Why do I always forget to mention Thomas Hardy?

John Purcell reflects on the frustrations of drowning in honey.

It occurs to me that I never mention Thomas Hardy. When I rattle off the authors I love, my mind runs to George Eliot, George Meredith, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens quite easily and then I realise I have mentioned only nineteenth English authors and I quickly add Christina Stead, Willa Cather and I may if I have time throw in Thomas Mann and Ernest Hemingway. And there I stop. I know I have said both too much and not enough.

While I pause for breath I remember Clarissa and think of Samuel Richardson, Tom Jones and think of Henry Fielding. The name Richardson makes me think of Maurice Guest and I find myself moving from Henry Handel Richardson to George Johnston and Xavier Herbert. And then I realise that I haven’t been paying attention to the conversation I have been engaged in.

tess-of-the-d-urbervillesAnd I find myself exhausted. Because it occurs to me that although I have been afforded the opportunity to read some of the finest writers of the last few centuries I cannot easily share or express the enjoyments and lessons of this reading in any meaningful way. I can enthuse – I have a passionate relationship with literature. I can list the titles and authors one should read – I have a good memory for these things. I can quote or read a passage aloud – I have noted down many impressive scenes and quips. And I can encourage others to read as I have read – I have a teacher’s zeal. And in doing these things I quickly become a bore to myself and to others.

In the end there is always silence and bitterness. And I turn away.

And suddenly there he is, Mr Thomas Hardy. He stands so close beside me I forget he is there.

However, by then the moment has passed. The opportunity to mention him has gone.

But I am secretly pleased about this really. Because he doesn’t fit in with the other great names. He is an outsider amongst outsiders. And I know that those who really appreciate him, those millions who have devoured all of his works and taken him into themselves probably discovered him on their own and at the right time – I have learnt that to recommend Hardy is to damn him.

I’ve been told Hardy is too dark. That he is humourless. Dull, unrealistic, pessimistic and cruel. And in these moments I wonder if they have been reading someone else. So I now forget to recommend him.

When I first read Hardy much of the world’s ugly scaffolding fell away. In Return of the Native, Far From the Madding Crowd, Jude the Obscure, The Mayor of Casterbridge and the others it was his great love of nature and humanity and the beauty each possesses which shone brightest for me. And though the shadows this bright love cast are deep and very dark they only serve to accentuate the good, the worthy, the beautiful.

So where some see pessimism I see great optimism. Hardy asks us to cut through the fog of day to day life so we may recognise and cherish what is good in our environment, in others and in ourselves.

So I won’t recommend Thomas Hardy to you. I will just point out that he is there on the shelf ready to be read. When you are ready, that is.

Taken by John’s love of the classics? Find more classics he loves here

One Response

  1. When I was at university I wrote an essay arguing that Thomas Hardy was not a pessimist. I tried to argue instead that he was a fine storyteller. I can’t remember the grade I received, but if I didn’t fail, I came close. So it’s a great joy to read your post now, forty years later. :) I’ve always believed I was right and it’s great to discover a fellow believer. Thank you!

    Like

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