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June 27-July 3, 2007

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'Varieties of Disturbance'

Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life
(Ralph Pite; Yale University Press; 522 pages; $35 cloth)

Thomas Hardy rates two chunky biographies in one year, for reasons as obscure as the title of Jude the Obscure (condemned when it was published, in 1895, as Jude the Obscene). BBC adapts him regularly, but no one has made a major movie out of a Hardy novel since 1979, when Roman Polanski put Nastassja Kinski through the ringer in Tess. Still, his life is intriguing in its length and in its variety of pursuits. Born in rural Dorset in 1840, Hardy lived deep into his 80s, dying in 1928. He worked as an architect into his 30s, when he started writing in earnest. His tales rely on his expansive memories of a pre–Industrial Revolution era of country life that was fading away as he started to chronicle it with great candor. Far From the Madding Crowd made him famous in 1874. He followed up with a syllabus worth of material: Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. The rants against the Zola-like realism and pessimistic fatalism of the last turned Hardy to poetry. Judging by the quotations provided by biographer Ralph Pite, Hardy should have stuck to his guns. Pite astutely charts the emotional vastations of this "bleak, stoical figure" with his "unflinching sense that many people's experience was and is desperate." Especially harrowing is the disintegration of Hardy's first marriage, which lingered for decades in bitter estrangement until 1912, when Emma Hardy died. Pite stints on literary analysis in favor of anecdotal detail about Hardy's difficult relationships with his various publishers. But he does offer some useful insights connecting Hardy's architectural work, which includes church restorations, with his estrangement from organized religion: "The new churches did not prove that things were getting better, only that the ruling class was stamping its authority on those beneath."

Review by Michael S. Gant


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