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About this book

The author, a leading and influential critic of Thomas Hardy, brings together for the first time essays representing both his major critical work over the last fifteen years and three entirely new pieces. This volume allows readers to test the force of Widdowson's critical polemic in undispersed form. Readable, engaged and, no doubt, often infuriating, this is a book for all those who still regard Hardy as 'our contemporary'.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

Abstract
One thing is clear: when asked as a youth what I wanted to be when I grew up, I did not answer ‘a Hardy specialist’. And yet, so it seems, I have become one. That life is governed by fortuity has struck me forcibly — perhaps through spending too much time in the company of Thomas Hardy — while preparing the present volume. If I hadn’t gone to Sweden in 1968 to take up my first lecturing post — never having read a word of Hardy — and hadn’t met an English colleague who was teaching Tess of the dUrbervilles (as I was also to do) to large groups of bemused Swedish students for whom fatalistic tragedy in rural Dorset was not a burning issue in their lives just then, who knows what I might have done and become? But my friend was obsessed by the questions of determinism and free will he saw Tess as principally raising, and on my very first evening in northern Sweden, I was introduced to that burning issue without more ado. So I read Tess; tried to explain what ‘a blighted star’ and ‘the ache of modernism’ might mean to young people whose own blights and aches had more to do with the consumption of brenvin and the pursuit of sex than with savouring fin-de-siècle angst; and discussed, deep into the long winter nights, how far Tess was a victim of, or instrumental in, her own ‘Fate’: did she jump or was she pushed? We never solved it — which perhaps helps to explain why I became ‘a Hardy specialist’.
Peter Widdowson

2. Thomas Hardy: A Partial Portrait (1996)

Abstract
It is a commonplace of literary criticism that ‘major author X’ was a ‘transitional’ writer who lived and worked in a ‘transitional’ period. This does not get us very far, however, since all periods are, in the nature of historical process, transitional; and all major writers, by dint of their perceived majority, will also be transitional in that they modify by innovation the literary culture of which they are a part. As Thomas Hardy has so often been awarded the ‘transitional’ accolade, we may ask: is it any more illuminating in relation to him than it is to anyone else?
Peter Widdowson

3. Hardy in History: A Case-Study in the Sociology of Literature (1983)

Abstract
Most forms of ‘historical criticism’ — whether bourgeois or Marxist — have two related features in common: they are concerned with the original production of the text; and they tend to take for granted the primacy of the ‘primary material’, literature, as though this exists objectively and independently of the attention criticism pays to it. (We all construct our bibliographies with the texts sectionally privileged as ‘primary sources’.) In comparison to history, literary studies has been naive, or disingenuous, to a degree. It lacks what I want to call, on the analogy of historiography, a Critiography. Now, it may be argued that the history and theory of literary criticism is literary studies’ equivalent, but I do not mean merely the academic process of historicizing, demarcating and challenging different schools of criticism over time — necessary and hygenic as this is. I mean, first, the extrinsic study of the subject itself — its history, its institutions, its practices, its theoretical premises and its social relations (what is the place and function of the criticism and teaching of literature in the 1980s; what is its ‘politics’?). And second, I mean a consciousness of the constitution of the material which criticism takes as ‘primary’: literary texts — the ‘facts’, if I may for a moment appropri-ate the word, of literary studies. It is here that criticism — however ‘historical’ it may be — can and should learn a salutary lesson from historiography, which recognizes that its ‘facts’ — the documents, the primary sources, ‘the Past’ — are not permanent and palpable, but are constituted in the process of writing history; that they are discovered, selected, suppressed, interpreted, produced and reproduced by historians who are themselves historical and political subjects interpellated into certain subject positions in a particular historical conjuncture —‘the Present’. E. H. Carr’s still sharply corrective book What is History? is helpful here. He reminds us:
Peter Widdowson

4. Hardy and Social Class: The Hand of Ethelberta (1989)

Abstract
Towards the end of The Hand of Ethelberta, there is a scene in which the heroine narrates one of her ‘fictions’ to the guests at Lord Mountclere’s house. It is, in fact, the strangest of her fictions — the true story of her life and origins up to the point at which she enters society as fashionable widow and writer of poems:
The narrative began by introducing to their notice a girl of the poorest and meanest parentage, the daughter of a serving-man, and the fifth of ten children. She graphically recounted, as if they were her own, the strange dreams and ambitious longings of this child when young, her attempts to acquire education, partial failures, partial successes, and constant struggles; instancing how, on one of these occasions, the girl concealed herself under a bookcase of the library belonging to the mansion in which her father served as footman, and having taken with her there, like a young Fawkes, matches and a halfpenny candle, was going to sit up all night reading when the family had retired, until her father discovered and prevented her scheme. Then followed her experiences as nursery-governess, her evening lessons under self-selected masters, and her ultimate rise to a higher grade among the teaching sisterhood. Next came another epoch. To the mansion in which she was engaged returned a truant son, between whom and the heroine an attachment sprang up. The master of the house was an ambitious gentleman just knighted, who, perceiving the state of their hearts, harshly dismissed the homeless governess, and rated the son, the consequence being that the youthful pair resolved to marry secretly, and carried their resolution into effect. The runaway journey came next, and then a moving description of the death of the young husband, and the terror of the bride.
Peter Widdowson

