The road became a theatre for action in his imagination... CLAIRE TOMALIN on THOMAS HARDY
I've finished The Return Of The Native (Hardy's own personal favourite of his novels) and I'm now immersed in Claire Tomalin's excellent and very readable biography Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man (Viking, 2006). The blurb of this book presents Hardy as a paradoxical figure: one of the great Victorian novelists - and also one of the great twentieth-century poets ... a believer and an unbeliever, a socialist and a snob, an unhappy husband and a desolate widower; a driven man who who ended his days in simplicity and serenity. Simplicity and serenity. Not a bad way in which to end one's days.
Every day the boy Hardy walked the 3 miles from his family cottage in Higher Bockhampton to school in Dorchester and back. Later he did the same trip in his 1st job as an architect's apprentice. A keen observer of nature and of people, he took in everything he saw during these daily walks - and these details impressed themselves on his mind and found their way into many of his writings.
As Tomalin says early in her biography: Walking the roads, meeting others on the road, exchanging news with travellers, being overtaken by riders, carts and carriers, or offered lifts, were all part of his daily experience throughout his boyhood, so that it is not surprising that the road became a theatre for action in his imagination and walking a central activity in his writing, used dramatically and to establish or underline character. Most of his charcters are prodigious walkers. Tess and Jude both walk themselves through the crises in their lives, and Jude effectively kills himself by walking in the rain. Gabriel Oak walks to find work, and Fanny Robin walks through the snow to plead with her lover, and then drags herself along the road to the workhouse, leaning on an obliging dog, to die. Elfride in A Pair Of Blue Eyes runs 'through the pelting rain like a hare; or more like pheasant when, scampering away with a lowered tail, it has a mind to fly, but does not.' The newly-wed lovers in Two On A Tower walk nine miles across country to a railway station to avoid being noticed. The Hand Of Ethelberta opens with Ethelberta, a young widow, taking a solitary walk on a heath, where she sees a wild duck being pursued by a hawk, runs after the birds to see what will happen and loses her way. At the beginning of The Mayor Of Casterbridge, Henchard is shown on the road, his character to be read not in his words but his walk: 'his measured springless walk was the walk of the skilled country man as distinct from the desultory shamble of the general labourer; while in the turn and plant of each foot there was, further, a dogged and cynical indifference, personal to himself.' And at the end of the book he leaves Casterbridge on foot, a diminishing figure going into the distance, and observed in fine detail: 'the yellow straw basket at his back moving up and down with each tread, and the creases behind his knees coming and going alternately.' In The Return Of The Native, Mrs Yeobright recognizes a distant, anonymous furze-cutter simply by his walk: 'a gait she had seen somewhere before; and the gait revelaed the man to her... "His walk is exactly as my husband's used to be," she said; and then the thought burst upon her that the furze-cutter was her son.'
(Claire Tomalin has also written acclaimed biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley, Dickens, Katherine Mansfield, Jane Austen and Samuel Pepys. She is married to the playwright, novelist and translator Michael Frayn.)