . . . I have seen no writing here than even matches Hardy's worst.

  15. I have had similar challenges learning to read Hardy and James. As different as they are, so different, they both have aspects of style that signify as bad writing to me.

    What you see at Wuthering Expectations is more or less the process by which I learn to read them - to look past the signifiers.