A COMPANION TO THOMAS HARDY by Keith Wilson, ed., Reviewed by Kristin Ross

Ed. Keith Wilson
(Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), pp. xiv + 488
Reviewed by Kristin Ross on 2009-10-16.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

With thirty critical essays from some of the most prominent experts in Hardy scholarship, in addition to Keith Wilson's provocative and concise introduction, this new book will inspire readers to return to the texts themselves. Taking on a literary figure as eclectic as Hardy is no mean feat. Since his writing career spanned sixty decades and crossed two tumultuous centuries, Hardy is something of a wanderer between two worlds. Given this liminality, it should come as no surprise that many of the contributors find him complex and paradoxical, that some find him intensely private or rebelliously equivocal, and that still others find him visually driven, verging on the cinematic, and even prefiguring technologies well ahead of his time. But Wilson's anthology and its authors probe further, plumbing Hardy with a depth and scope not to be found in previous Companions to his work.

Since Hardy successfully worked in two genres as well as two epochs, Wilson aims to close the rift in Hardy scholarship between those who see him as a novelist and those who see him as a poet. Wilson's stated purpose, to bring "the fiction and the verse into more seamless relationship with each other" (1), is a daunting undertaking, and the result is over 400 pages. This comprehensive collection is carved into five sections, covering Hardy's life, his intellectual context, his socio-cultural context, his works, and his relationship with Modernism. The Works section is the largest of all five, containing twelve chapters; the section on the Intellectual Context contains seven, though some do not easily fit this heading. Many of the chapters in the "Socio-Cultural Context" portion of the compilation offer basic readings of Hardy's texts, several from a refreshing interdisciplinary angle. Although shorter and less extensive companions, such as Dale Kramer's Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy, and student-oriented ones, such as Rosemarie Morgan's Student Companion to Thomas Hardy, have treated such categories, their range and their intended audience are, respectively, much more limited.

Two of the most compelling essays in the collection are George Levine's study of Hardy's debts to Darwin and Penny Boumelha's analysis of narrative technique in Return of the Native. Levine's impressive essay, which grows out of his recent book Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-enchantment of the World (Princeton UP, 2006), provides a novel look at Hardy's work. While accepting the critical consensus that Hardy was clearly susceptible to Darwin's ideas, Levine tracks "other ways to hear Darwin in Hardy's works" (36). Against the familiar charge that Darwin led Hardy into pessimism, Levine argues that Darwin gave him a sense of optimism. For Darwin, nature was secularly "enchanted." According to Levine, he and Hardy both saw narrative and potential in the natural world around them, and Hardy offered this "fullness" to his readers through his own art, even if the world represented by that art never realized such potential, an irony Levine shrewdly observes.

Penny Boumelha's contribution is likewise substantial. Always an astute observer of Hardy's narrators, she maintains that Return of the Native is indeterminate largely because Hardy's narrator is reluctant to intrude and interpret the events of the story (260). She observes that instead of "simply reporting the events of the narrative in the indicative, the narration continually interposes a chink of doubt: things 'seem' and appear' to be the case, observers hypothesize in conditional tenses, and the phrase 'it was as if' recurs with notable frequency" (236). Hardy also uses the voyeurism of characters in the novel (and inanimate objects) "supplemented by hypothetical eyes and conditional interpretations" to report on events rather than a narrator's commentary (257). Boumelha additionally notes that the novel has no "distanced and objective tone that characterizes the omniscient narrative mode typical of Victorian realism" (263). Such a narrative technique contributes to the novel's indeterminacy, and the absence of a "truth-voice" at its climax, she argues, gives the novel a multivalence. Her essay makes great strides in illuminating why Victorian response to the novel was less than enthusiastic and why it came very "close to failure, both commercially and critically" (254). Her essay is accessible and engaging.

