Barnes and Hardy revisited

Rereading my blog, it could give the impression that I want to nudge Barnes and Hardy in the direction of socialist realism, which wasn’t my intention.

From Alan Chedzoy’s “The People’s Poet”’, I understand that Barnes’ social position was more marginal than Hardy’s. His father John apparently described himself in an early census as “a labourer in husbandry” (the date 1801 is given which seems very early for such individual details in a census). Chedzoy describes Barnes’ and his wife’s struggle to make a living from running schools in Mere and Dorchester. How Barnes tried to stabilise his social position by taking a degree in divinity at Cambridge and the price paid by his overworked wife in poor health and the negative effect on their school of Barnes’ prolonged absences for study.

Chedzoy describes the conflict between the need for the Barnes to attract “middle class” parents to place their children in a school run by a family whose social status was dubious and the effect of Barnes’ ideas, his enthusiasm for the Dorset dialect, regarded in polite society as vulgar, and willingness to participate in the educational activities of an aspiring working class, activities frowned on by the burgess.

However, the contours of established society in Dorchester seem vague to me from my reading. Being the county town, there must have been a layer of people of higher social rank – judges, the military, lawyers etc. as well as the old landowning aristocracy. given Victorian England’s version of the caste system, this layer would not be on calling terms with the broad layer of folk in trade, which encompassed Barnes (just about) and Hardy’s families. Which children did Barnes cater for in his school – presumably those of the traders; it’s not clear to me after reading Chedzoy’s book although I’d need a second careful reading to be sure.

Thomas Hardy’s father was a mason. Hardy was assisted by a genteel lady (as well as his mother with a remarkable breadth of interest) but the contours of Dorchester society in descriptions of Hardy’s younger days are vague. The picture of the intellectually ambitious Hardy discussing theology and the classics with friends such as the tragic Horace Moule, the vicar’s son and others is attractive. I think, however, that Hardy’s lack of a university education cast a shadow on his work; his novels contain not a few biblical and classical references that I find superfluous but which might indicate that Hardy felt he needed to demonstrate his learning.

Hardy, the man of Dorset, also spent long periods each year in London where he obviously enjoyed being feted by the “cream of society” His life seems fragmented between Dorset and London so that it was perhaps appropriate that his remains were divided up, the heart returning to Dorset while the remainder made for the Abbey. It was not a solution desired by Hardy; I find it distasteful.

He is often sympathetic towards the common folk, although I don’t always enjoy his occasional use of them for comic relief. His positive characters are those who rise above their lowly station through personal qualities (Gabriel Oak, perhaps Farfrae) or make the effort but fail such as Jude, victim of his Achilles penis, negative towards the nouveau riche (D’Urberville). But the emphasis as I wrote earlier is on the individual, never on individuals working together to improve their lot in these turbulent times as England industrialised and the poor became separated from their means of production. I would argue that his vision of the common people is partial and romantised.

But I still think Hardy is a great novelist, even if he, like us all, is a product of his social circumstances. I was attracted by him from my school’s soft intro of Under the Greenwood Tree and had read most of his other novels by the time I left for university. I loved his descriptions of West Country nature, his architect’s eye for shape and space, familiar to me as I walked and cycled around my village on the fringe of Blackmore vale. And the stoic grimness of the fate of his characters (those not blessed with a happy ending). I wasn’t so fond of his melodrama, perhaps a side-effect of serialisation. And I greatly disliked the descriptions of his first marriage with Emma Gifford, a romance that ended in a long drawn-out death in life at Max Gate before she actually died, but that was later when I hit the lit crit.

And I suppose he struck a social chord, a young man in the country but not completely of it, who aspired to the world of ideas and wanted to move beyond his origins before later returning as  a successful writer. I’ve re-read his novels as an adult but want to do so again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.