Thomas Hardy's sense of humour
By MICHAEL CAINES
That might sound like the title of a very short anthology. Or a startingly inaccurate piece of literary criticism. But don't let the received reputation of the author of Jude the Obscure deceive you. Readers of Angelique Richardson's lead piece on Hardy's letters in this week's TLS will learn that he in fact had "a fine sense of humour" and was, by one account, a "happy man".
He also had an "amused take on the advances of technology" – hence this footnote to Richardson's observations on the role of letters in Hardy's novels: as she says, letters play a significant part in The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the d'Urbevilles, as they did in his own life; and it's "not only because . . . he couldn't hear anyone who rang" that the belated appearance of a telephone on the domestic scene didn't transform his habits of communication.
There's an earlier novel, however, in which letters see off another supposedly more technologically advanced form of communication – the telegram – only to prove insufficient for the correspondents' needs in turn. In A Laodicean (1881), the heroine Paula Power goes off to Nice with her "phlegmatic and obstinate" uncle Abner. That "breathing refrigerator", as her admirer George Somerset thinks of him, clearly wants to keep them apart – 900 miles apart. Since George has to remain at his post, overseeing the work of modernizing her home, Stancy Castle, how can he possibly keep up his burning expressions of love over that inconvenient distance?
Part of the fun is that George longs for effusions of love, whereas Paula, at their parting, is much more practical:
"I may write to you?" (George asks.)
"On business, yes. It will be necessary."
"How can you speak so at a time of parting!"
"Now, George – you see I say George, and not Mr. Somerset, and you may draw your own inference – don't be so morbid in your reproaches! I have informed you that you may write, or still better, telegraph, since the wire is so handy – on business. Well, of course, it is for you to judge whether you will add postscripts of another sort. . . ."
Once again, shortly before she steps into the carriage, Paula reminds him of the superiority of the (relatively) new technology ("Telegraphing will be quicker!"), before Hardy has some fun teasing George by raising doubts about her commitment to him – and the conviction that Abner is moving against him.
Then Hardy puts George through further torment as he tries to follow his beloved's instructions:
"One morning he set himself, by the help of John, to practise on the telegraph instrument, expecting a message. But though he watched the machine at every opportunity, or kept some other person on the alert in its neighbourhood, no message arrived to gratify him till after the lapse of nearly a fortnight."
The "meagre words" that arrive from Nice give no comfort to him, so he tries again:
"Will write particulars of our progress [i.e., the business side of things, the building work]. Always the same [i.e., the no-so-cryptic avowal of a constant lover]."
Then he writes a letter and receives a telegram of acknowledgement, promising a letter in due course – which, when it arrives, turns out to be, true to character, balanced between encouragement and elusiveness.
The correspondence continues – "Away southward like the swallow went the tender lines" – but culminates in a crisis, as the correspondents disagree over its purpose. "I am almost angry with you, George", Paula writes, "for being vexed because I will not make you a formal confession. Why should the verbal I love you be such a precious phrase?"
They revert to telegrams, the crisis (which is in some measure one of misinterpretation and silence) deepens, and, sure enough, and not to give much more away, George is soon on his way to the Continent, to try to put matters right between them face to face.
With Tess's letter under the carpet in mind, it may be that we're more apt to think of correspondence in Hardy's fiction as a cause of tragedy – if so, A Laodicean is the antidote. There are many sides to Thomas Hardy, as those newly published letters show, and, yes, one of them is humorous.
(But the poetry, you say – "The Darkling Thrush" and so on? Well, that's another matter . . . .)