We think of Thomas Hardy as a country man but London made him – and kept luring him back
During the autumn of 1866, the 26-year-old not-yet-published writer Thomas Hardy had a nightly appointment at Old St Pancras Churchyard in London.
Earlier in the century, Shelley and his lover Mary had met here for secret trysts. Hardy had a stranger mission. With the approach of the Midland Railway line into St Pancras, thousands of coffins and corpses had to be removed. This was partly the responsibility of Hardy’s employer, the architect Arthur Blomfield, who had allocated his young clerk the task of checking that the exhumations were being carried out “decently”. Each night Hardy brooded on poetry and mortality as he waited for the bones to emerge from the ground. One evening they found a man who appeared to have two heads.
Hardy had moved to London a few months earlier from Dorset, armed cautiously with a return ticket. This was the old quest for fame and fortune: a public pursuit of architecture and a private pursuit of poetry. He failed noticeably at both but developed a personal ambivalence towards the metropolis that would be crucial to his work for the rest of his life.
He was tempted by the city: by the mysterious women who passed him in the streets, by the possibilities of bustling drawing-rooms. But he disliked crowds, hating to be touched by strangers, and could never rid himself of the thought that the collective life of the city was “a molluscous black creature having nothing in common with humanity”.
The poet and literary critic Mark Ford argues convincingly here that the Hardy industry in Dorset has obscured the importance of London to both his work and his life. Ford mingles literary criticism, biography and psychogeography to give a portrait both of Hardy’s London and of London’s Hardy. His passages on the novels and poems are dazzling and insightful but they may be too detailed for some readers. If you stick with them, though, you will find that even texts you didn’t think of as urban begin to feel more metropolitan.
“Londoners will drink it at their breakfasts tomorrow, won’t they?” Tess asks Angel as they deliver the milk to the train from their rural dairy. They will indeed, but only, he informs her, once its strength has been lowered, “so that it may not get up into their head’’.
Often, the tension between lovers or would-be lovers in Hardy’s fictions arise because of a tension between town and city: the rural Jude is thwarted by the maddening urban poise of Sue in Jude the Obscure; the city-soiled Jocelyn seeks redemption with the rustic Avice in The Well-Beloved.
Hardy himself broke the usual mould in becoming more enthusiastically urban as he became older. Although he and his wife, Emma, had first lived in the London suburb of Surbiton, then in Paddington after their wedding in 1874, they soon came to spend most of their time in Dorset. Both seem to have been happy with this. In his 50s and 60s, however, Hardy began to enjoy the literary soirées that he had disliked in his youth, before his fame was assured. He was also increasingly dependent on the city for erotic pleasure, though it seems to have been more mental than bodily.
As his marriage became more distant, he fell in love with a series of aristocratic young London writers, such as Rosamund Tomson, Agnes Grove and Florence Henniker. A few of these relationships bore fruit as romantic literary collaborations – he and Henniker co-authored a story, “The Spectre of the Real” – but none were consummated. These women were either less freethinking or less keen to “soothe a time-torn man” than Hardy had optimistically hoped they would be. In 1893 he complained to Henniker that he’d taken her for an “enfranchised woman”, but had discovered that she was conventionally “petty”.
It was only once Emma died that he could persuade one of them into his bed, marrying the 35-year-old Florence Dugdale in 1914 at the age of 74. After that, he had no more need for London. Florence was irritated that in his final years he eschewed it, waiting instead for his city friends to come to him.
Was Florence punishing her impossibly ambivalent husband when she agreed to the butchery of his body after his death? Perhaps she was simply giving a physical form to the mental division he had never managed to resolve in his lifetime. Either way, his heart was deposited beside his widow in a Dorset churchyard while the rest of his body found a more illustrious and more metropolitan home in Westminster Abbey.