… Hardy was a somewhat reluctant painter of modern life, both drawn to city life and repelled by it. He couldn’t really imagine or bear the idea of congested London without the idea of his childhood landscape as release. Out of that pulsation, Ford argues, was born ‘the concept of Wessex’: the rural scene, eternal but eternally threatened by overweening urbanism, the pastoral redoubt far from the madding crowd, where Hardy could ‘know some liberty’, as he puts it in his poem ‘Wessex Heights’. Ford reminds us that in the maps of Wessex that Hardy drew and which were first included in the 1895-96 edition of his fiction, there are no railways, despite the many appearances of trains in his work: in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, ‘modern life’ is described as stretching out its ‘steam feeler to this point three or four times a day’ and quickly withdrawing, as if what it found there was ‘uncongenial’. Wessex was where Hardy could stage his feeling for cosmic conservatism; a late formulation appears in ‘In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”’, written in 1915, which pits the Continental catastrophe of the Great War against the longer histories of the English countryside, peopled by ‘a maid and her wight’: ‘War’s annals will cloud into night/Ere their story die.’ If Hardy was half a modern Londoner, the other half had a weakness for the pastoral-oracular. The two halves changed shape, feeding and modifying each other.
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
… James Wood reviews ‘Thomas Hardy’ by Mark Ford — LRB 15 June 2017. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)