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Norms and Transgressions in Victorian and Edwardian Times

Hardy, Galileo and the Art of Transgression

Hardy, Galilée et l’art de la transgression
Nathalie Bantz-Gaszczak


Les rapports conflictuels que Thomas Hardy entretenait avec ses éditeurs sont notoires. Sa profonde et constante frustration face à la contrainte sans appel de revoir ses textes pour les rendre acceptables aux yeux d'un lectorat soucieux de bonne moralité ne l'est pas moins. Si ses romans furent ainsi soumis à un travail de réécriture et de corrections qu'il ressentait comme autant de « mutilations », la nouvelle et la poésie furent pour Hardy des lieux de liberté d'expression. Genres moins formalisés ou plus confidentiels que le roman, ils eurent bien souvent raison de la vigilance des censeurs de la bienséance, et seuls deux poèmes furent tout d'abord refusés pour publication. Dans la tourmente de ses dernières années en tant que romancier, peu avant de décider de se consacrer entièrement à la poésie, Hardy, amer, remarquait ainsi dans son autobiographie que si Galilée s'était exprimé en vers et non en prose, l'Inquisition l'aurait laissé en paix.

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1When Thomas Hardy started writing, in the second half of the nineteenth century, he benefited from the large circulation of books and the appetite of the public for periodicals and journals. Yet, reading was then strictly controlled, first in the sense that periodicals or journals refused to publish what was judged unseemly and improper. Secondly, as one and a half guineas for the customary three-decker was a prohibitive sum of money, people were more likely to borrow books from libraries, where what ‘was produced and consumed was regulated by their severely censorious owners in accordance with the demand of “general” ideology’ (Eagleton 52).

  • 1 . . . his manuscripts [were] mutilated for serial publication’ (Porter 13).

2The necessity to make himself a name and to provide for himself and his wife after he gave up his architect activities thus compelled Hardy to comply with editors’ recommendations and demands that ‘mutilated’1 his texts. Only when he turned to poetry did his conflictual relationship with publishers and editors almost completely cease. Then, he continued to revise his prose texts for their collected edition form. Accordingly, several versions exist for one single text (they are numbered seventeen for Tess of the d’Urbervilles), each being a reliable indicator of the moral climate and of Hardy’s relationship to, and conception of, norm and transgression.

Norm, Censorship and Bowdlerization

3Hardy elicited publishers’ and editors’ hostility right from his first unpublished novel, The Poor Man and the Lady. It was turned down by Macmillan and Chapman & Hall in 1868-1869 for reasons of unsuitable depiction of the upper classes and lack of plot. Chapman & Hall’s reader George Meredith, willing to advise the aspiring young novelist, warned him against liabilities that would harm any subsequent attempts at publication:

He [the speaker] strongly advised its author not to ‘nail his colours to the mast’ so definitely in a first book, if he wished to do anything practical in literature; for if he printed so pronounced a thing he would be attacked on all sides by conventional reviewers, and his future injured. The story was, in fact, a sweeping dramatic satire of the squirearchy and nobility, London society, the vulgarity of the middle class, modern Christianity, church restoration, and political and domestic morals in general, the author’s views, in fact, being obviously those of a young man with a passion for reforming the world— . . . (F. E. Hardy 61)

  • 2 In a letter to Leslie Stephen in 1874.

4Success would clearly require of Hardy an appeal to middle-class readership, which only a toning-down of his unconventional views of, and prospects for, society made possible. Hardy also understood the necessity to become, in his own words, ‘a good hand at a serial’.2

5As soon as his first text Hardy thus had to renounce the duty he thought any serious writer had to honour, namely to speak freely without hypocrisy and to provoke change where necessary. Indeed, what was expected from him as from any writer of the Victorian age was fiction readable by young people and especially girls, on whose role as future wives and mothers the perpetuation and permanence of the nation were dependent. This didactic dimension imposed on literature demanded that the values on which Victorian society rested be herein reproduced, decorum being not the least. It also exacted that Victorian institutions par excellence, marriage or the church, should be confirmed as such. By the same token, writers were expected to propose well-rounded plots with an ultimate resolution of conflicts that re-established order and reasserted the legitimacy and coherence of the Victorian system of norms.

