Thomas Hardy the Novelist: The Origins of his ‘Pessimism’


Professor Ralph Pite, Department of English, Uniersity of Bristol

19 January 2010

This article, though a report of Professor Ralph Pite’s 2010 talk on Hardy (the first on this author at the BRLSI) is the work of the Convenor, Dr Robert Blackburn, and includes much material not mentioned or discussed in the talk 


In 1895-6, in his 56th year, Thomas Hardy wrote three of his most sombre poems, which came soon after the darkest of all his novels, Jude the Obscure, had been published to general horror and condemnation. He entitled them In Tenebris I to III, prefacing each with a quotation from the psalms. In the second of these, Hardy feels himself out of joint with the majority, who seem to feel that ‘things are all as they best may be,’ that ‘nothing much is the matter’. In the last stanza, Hardy says that in that case he would be best out of the way:

Let him in whose ears the low-voiced Best is killed

            by the clash of the First,

Who holds that if way to the Better there be, it exacts

            a full look at the Worst,

Who feels that delight is a delicate growth cramped

            by crookedness, custom and fear,

Get him up and be gone as one shaped awry;

            he disturbs the order here.

In one sense this last stanza, in particular that second line, was the basic text or premise of Professor Ralph Pite’s talk. His distinguished, very readable and thoroughly-researched biography of Hardy, Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life, appeared in 2006, more or less at the same time as Claire Tomalin’s Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man. Both were well received, though Ms Tomalin’s study gained more attention at the time, perhaps because of her wider reputation.  Claire Tomalin’s emphasis is on Hardy the poet, particularly the flood of verse written in the wake of his first wife Emma’s death in 1912,following years of virtual silence between them, and serious neglect of Emma by Hardy. Both biographies followed in a fine tradition of British Hardy scholars over the past fifty or sixty years. These include such names as Richard L. Purdy, J.I.M. Stewart, Robert Gittings, Michael Millgate, Simon Gatrell, Ian Gregor, Rosemary Sumner, Martin Seymour Smith, Patricia Ingham, F.B. Pinion and Barbara Hardy.

Hardy aged about 35; he wore a beard until the 1890s


Emma Lavinia Gifford aged 30

Ralph Pite surveyed Hardy’s life and achievement from the standpoint of the latest scholarship, and in part from the perspective of the novelist’s frequently pointed-out leanings towards a pessimistic world-view, especially as he grew older—even though hardy himself preferred the description ‘meliorist’. F.B. Pinion (A Hardy Companion, 1968, p.178) quotes Hardy’s 1904 conversation with the Ibsen advocate and translator William Archer, insisting that he did not feel that the world was ‘going to the dogs’. His so-called ‘pessimism’, Hardy argued, was a plea against ‘man’s inhumanity to man, and to woman, as well as to the lower animals’. He believed in charity and ‘loving kindness’ to counteract the suffering and cruelty he saw throughout society. In this view, Hardy was influenced deeply by the great collisions between traditional religious attitudes and the scientific revolution, including Darwinism, which was taking place during his lifetime. As Ralph Pite observes at the close of his biography, for all his obvious faults as a man, especially his poor treatment of both his wives, Hardy ‘was no hypocrite. He sought to be gentle and kind, and he knew how hard that was.’ (Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life, p.474)

Pinion refers (op. cit. p.179) to the John Galsworthy quotation which Hardy kept near his desk at Max Gate, his home from 1885, near Dorchester. The conclusion of this is that optimists on the whole avoid looking at life as it really is, but that a pessimist is ‘someone who can not only bear the world as it actually is, but loves it well enough to draw it faithfully.’ In this context, he felt, optimists were self-deceivers, As he passed his sixtieth birthday in 1900, Hardy hoped and expected the Boer War (1899-1901) to be the last big international conflict. This war stimulated some of his finest poetry. In his great Napoleonic epic drama The Dynasts, of 1902-1908 (which he regarded as his most important work, but which is now little read) Hardy developed a sense of searching for lasting peace after a long period of internecine, destructive strife. The Dynasts ends in hope. But from the autumn of 1914, an elderly man now, Hardy observed the course of the Great War, like everyone else, with dismay and despair, powerless to act. After 1918 he became a keen supporter of what was later to become the League of Nations, hoping (vainly, as it turned out) for an end to aggressive nationalism.

