Why Thomas Hardy gave up fiction writing

Either I skipped Thomas Hardy’s April 1912 postcript to the preface of Jude the Obscure when I first read the novel, or I was less fascinated at twenty-one with the effect of criticism on novelists. Probably I skipped it, though. Creative paralysis has always interested me.

Some writers are so assured of their brilliance and vision and way with language that they literally spit on their detractors and then pump out yet another novel featuring the same protagonist. (Beware, Michiko Kakutani.) Others, like Hardy, are so disheartened or disgusted by criticism that they end up abandoning fiction writing entirely. Here’s most of the postcript:

The issue of this book sixteen years ago, with the explanatory Preface given above, was followed by unexpected incidents, and one can now look back for a moment at what happened. Within a day or two of its publication the reviewers pronounced upon it in tones to which the reception of Tess of the d’Urbervilles bore no comparison, though there were two or three dissentients from the chorus. This salutation of the story in England was instantly cabled to America, and the music was reinforced on that side of the Atlantic in a shrill crescendo.

In my own eyes the sad feature of the attack was that the greater part of the story — that which presented the shattered ideals of the two chief characters, and had been more especially, and indeed almost exclusively, the part of interest to myself — was practically ignored by the adverse press of the two countries; the while that some twenty or thirty pages of sorry detail deemed necessary to complete the narrative, and show the antitheses in Jude’s life, were almost the sole portions read and regarded. And curiously enough, a reprint the next year of a fantastic tale that had been published in a family paper some time before, drew down upon my head a continuation of the same sort of invective from several quarters.

So much for the unhappy beginning of Jude’s career as a book. After these verdicts from the press its next misfortune was to be burnt by a bishop — probably in his despair at not being able to burn me.

Then somebody discovered that Jude was a moral work — austere in its treatment of a difficult subject — as if the writer had not all the time said that it was in the Preface. Thereupon many uncursed me, and the matter ended, the only effect of it on human conduct that I could discover being its effect on myself — the experience completely curing me of further interest in novel-writing.

One incident among many arising from the storm of words was that an American man of letters, who did not whitewash his own morals, informed me that, having bought a copy of the book on the strength of the shocked criticisms, he read on and on, wondering when the harmfulness was going to begin, and at last flung it across the room with execrations at having been induced by the rascally reviewers to waste a dollar-and-half on what he was pleased to call “a religious and ethical treatise.”

I sympathized with him, and assured him honestly that the misrepresentations had been no collusive trick of mine to increase my circulation among the subscribers to the papers in question.

Then there was the case of the lady who having shuddered at the book in an influential article bearing intermediate headlines of horror, and printed in a world-read journal, wrote to me shortly afterwards that it was her desire to make my acquaintance.

To return, however, to the book itself. The marriage laws being used in great part as the tragic machinery of the tale, and its general drift on the domestic side tending to show that, in Diderot’s words, the civil law should be only the enunciation of the law of nature (a statement that requires some qualifications, by the way), I have been charged since 1895 with a large responsibility in this country for the present “shop-soiled” condition of the marriage theme (as a learned writer characterized it the other day). I do not know. My opinion at that time, if I remember rightly, was what it is now, that a marriage should be dissolvable as soon as it becomes a cruelty to either of the parties — being then essentially and morally no marriage — and it seemed a good foundation for the fable of a tragedy, told for its own sake as a presentation of particulars containing a good deal that was universal, and not without a hope that certain cathartic, Aristotelian qualities might be found therein….

Artistic effort always pays heavily for finding its tragedies in the forced adaptation of human instincts to rusty and irksome moulds that do not fit them. To do Bludyer and the conflagratory bishop justice, what they meant seems to have been only this: “We Britons hate ideas, and we are going to live up to that privilege of our native country. Your pictures may not show the untrue, or the uncommon, or even be contrary to the canons of art; but it is not the view of life that we who thrive on conventions can permit to be painted.”

But what did it matter. As for the matrimonial scenes, in spite of their “touching the spot,” and the screaming of a poor lady in Blackwood that there was an unholy anti-marriage league afoot, the famous contract — sacrament I mean — is doing fairly well still; and people marry and give in what may or may not be true marriage as light-heartedly as ever. The author has even been reproached by some earnest correspondents that he has left the question where he found it, and has not pointed the way to a much-needed reform.

After the issue of Jude the Obscure as a serial story in Germany, an experienced reviewer of that country informed the writer that Sue Bridehead, the heroine, was the first delineation in fiction of the woman who was coming into notice in her thousands every year — the woman of the feminist movement — the slight, pale “bachelor” girl — the intellectualized, emancipated bundle of nerves that modern conditions were producing, mainly in cities as yet; who do not recognize the necessity for most of her sex to follow marriage as a profession, and boast themselves as superior people because they are licensed to be loved on the premises. The regret of this critic was that the portrait of the newcomer had been left to be drawn by a man, and was not done by one of her own sex, who would never have allowed her to break down at the end.

Whether this assurance is borne out by dates I cannot say. Nor am I able, across the gap of years since the production of the novel, to exercise more criticism upon it of a general kind than extends to a few verbal corrections, whatever, good or bad, it may contain. And no doubt there can be more in a book than the author consciously puts there, which will help either to its profit or to its disadvantage as the case may be.

The image of St. Michael’s Church, Stinsford, was taken from an online pictorial tour of Hardy country. Hardy’s heart is buried in the church graveyard; the rest of his body lies in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey.


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