6Hardly any of Hardy’s novels and stories was planned on this scheme, despite The Poor Man and the Lady experience. Sensitive topics like Christianity and domestic morals in general interested him and he meant to treat them more with the eye of the sociologist than with that of the moralizer he was expected to be. Yet ‘the critical establishment of the day’, publishers and middle-class readership alike, were ‘not ready for Hardy’s defiance of conventions in treating subjects normally excluded from fiction’ (Page 443); references to pregnancy out of wedlock for example were numerous, Hardy’s heroines having a sensual, passionate nature and a desiring body. His bold representation of women, and of men and women relationships, was thus to be revised, and none of his novels and very few of his stories were spared in the systematical bowdlerization of his manuscripts.

7Censorship was predictable in an era of modesty and prudery. But the relevant point here is that Hardy’s stubbornness in defying censorship was as relentless as his censors’ tenacity. Indeed, aware as he was of what was not suitable for a family magazine, he nevertheless submitted his manuscripts to editors, i.e. the ‘censorship of prudery’ (‘Candour in English Fiction’), a compliance counterbalanced by his subsequent work at un-bowdlerizing them.

Transgressing Norms

  • 3 Mangled’ and ‘emasculated’ are adjectives used by Robert Langbaum in Oxford Reader, 209.

8As one of Hardy’s biographers points out, ‘Hardy [suffered] from Mrs Grundy more than most writers’ (James Gibson, in Page 41). And probably more than most writers he had to placate Grundyists’ prudery through the mutilations3 inflicted on his texts. Yet he never accepted to release ownership of his texts and he managed to defeat censorship thanks to textual, editorial and generic strategies.

  • 4 Different serial versions could also exist as installments could appear in British and American mag (...)
  • 5 The 1912 version of the texts is the one Hardy wanted to be considered official. Despite his effort (...)
  • 6 Also, see Ray for all the alterations Hardy brought to his short stories.

9Textual strategy refers to the alterations Hardy brought to his bowdlerized texts. The minimum number of versions for one text, novel or short story, averages four: the manuscript, the serial, the volume form and the collected edition volume form.4 The volume form usually appeared when the last serial installment was published. The serial and the volume form were usually quite similar, but the two versions sometimes differed considerably from the manuscript, especially as regards what could be considered offensive. For that reason, Hardy re-read all his texts for their subsequent publication in collected editions. He then proceeded to restore all the passages that had been bowdlerized for serialization and volume form. To do so, he restored the manuscripts entirely, he partly restored them and partly rewrote the passages, or else completely rewrote the passages. He even sometimes restored readings that he had deleted in the manuscript (Ray 209). In 1896 and even more in 1912,5 the social climate had changed, and therefore Hardy could ‘use more candour in describing the sexual relations of his characters’ (Page 62).6

10The process of releasing himself from the pressure of censorship started approximately when Hardy was working on Jude the Obscure, his last novel and also his most audacious and daring prose piece. There, he almost desperately penned down what he had hitherto never dared to write in so open and so straightforward a manner. The text’s publication in volume form in 1896 provoked a vehement outcry which prompted Hardy to stop writing novels altogether.

11Another type of textual alteration is noticeable, the supplementation of an alternative ending to a few texts. A form of apophasis, it consisted of a note at the end of a story that presented the outcome Hardy would have chosen had he been free to do so; it occurs in his novels as well as in his short stories. In The Return of the Native, serialized and first published in volume form in 1878, the note was visibly added for the Osgood McIlvaine edition, after 1895:

The writer may state here that the original conception of the story did not design a marriage between Thomasin and Venn. He was to have retained his isolated and weird character to the last, and to have disappeared mysteriously from the heath, nobody knowing whither—Thomasin remaining a widow. But certain circumstances of serial publication led to a change of intent.

Readers can therefore choose between the endings, and those with an austere artistic code can assume the more consistent conclusion to be the true one. (Hardy 1994, 470)

  • 7 Written and serialized in 1883, it was later included in A Changed Man, Hardy’s fourth and last col (...)

12The device was also used in 1912 for ‘The Distracted Preacher’, written and serialized in 1879. A variation was introduced in ‘The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid’.7 No substitute ending was appended to later versions but a note written in 1927 appears in the margin of Hardy’s study copy of the story:

Note: The foregoing finish of the Milkmaid’s adventures by a re-union with her husband was adopted to suit the requirements of the summer number of a periodical in which the story was first printed. But it is well to inform readers that the ending originally sketched was a different one, Margery, instead of returning to Jim, disappearing with the Baron in his yacht at Idmouth after his final proposal to her, & being no more heard of in England. (Ray 329)

  • 8 The story was first collected in A Changed Man, published in 1913. It was thus included in the comp (...)