Studies focused on Hardy's narrative technique also include Richard Nemesvari's contribution, one of the more theoretically driven arguments in Wilson's compilation. Examining generic hybridity in Hardy's fiction, Nemesvari perceptively suggests that Hardy's disruption of detached "realist rhetoric" with appeals for "affective response" by interweaving melodrama and sensationalism with realism helps him resist "the ideological purpose of nineteenth-century fiction" (105). Nemesvari demonstrates that Hardy's refusal to observe genre limitations destabilized Victorian reading audiences. Such disruptions, hybridity, and resistance reinforce the pervasive conclusion in Hardy studies that Hardy defies facile characterization. Turning to the complexity of Jude the Obscure, Dennis Taylor notes that Hardy's contradictions figure prominently in his treatment of religion as well as in his rendering of Wessex. Despite most critics' assumptions that Wessex is predominantly Protestant, Taylor persuasively argues that it is a "complicated historical entity for Hardy because of its contested religious description" (352), with elements of gothic Roman Catholicism and eighteenth-century Anglicanism as well as moderate Calvinism and secular humanism. Hardy's effort to incorporate these conflicting religious ideologies, Taylor concludes, serves the ends of tragedy in Jude. Taylor thus illuminates the seemingly chaotic religious world of Hardy's novel.

In her essay on Hardy and culture, Angelique Richardson explains that Hardy "turns to nature to produce culture, bringing the two into fertile reciprocity" (54). Tackling distinctions between nature and culture early on in the piece, she considers the role of education in producing culture as well as--with help from Darwin and Arnold--the role of instinct in nature. Hardy, she argues, recognized that culture could change nature, though clearly Hardy was uncomfortable with such alterations (57).

Turning from Hardy's novels to his often neglected short stories, Peter Widdowson considers the censorship Hardy endured from the Grundyism and prudery of Victorian reading audiences and of the editors who catered to them. Though Hardy frequently anticipated objections to his work before submitting it, he could not anticipate them all. Widdowson points out that the stories, "as much as if not more so than the novels, went through several textual incarnations between publication in various periodicals" (364). He observes that Hardy, anticipating objection to his content before submitting his work, removed it with the intention of replacing it in later editions. However, he also notes that Hardy sometimes defied his censors even more strenuously by restoring to later versions of his stories a more sexually explicit language than he wrote in an initial draft.

Expanding the range of the collection with a bibliographic essay on Hardy's notebooks, William Greenslade argues that although Hardy was justified in destroying the notebooks--"they were for his own purposes and not for the satisfaction of prospective readers" (100)--much of the rest of his work helps to reveal what drove Hardy. William W. Morgan's account of Hardy's poems also offers a wealth of resources for studying them. The sole essay on Hardy as biographical subject is contributed by Michael Millgate, whose Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (Macmillan, 1984) is the most extensive and authoritative biography we have, especially when supplemented by Millgate's Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revisited (Oxford UP, 2004). Helpfully recapitulating his own work as well as assessing some of the other resources available, Millgate explains how Hardy research is complicated by the intensity of his craving for privacy, by the destruction and reconstruction of his writing by various people close to Hardy (and their own respective authorial agendas), by the socio-cultural context in which Hardy lived, and by the burgeoning journalistic genre of the literary interview. Hardy's sensitivity to criticism and his social climbing, Millgate argues, caused him to manufacture a persona that may be decidedly difficult to align with the actual Hardy himself. William Morgan's essay also considers other versions of Hardy's life.

With something for both professional researchers and amateur Hardy enthusiasts, and with essays on his prose, poetry, and notebooks as well as his foray into drama, the breadth of this collection speaks to the diversity of Hardy's literary endeavors. But with just three essays focused on Hardy's poetry, the anthology puts most of its weight on his fiction. Curiously enough, however, none of the essays on Hardy's prose reviews the scholarship on it as Morgan has done with the scholarship on Hardy's poetry.

In the final section on Hardy's modernism, Hillis Miller shows how hands and handwriting in The Mayor of Casterbridge reveal the characteristic isolation of Modernism. But since Hardy's standing as a Modernist largely depends on his poetry, this section should have dealt more heavily with his poems. Only Charles Lock does so in his essay on Hardy and modern poetics. In the other essay in this section, Terry R.Wright tracks Hardy's influence in the works of D. H. Lawrence and John Cowper Powys, with most of the essay devoted to them and not to Hardy or his poetry.

Given the range and number of its essays as well as its treatment of those who influenced Hardy, such as Darwin and Mill, this book will be indispensable for anyone conducting research in the nineteenth-century novel or poetry or teaching in the area. It will serve established scholars, graduate students, and upper level undergraduates venturing into the rich world of Hardy. It will also provide those few remaining skeptics with ample evidence of Hardy's rightful place in the canon of authors who bestride the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


Kristin C. Ross is an Assistant Professor at Troy University-Dothan.

Leave a comment on Kristin Ross's review.


 Subscribe to RSS feed

Search NBOL-19.org