Review of Paula Byrne’s “Hardy Women”: The Convergence of Romance and Reality
It is likely that Thomas Hardy would have strongly disliked this book. At the age of 70, Hardy, who was known for his secretive nature, burned old documents such as letters, diaries, and manuscripts in his garden. This was due to his fear and distrust caused by the release of a biography that portrayed him in a negative light. He expressed his outrage in the margins, stating that the book was too personal and distasteful, even though it was not entirely accurate.
He decided to take over the story by using a clever tactic to make it appear as though he played no part in it. He penned his autobiography in third person, intending for it to be published after his death and credited to his second wife, Florence. In this account, he clearly expressed his belief that poetry is the combination of natural emotion and learned structure.
The metric is responsible for transforming the mundane or unpleasant debris of daily life into lasting forms. There will be no exploration of this intricate and mysterious process here. Instead, this is a shamelessly personal investigation of Hardy, an effort to uncover the true passions that may have inspired his profound, unforgettable, and surprisingly modern work. It may be considered too personal and in poor taste, but it sheds light on the difficult and complicated lives of Victorian women from the working class – the milkmaids, servants, and teachers that Hardy boldly placed at the forefront of his world.
His life story was well known. He was born poor and died a successful writer, so much so that even the Prince of Wales visited him for lunch. His first wife, Emma, supported him and gave him ideas during his early writing years, but was ignored as he gained fame. He neglected her birthday and excluded her from his books, causing her to angrily write, “He only understands the women he creates – not real women.” He then began a relationship with a younger woman, Florence, who moved in with Emma as her companion and secretary (Emma was upset when she noticed Hardy’s resemblance to the infamous wife-killer Dr Crippen). But after Emma’s death in 1912, Hardy’s feelings changed. He married Florence while writing poems expressing his longing and regret for the woman he had just buried.
Byrne’s book is a chronological record of all the females who have played a role in his life, ranging from those who have had a minimal impact to those who have been instrumental. This includes his mother, sisters, cousins, wives, and friends, as well as the female characters he has created, such as Bathsheba Everdene, who can be heard rustling her gown in the ferns; Tess, who exudes an innocent and sweet aura; and even Paula Power, who is depicted as gracefully moving through her gymnasium like a goldfish in a globe. As Byrne himself stated, Hardy shattered the stereotype of women in English literature and replaced it with complex and dynamic characters whose struggles and personalities are so vivid that they almost seem like real people.
Byrne’s attempts to draw a direct link between the realms of literature and real life may seem strained at times, displaying a confirmation bias where desired connections are always found but may not be truly enlightening. Her main assertion is that she has uncovered the subject of several of Hardy’s Wessex Poems, including Neutral Tones, which she sees as a tragic story similar to Miss Havisham’s in Dickens’ Great Expectations. This figure, Eliza Nicholls, is a complex character in Hardy’s studies. While it is highly likely that she was engaged to Hardy, the main evidence comes from a family anecdote passed down to a biographer by Nicholls’ niece, along with a photo of a young Hardy. In her 2006 biography, The Time-Torn Man, Claire Tomalin was cautious about placing too much emphasis on this evidence. Byrne’s use of more recent research on a coded diary suggests that Nicholls was the direct source and inspiration for writing that could be a product of imagination, personal desires, or a combination of both.
Florence expressed her dismay in a letter about the sorrowful poems her new husband, Hardy, was writing for his former despised lover. She saw it as a personal failure that her husband would publish such a melancholic book. In a more bitter tone, she noted that Hardy’s writing of poetry was always a sign of his well-being, and this particular poem was exceedingly dismal.
I am not an impartial observer in this situation. The second Mrs. Hardy, who had a somber expression, was my grandmother’s aunt. When I first began my career as a journalist, I happened to have lunch next to a highly esteemed writer. Our discussion shifted to Hardy and I mentioned that I was related to Florence. To this, she responded, “The one who murdered all her previous cats?” She had just read about Florence’s supposed “putsch” in The Time-Torn Man. After that, I learned not to rely on my family connection to Hardy.
I am pleased that Byrne believes Florence had too strong of a love for animals to harm her competitor’s cats. However, I would still prefer to read the novels rather than contemplate their initial inspirations. Hardy’s greatest works lie in the women he created.