13Interestingly, the note refers to an originally sketched ending that actually does not exist in the extant manuscript; besides, no change was ever brought to the volume form.8 But even if they were the products of a failing memory at an advanced age, Hardy’s intentions were clear and so was his desire to state them. Until the end of his life Hardy thus was engaged in the process of getting his texts rid of whatever was unfaithful to his vision.

  • 9 There are three complete works editions, in 1896, 1912 (ending in 1931) and 1919–1920. There are fo (...)

14Another strategy, editorial, was also used. It concerns the collected editions as well as the collections of short stories.9 It refers to that habit of Hardy’s of reorganizing his texts within a given volume, moving texts from one volume to another, and changing the order of the volumes in a collection. The general effect he was seeking was to create meaning out of the interaction between the texts.

  • 10 See Ray’s remark about Hardy’s preparation of the MS and the two serial versions of ‘On the Western (...)

15An observation of these changes shows that Hardy was involved with his short stories no less than with his novels. His care and attention had the same quality and intensity, and variations between different versions can hardly ever be attributed to ‘oversight’.10 More specifically it appears that Hardy’s short stories tend to end on a more bitter tone than the novels. Even in the stories with a happy outcome, the reader is made to acknowledge that life does not look like some well-organized and thus insincere fiction: another strategy is involved here, generic this time.

  • 11 Hence the alternative ending device, which he could not use too often though.

16In his novels Hardy was compelled to produce well-rounded conclusions suggesting the return to order and stability readers were expecting.11 It was less the case with his late novels where he showed more laxity towards the rules, and in which ‘the endings of the late novels are designed to challenge the notion that there is some kind of world order that art should attempt to replicate’ (Sumner 78). The endings of the short stories and of these late novels (Jude the Obscure and the two versions of The Well-Beloved) exemplify ‘the modern form’, in other words ‘the place where we accept the knowledge that our inherited ways of echoing the structure of the world have no concord with it’ (Kermode 173).

  • 12 ‘[les] éléments conflictuels sont maintenus dans un état de tension ironique non résolue’ (Pierre T (...)
  • 13 See Fabienne Garcier’s PhD dissertation ‘La Nouvelle irlandaise moderne: métamorphoses d'un genre ((...)
  • 14 Further than designing discordant endings, Hardy was able in his stories to question marriage or de (...)

17Most of Hardy’s short stories end on a dissonant note, and their final full stop does not bring about a resolution of the conflicts but hints at these conflicts being maintained in a state of unsolved ironic tension.12 More generally speaking, it seems that the short story as a genre offered Hardy more freedom than the novel. Not officially born until 1884,13 it was therefore less restrictively coded and more easily adaptable to writers’ possibly subversive designs.14 If Hardy’s short stories were inevitably largely bowdlerized for serialization, the supplement of elbow room they offered him may explain why he went on writing some, five actually, after he decided to stop writing novels.

18He was affected by the onslaught on his works in general, and his wording in his autobiography suggests a sense of the physical pain caused by an actual maim (F. E. Hardy 222). Furthermore, tired of the cat-and-mouse game between him and editors always on the watch for anything judged indecent, he decided after the publication of Jude that he was notorious enough to live off his published works: ‘if this sort of things continues [the review on Tess] no more novel-writing for me’ (F. E. Hardy 246). After 1900 prose fiction ceased to appeal to him completely, as he probably felt he had used up all the possibilities offered by prose. He had by then reached the point when even short story writing no longer represented a reliable strategy.

Poetry and Norms

19Hardy’s wholesale switch to poetry after Jude proved strategically wise, poetry obviously representing the safest genre to accommodate his vision. The starting twentieth century had not completely turned its back on its predecessor’s prudishness, and in 1909 Hardy complained about

. . . the threat to ‘literary liberty’ in a proposal by librarians to set up a committee empowered to judge the suitability for circulation of books suspected of being ‘personally scandalous, libelous, immoral, or otherwise disagreeable’. (Page 44)

  • 15 Hardy for example manages to render marriage, represented by Phillotson and Arabella, far less appe (...)