Thomas Hardy’s spectral vision of destruction and his sense of the impediment of fate came to him early in life, and never left him. It forms the background to all his novels. He shared this preoccupation with a number of other figures among them Matthew Arnold, Edward Fitzgerald and Francis Thompson. As Lord David Cecil put it, back in 1843 ‘… since the world Hardy looked at seemed so full of pain and disappointment, then…. pain and disappointment were outstanding characteristics of human existence… the thoughtful person saw himself swept upwards from darkness to darkness, like a straw on a torrent, by a ruthless, mysterious and ignoble force.’ (David Cecil: Hardy the Novelist, 1943,pp.20-21)

Yearning for religious certainty from an early age, Hardy drifted further and further away from it. He began as an Anglican, steeped in the Bible and church ritual. However, he ended his days as an unrepentant atheist, swearing that ‘God is a monster and a burglar’. Hardy is quoted as saying, sourly, that ‘I have been looking for God for fifty years, and I think that if he existed, I should have discovered him.’ (qu. by J.I.M. Stewart, ‘Hardy’ in Eight Modern Writers, 1963, p.21)



All writers on Hardy have had to take as their starting-point The Life of Thomas Hardy (1930 and 1932), largely dictated or written by him, but published under the name of his second wife, Florence Hardy, nee Dugdale. Since the letters and papers of Hardy mostly went up in flames during and after his death in a series of bonfires at Max Gate, piecing together the ‘truth’ as against Hardy’s selective and biased account in the Life has always been a difficult one for scholars. Hardy copied chosen extracts from his notebooks, then destroyed the originals. Centrally concerned with ‘image-making’ for posterity (how he would have enjoyed the modern term) and with the manufacture of a ‘marketable public persona’, Hardy made sure that his autobiography was an arranged one.  In his talk Ralph Pite rightly stressed the danger of overemphasising the coherence of a life when writing a biography, and especially the life of a man so addicted to massive secrecy as Hardy.  Ralph Pite spoke of the portrait of the author on the cover of Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life. This portrait in oils is in the National Portrait Gallery, and is by William Strang (1859-1921), showing Hardy in 1893 (still aged only 53) with receding hairline, Elgar-like moustache, and a melancholy expression, looking downwards and avoiding eye contact. Another William Strang portrait of Hardy, a drawing this time, is on the cover of Claire Tomalin’s biography. This shows the writer looking out at the viewer, but with a withdrawn, sceptical, un-engaged expression.  These images contrast sharply with the bearded, confident ‘John Bull’ photographs of Hardy aged 30 in 1870, when he was still a professional architect. Drawings of Emma by Hardy and of Hardy by Emma have survived from the time of their courtship in the early 1870s, but Emma destroyed their letters - though not her honeymoon diary of 1874.

The lifetime of Thomas Hardy coincided with the development of the railway network in Britain. Travelling by train, mainly between Dorset and London, played a significant part in his life. Ralph Pite, who also published a Geography of Hardy’s Wessex in 2002, writes eloquently in his Hardy biography on this subject, as he does on the roads, lanes and hedgerows around Dorchester, well-versed as he is in the physicality of the Hardy landscapes.  He emphasised that the main railway route was from Swindon to Weymouth, replacing the old coach road. After the building of the broad-gauge GWR in the 1830s, standard gauge options further south could have followed the ‘coastal route’ (i.e. the old coach road) or what was called the ‘central route’, from London to Exeter by way of Salisbury and Yeovil. This was the chosen line.  Dorchester was thus bypassed, and as Ralph Pite points out in the first chapter of his life of Hardy, the town ‘became a dead end’. The railway was never extended properly to the west beyond Dorchester, though it did reach Bridport by 1857. The main issue here was that Dorset, already one of the remotest parts of southern England, became comparatively still more of a backwater in Hardy’s lifetime. One feels that this is how the natives of Dorset, and the town and city newcomers retiring there, wanted it to be. It helped to develop the image of ‘Wessex’ as the background for all Hardy’s novels in the manner which, over the years, he wished to cultivate.