5. Hardy’s ‘Quite Worthless’ Novel: A Laodicean (1997)

Abstract
In Albert C. Baugh’s A Literary History of England (1967), the following comment appears: ‘criticism of A Laodicean... is disarmed by the fact that, having been contracted for, it was composed during convalescence from a severe illness. It is quite worthless.’1 What does it mean to make such an absolute negative judgement? At bottom, that the novel simply does not fit the critical stereotype of Hardy as the great tragic novelist of ‘Character and Environment’ and of ‘Wessex’. Indeed, together with The Hand of Ethelberta, A Laodicean is probably the most execrated and disregarded of all Hardy’s novels. Even more recent sympathetic editors and critics have presented it as ‘certainly not one of Hardy’s great novels’; ‘an experiment that failed’; as providing ‘little evidence of the imaginative fire which characterizes Hardy at his best’; grudgingly, ‘not the complete failure it is usually taken to be’.2 What these commentators commonly propose is that the novel is, nevertheless, part of the great man’s work; and so its ‘very crudities have an interest, and invite comparison with the finer workmanship in other novels’; ‘it possesses an intrinsic interest to any student of his mind and methods of writing... but... more important... a number of the technical problems which he set himself, but failed to solve here, found more complete and satisfactory expression in The Mayor of Casterbridge and Jude the Obscure’. 3 Please note — for I will return to the point — that the ‘crudities’ and ‘failed technical problems’ are not regarded as fundamental components of Hardy’s fictional discourse, but simply as showing up the ‘finer’, ‘complete and satisfying expression’ of later and/or greater works.
Peter Widdowson

6. ‘Moments of Vision’: Postmodernizing Tess of the d ’ Urbervilles ; or, Tess of the d ’ Urbervilles Faithfully Presented by Peter Widdowson (1994)

Abstract
Anyone who has read Tess of the dUrbervilles (and certainly any modern criticism about it) will be in no doubt that the novel is emphatically visual in many of its effects. There are those famous set-piece ‘descriptions’ of rural Wessex (not quite Dorset, let us remember); the inescapably scenic moments, such as the May-dance at Marlott as the novel opens or sunrise at Stonehenge towards the end, which render talk about Hardy’s proto-cinematic techniques more than merely chic; and the narrative’s obsessive voyeuristic gazing at Tess herself (especially that famous ‘mobile peony mouth’1) which has made so many readers wonder a little about Thomas Hardy. But there is also a great deal of visual imagery in the novel of a rather more self-reflexive sort — a kind of metadiscourse about looking, seeing, perception, representation, imaging.
Peter Widdowson

7. Recasting Hardy the Poet (1996)

Abstract
Hardy’s poetry, on the whole, has not had a very satisfactory critical press — which may immediately tell us something about the difficulty of determining the nature of the achievement in his enormous poetic oeuvre. At the outset, when Hardy first turned again to poetry after completing his career as a novelist (see Chapter 1, pp. 25–6), the reviewers resented his decision to take up another genre and were often fiercely critical of his work in it. The Saturday Review, on the publication of Wessex Poems, infamously commented on ‘this curious and wearisome volume, these many slovenly, slipshod, uncouth verses, stilted in sentiment, poorly conceived and worse wrought’; rejected some of the ballads there as ‘the most amazing balderdash that ever found its way into a book of verse’; and wondered why ‘the bulk of the volume was published at all — why he did not himself burn the verse’.1 E. K. Chambers, also on WP, noted that Hardy’s ‘success in poetry is of a very narrow range’; and, in a view which has become a primary feature of Hardy’s critical reception and evaluation as a poet, limited his ‘success’ to a ‘small cluster of really remarkable poems’.2 On Poems of the Past and the Present, The Academy judged in 1901: ‘there is more of sheer poetry in his novels’; and The Athenaeum that Hardy ‘is wholly mistaking his vocation’ in switching from fiction to verse.3 Conversely, in the last quarter of this century, now that ‘the essential qualities of his genius’,4 so it seems, can be taken for granted and we know that his ‘voice’ is ‘capable of greatness’,5 Hardy’s poetry is the subject of long, painstaking critical monographs full of exegesis, appreciation and interpretation — which nevertheless still leave me, at least, unsure that I am any closer to an understanding of ‘the essential qualities of his genius’, of what constitutes his ‘unique poetic voice’.6 Trevor Johnson’s A Critical Introduction to the Poems of Thomas Hardy (1991), for example — devoted and thorough though it is — is too self-assured in tone and judgement to be convincingly illuminating; even Tom Paulin’s highly regarded, but by now ageing, Thomas Hardy: The Poetry of Perception (1975) raises a question as to the worth of linear critical narratives identifying themes, motifs or tropes in an individual writer’s work; and Dennis Taylor’s immensely learned two books on Hardy’s poetry, despite gestures towards contemporary theoretical initiatives, in fact continue the largely exegetical and descriptive tradition of critical attention paid to his poems.7 We are — to recast F. E. Smith’s classic mot — much better informed, but no wiser.
Peter Widdowson

8. Arabella and the Satirical Discourse in Jude the Obscure

Abstract
As Hardy’s last novel has recently been doing the rounds at a cinema near you, fronted by those contemporary late-Victorian ‘Simpletons’1, Christopher Ecclestone and Kate Winslet, it seems appropriate to take another look at Jude the Obscure the novel before Jude the film forever puts a frame round it. (A ‘postscript’ on the film itself follows this essay for good measure.) And where better to start than with the novel — of all Hardy’s fiction — that may well have replicated most closely the mindset informing Jude: his famously ‘lost’, first-written fictional work, which was never published and the manuscript of which at some point destroyed.
Peter Widdowson

Postscript: The Film of Jude

Abstract
Whenever I am faced with a film adaptation of a novel I know well, I play an impossible game which involves trying to imagine what someone would make of the film who knows nothing at all of the novel -nor, for good measure, of the author either.
Peter Widdowson
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