20His plea in his essay ‘Candour in English Fiction’ had proved to no real avail. There, he had deplored that English literature lacked sincerity and was ‘a literature of quackery’. To him, a literature for adults was necessary, he claimed, and ‘if English prudery [was] really, as we hope, only a parental anxiety’, the solution was to create ‘magazines for adults; exclusively for adults, if necessary. As an offshoot there might be at least one magazine for the middle-aged and old’. Hardy wrote these lines in 1890. The Tess and the Jude15 episodes were yet to occur.

  • 16 The year he composed “Domicilium”, his earliest recorded piece.
  • 17 Many of his poems were published in journals and magazines before being collected.

21Hardy had never stopped writing poems during his prose fiction career, totalling 947 between 185716 and the end of his life. His first collection, Wessex Poems, was published in 1898 and the eighth and last one, Winter Words appeared in the year of his death, in 1928.17 Furthermore, prose and verse were not completely severed, and there is ‘an interplay between poems and passages in the novels’ because ‘he had mostly aimed . . . to keep his narratives . . . as near to poetry in their subjects as the conditions would allow’ (Page 328).

22In his poetry Hardy could afford to be unconventional, one reason being that his prose fiction sold well enough for him to live off it. His creativity thus went unshackled without the artificiality of form and content imposed on novels. Revised like his prose fiction, his poems were never bowdlerized for decorum’s sake (‘General Preface to the Novels and Poems’, Oct. 1911).

23Poetry was particularly congenial to Hardy’s conception of the art of writing. Significantly, his first unpublished novel The Poor Man and the Lady was subtitled A Story With No Plot; Containing Some Original Verses. It is no wonder the Chapman & Hall reader rejected the manuscript on grounds that it was far too unconventional, in form as in content, and urged Hardy ‘to write a story with a strong plot like Wilkie Collins’ (Sumner 67): The first novel’s lack of plot and integration of verses, two unconventionalities, proceeded from Hardy’s original choice of the poetic form. And in his last published yet not last written novel The Well-Beloved, he seized the opportunity to state how hostile he was, as ever, to the artificial convention of the plot which had a story shaped like a circle, again complete and harmonious at the end. He saw writing as proceeding from a vision shaped into a narrative, i.e. ‘an account of events’ that did not necessarily involve a plot. He could thereby express his sense of the absence of harmony and design of nature, or even of a transcendental force.

24Hardy wanted to lift the veil of propriety covering a whole range of subjects and he knew perfectly well that he was a troublesome voice jarring with Victorian optimism, confidence and Puritanism. As Lytton Strachey wrote in the New Statesman in 1914, what was considered ‘blemishes’ was ‘in reality an essential ingredient in the very essence of [Hardy’s] work’; Strachey qualified Hardy’s poetry as unromantic in ‘their common, undecorated presentment of things’ (Page 381). The poem ‘In Tenebris II’ ends on the blind crowd (Nietzsche’s ‘idealists’) clinging to their old beliefs and false values and eager to get rid of the troublesome voice Hardy saw himself to be: ‘Get him up and be gone as one shaped awry; he disturbs the order here’.

25One way to try to put him to silence was through scathing reviews. Hardy’s first collection Wessex Poems was thus not taken very seriously and had ‘defects of form’. To some reviewers Hardy ‘lacked a distinctive lyrical gift’, and ‘could scarcely have had time to master the mere technique of verse’ (The Academy, 1899, in Page 466).

26Hardy had chosen to turn his back on the traditional form embodied by Tennyson’s verses, notorious for their melodious fluidity, their musicality and their accessibility (Page 467). What may sound dissonant in Hardy’s poems was thus meant to express his sense of the discordance of things and his ‘refusal to adjust the metrical ideal to fit the experiential actual’ (Page 189). Willing to encompass and represent the variety of experience he resorted to the most varied verbal material, provoking condescending reviews about the ‘eccentricities of [his] diction’ (Page 466). He was looked down upon as a writer from modest social origins who had no university education, and whose mastery of Latin, Greek and world literature was a violation of the class system of Victorian and Edwardian England. His novels had already provoked similar reactions exemplifying ‘. . . the condescension that a male author of Hardy’s class and educational background might expect from reviewers’ (Green 535).

  • 18 One of these was ‘A Trampwoman’s Tragedy’ (see further down). Another was ‘A Sunday Morning Tragedy (...)

