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  1. As a teenager I found Thomas Hardy's major novels totally absorbing, his rural world totally different from the one I was growing up in, his characters totally engaging in their humility and their simplicity. Where Dickens seemed hard going (particularly Hard Times, the first one we had foisted on us at school) and sometimes recklessly over the top, Hardy's gentle rustic realism always seemed that much more believable. This flawlessly researched and meticulously written biography has taken me back to Hardy's world, all that stuff about the pathos underlying the grandeur and the grandeur underlying the pathos (I think that's how it was encapsulated somewhere...) The major novels will all have to be shifted on to the re-read pile now... But, as befits a biographical approach, it is Hardy the man who comes astonisinghly to life in these pages, and he comes over as a man racked with contradictions, a man who rose up above, even rebelled against, his humble background, and yet never quite forgave himself for doing so. A God-fearing atheist as well (in rather the same way in which Byron has been decribed as a revolutionary aristocrat). The only one of four children not to heed his mother's advice never to marry, remaining steadfastly loyal to his first wife while often cordially detesting her, and never quite coming to terms with the way he was, basically, manipulated into a second marriage by a woman nearly forty years his junior. Claire Tomalin has already written critically acclaimed biographies of, among others, Shelley, Katherine Mansfield, Jane Austen and Samuel Pepys. Her style is smooth and polished, with just the odd surprising jagged edge sticking out, as when she comes to Jude The Obscure: I well remember the unbearably depressing effect of reading Jude, but I would never have expressed that effect with quite such a simile. Tomalin also strikes me as rather too simplistic in her division of certain of the novels into "masterpieces" and "failures" (with Two On A Tower, about which she seems unable to make up her mind, classed as an "interesting oddity"). After the scandalised reception of Jude The Obscure in 1895, Hardy turned definitively away from the novel and devoted the last thirty years of his life to poetry, new and old (some of it having been written many years prior to publication). Tomalin draws attention to the enormous variety to be found within the poetry, and singles out highly acclaimed poems such as "The Darkling Thrush" and "The Ruined Maid", a highly amusing dialogue between a naïve former acquaintance and a countrygirl-turned-harlot: The epilogue to the biography concentrates, unexpectedly, on the wrangling over where Hardy should be buried: with his family, as he had stipulated, or in Westminster Abbey, as his influential friends thought appropriate (in brazen defiance of Hardy's own will and testament). The way the dispute was resolved is the most shocking revelation in the biography (and I still can't quite believe what I read in those final pages...) I've always had reservations about biography, thinking that the life of a human being, especially a creative one, is so complex that any attempt to present it will either just scratch the surface or else be too obviously subjective in its approach - or even both. But this one has made me start to think otherwise. Tomalin is indeed, as one reviewer puts it, "the most empathetic of biographers", and I look forward to getting to know Jane Austen, and possibly Katherine Mansfield, in her genial company.
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