Hardy’s life in London never really provided what he had hoped for, namely social success on the wider stage, and admiration from his metropolitan constituency of middle-class readers. Emma was never happy there. The couple withdrew to Dorset in 1885, though still made journeys to the capital from Max Gate for years afterwards. Referring to The Mayor of Casterbridge, Pite rightly observes:

By the time he came back to live in Dorchester, Hardy was a middle-class professional, with an RP accent and London connections. Henchard’s rustic style, his down-right manner, his doggedness and his cunning, though

they were part of Hardy, were part of his past.

                                                          (Pite, op.cit. p.22)

Ralph Pite also observes that Farfrae represents the more clubbable, sociable side of Hardy, together with his literary productiveness and reliability over delivery dates.

Florence Dugdale in 1910 aged 31


Hardy in old age

A sense of geological time is to be found in Hardy’s novels, a sense of the utter insignificance of the ‘momentary fragments of time in our lives’, as social forces bear down inexorably on the individual, and ‘fate’ determines destiny.  This feeling is evident at least from A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) onwards. It is shown profoundly in The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) and reaches its climax both in Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) and, in an extreme form, in Jude the Obscure (1895). Here, one feels, the truth of David Cecil’s comment that in Jude, Hardy’s essentially fanciful imagination finally ran riot, and that as the grim story progresses; he falls into ‘a whirlpool of macabre fantasy’. This for all that Hardy genuinely:                   

… stirred up by the sufferings of working men with intellectual aspirations and uncomfortably warm sexual temperaments, wished to write a book bringing home these sufferings to others. And is therefore at pains to give an accurate presentation of such a life.  (Cecil, op. cit., p.124)

Many have felt, even in our own time, that the unrelieved darkness and bitterness of Jude the Obscure carries Hardy’s art several steps too far. The anger against Christminster (Oxford) and the world of learning was an obsession of the author which ran away with him, and spread unchecked through the tragedy of Jude’s life. The boy Jude is sent out into the fields, where the farmer insults him and shouts at him. Thus the story begins, as it ends, in pain and violence. Arabella Doan is the most dislikeable female among Hardy’s gallery of fine women characters, but Sue Bridehead's despairing return to her husband, who is physically repellent to her, finally lacks credibility. So to a great extent does the climactic catastrophe of Little Father Time’s murder of Sue’s two children, followed by his own suicide. This appalled everyone in 1895, and still does. The tone of Jude is expressed in the notion that ‘ there is no advantage in wealth or success, because in the end we all die.’ There is here a whiff of Tolstoy, twelve years Hardy’s senior, whose European reputation was soaring in the two decades before his death in 1910. Hardy in Jude was angrily compared in most of the reviews, not of course with Tolstoy, but with Emile Zola (La Terre, Germinal, L’Assommoir) as the leading French ‘Naturalist’, though Hardy himself firmly stated that he was not an admirer of Zola’s work, finding him too material and ‘animalistic’.

As Ralph Pite has pointed out, the influence of Ibsen on Jude was stronger. Hardy’s great friend Edmund Gosse was a leading Ibsen admirer, along with William Archer, who also liked Jude on its appearance.  Hardy had seen Gosse’s version of Hedda Gabler on stage in London in 1891 and 1893, together with Rosmersholm and the Master Builder. Hardy was greatly disappointed by Gosse’s dislike of Jude. This topic is discussed at length in Pite’s Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life, pp. 358-360. Pite also points out ‘the powerful erotic effect which drama always had on him’ (ibid., p.452).  He draws attention to  the uncanny parallels between the plot of The Master Builder and Hardy’s real-life infatuation with the London society beauty and author Florence Heniker (1855-1923) - an infatuation unreciprocated in the physical terms that Hardy wanted. His relationship with Florence Heniker continued as a long-term close friendship, and one could say that Hardy was very fortunate to enjoy Florence’s admiration, from within the safety of her existing marriage, which she had no wish to destroy. At the height of his passion for Mrs Heniker, Hardy is quoted as saying, in August 1893, that he believed in a social system based on individual spontaneity, and that rather than have everyone forced to live under a standard morality and code of behaviour, the society of each country should be divided into ‘groups of temperaments’, with a different code of behaviour for each. This was advanced thinking for the 1890s, however flawed the idea behind it may have been. (See Pite, op. cit. p.361)

