Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Thomas Hardy and William Morris

‘What a strenuous character Morris’s was’.  Thus Thomas Hardy, writing to Sydney Cockerell on 23 February 1917, as he and his wife read through Mackail’s Life together.  Hardy never met Morris, as far as I am aware, though he had attended the Eastern Question conference in London in December 1876 at which Morris was elected as treasurer.  In 1881 Hardy joined the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and was certainly repentant in later life about the church restoration work which he had unreflectively undertaken in his early architectural years.   He had clearly read some of Morris’s cultural writings, and in a 1912 ‘Plea for Pure English’ cites ‘that “grin of delight”, which William Morris assured us, comes over the real artist’ – this being a reference to ‘The Art of the People’ from Hopes and Fears for Art (1882).  The description of Hardy’s first, and unpublished, novel The Poor Man and the Lady as ‘socialistic’ in the Life of Thomas Hardy, that supposed biography actually written by himself, seems even to promise a political alignment with Morris’s later activism which of course never in the end materialised.

In 1881 Hardy wrote to Morris to offer him a copy of Tess.  Morris accepted and in his reply notes that he has already read Far from the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native: ‘the first one is the most pleasing and I suppose you would look upon it as the most typical of your works’.  Whether Hardy did regard that novel in that light, I do not know; and Morris’s phrasing doesn’t give away whether he agrees with the judgement he imputes to the novelist here.  Either way, it’s not a valuation that I can share.  To any reader of Raymond Williams’s marvellous chapter on Hardy in The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence – which for me was a life-changing reading experience some forty years ago – it is The Return of the Native, in its exploration of the tension between educated and customary community (by which Tess’s life will be so disrupted too), that is the ‘most typical’ Hardy novel of them all.

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