As I said at the outset, Hardy’s gloom reached its peak soon after the completion and publication of Jude the Obscure, in all three of the In Tenebris poems. The third of them, headed by a sombre quotation from Psalm 119, begins:

There have been times when I well might have passed

            and the ending have come -

Point in my path when the dark might have stolen on me,

            artless unrueing -

Ere I had learnt that the world was a welter of futile doing:

Such had been times when I well might have passed,

            and the ending have come!


The following drawings, plans and photographs were shown:

  1. Hardy’s professional designs for spacious town houses, consisting of basement, ground floor, first floor and second floor
  2. Emma Gifford as a young woman
  3. Emma Hardy towards the end of her life
  4. Florence Dugdale (1879-1937), Hardy’s second wife
  5. Hardy and Florence in the late 1920s
  6. Gertrude Bugler, who played Tess in the dramatisation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles in Dorchester in 1924, having earlier (at 16) played Marty South (The Woodlanders) and then Eustacia Vye (The Return of the Native). Hardy, in old age, sadly became infatuated with the young Gertrude, much to Florence’s inevitable distress. It isn’t surprising that no photograph of Florence shows her smiling, or even moderately pleased with life.
  7. Thomas Hardy in his maturity; portrait by Elliott and Fry
  8. Drawing by Hardy, ‘View from my window’, in London, June 22, 1866, at 8.30pm
  9. Hardy’s mother Jemima Hand, d. 1904, aged 91 (Hardy was then 64)
  10. Hardy’s father, Thomas Hardy senior, d. 1892, aged 81 (Hardy was then 52)
  11. Watercolour view of Dorchester

An excellent range of illustrations can be found in both Claire Tomalin’s and Ralph Pite’s biographies of Hardy.


Bibliographical Note

Any reader seeking out Hardy the man and writer for the first time would do well to have both Ralph Pite’s Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life (Picador, 2006) and Claire Tomalin’s: Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man (Penguin,2006) to hand. They complement one another admirably. Their bibliographies, though significantly different, overlap, and are fascinating subjects of study in themselves. Pite refers to the back numbers of The Thomas Hardy Journal as providing ‘a wealth of detail, both anecdotal and scholarly’; this goes unmentioned in Ms Tomalin’s Hardy biography. Happily, despite the Max Gate bonfires, plenty of Hardy original source material survives. Some of it is in America, it is true, but most of it is in Britain, especially in such places as the British Library, Eton College Library and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, though the biggest collection is to be found in the Dorset County Museum, Dorchester. A key publication was The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy (ed. R.L. Purdy and Michael Millgate), 7 volumes, Oxford U.P., 1978-1988. Hardy’s Personal Notebooks (ed. R.H. Taylor) were published by Macmillan in 1978, and his Literary Notebooks (ed. L.A.Bjork, in two volumes) also by Macmillan in 1985. It seems that more material escaped the great burning of the 1920s than had been thought.

Key earlier biographies are:

  • Robert Gittings: Young Thomas Hardy - Heinemann 1975
  • Robert Gittings: The Older Hardy - Heinemann 1978
  • Michael Millgate: Thomas Hardy; A Biography - Oxford 1982; revised as Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revisited - Oxford 2004
  • F.B. Pinion: A Hardy Companion: A Guide to the Works of Thomas Hardy and their Background - Macmillan 1968
  • Michael Millgate has edited the ghosted autobiography, originally published in two volumes in 1928 and 1930 under the name of F.E. Hardy, as the Life and Work of Thomas Hardy, by Thomas Hardy, Macmillan 1984

Also recommended:

  • Patricia Ingham: Thomas Hardy (Authors in Context series) - Oxford, 2003
  • Dale Kramer (ed.): The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy - Cambridge, 1999
  • Hardy’s novels are reprinted by Penguin Classics (under the general editorship of Patricia Ingham) using the first versions of the novels, rather than Hardy’s later, revised editions; the differences are often substantial.

Dr Robert Blackburn