27Hardy had always been expected to go on dealing with pastoral tales as he had done with Under the Greenwood Tree for example: ‘Even as [he] became the preeminent living English novelist, reviewers continued to object to his choices of vocabulary and setting when they departed from the pastoral’ (Green 535). His highly personal use of language in his poems was perplexing, and if he could not be forgiven for it, the wide range in subject matter of his poetry was even less acceptable and it certainly cost him prizes, the Nobel prize being one of them (Page 426). Yet, even though censorship by editors continued, very few of his poems were turned down on the grounds that the periodical in which they appeared was read in families:18 Hardy attributed that absence of censoring reaction to the nature of poetry. A more confidential genre than the novel, it certainly escaped the didactic mission prose was invested with. It was consequently a safer medium where ‘the position of man and woman in nature, and the position of belief in the minds of man and woman—things which everybody is thinking but nobody is saying—might be taken up and treated frankly’ (‘Candour in English Fiction’). It is what he meant in an 1896 note: ‘If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the Inquisition might have let him alone’ (see F. E. Hardy 284–5 for the whole paragraph).

28Hardy had no wish to be provocative for provocation’s sake. He only meant to deal freely with the sexual, religious and social matters of his time, at times farcically or humorously, at others ironically, bitterly and sadly.

  • 19 Written in 1902, it was rejected by the Cornhill for unsuitability for a family magazine, printed i (...)

29Illegitimate love, be it adulterous, between unmarried people or be it any other kind of morally condemned love, is a recurring theme in his poems. For instance, the speaker of ‘She at His Funerals’, written in the eighteen seventies, is a woman who does not belong to the mourning party and whose ‘gown of garish dye’ betrays her as a probable prostitute. The voice of ‘On Martock Moor’ (1899) laments the death of the lover she used to meet on the moor at night while her husband was sleeping. ‘A Trampwoman’s Tragedy’,19 which Hardy particularly liked, is also about a love triangle. Its speaker’s light flirtation with ‘jeering John’ provokes her lover’s rage and murderous blow. The lover is jailed while the speaker, who has given birth to a dead-born child, is condemned to atone for having played fickly with her lover’s feelings. The overall irony derives from the fact that the official lover is not an official husband (a fancy-man is ‘a common-law husband or a man living off the earnings of a prostitute’) and that their child is not the less illegitimate for having been fathered by him, two reasons that make the woman even guiltier for any Victorian.

30These three poems are melancholy, unlike ‘A Practical Woman’ (published in Winter Words), which also involves an illegitimate child. The eponymous woman complains of mothering only sickly children and wishes she could have one both healthy and smart. She manages to find a man to father it but certainly not for her to keep, even as a lover.

  • 20 Written in 1866 and published in Poems of the Past and Present in 1901.

31Another piece, ‘The Ruined Maid’,20 stages the chance encounter of two former girlfriends in an unnamed town, one still living in the country and the other, a fallen woman visibly taken care of by her illegitimate lover in the city. The country girl wonders at her richly dressed friend who explains that it is what she obtained from being ruined. The tongue-in-cheek conclusion is that losing one’s virtue offers advantages, and it takes one to be a fallen woman to look like a lady: no mere ‘raw country girl’ could dream of it.

32‘A Wife and Another’ is another variation on adultery and illegitimate childbearing, and in it Hardy takes up one of his favourite themes, the pre-eminence of natural and chosen bonds over a man-made institution like marriage. Yet another piece, ‘The Dead Bastard’, offers a deeply humane insight into the grief of a mother, who, after often wishing for her illegitimate child’s death is now mourning him. Here and again Hardy, a pragmatist, relentlessly reveals the irrelevance of laws and conventions (responsible for the woman’s wish for her child’s death) when it comes to dealing with actual situations: the illegitimate baby deserves as much love, care and grief as a legitimate one does. In Tess, the heroine’s illegitimate baby is refused a Christian burial; in the story ‘The Fiddler of the Reels’, Ned, who knows he is the only assistance his former mistress and her illegitimate child by another man can turn to, forgets about his pride, jealousy and moral convictions, exactly like the woman of ‘A Wife and Another’. In the novels, situations are exposed. In the short stories and even more in the poems, solutions are suggested that would have provoked frowning and censorship in the novels.

  • 21 It is the opinion of James Gibson, one of Hardy’s biographers. See Page 425. Hardy was obviously in (...)

33Child illegitimacy is the topic of ‘A Sunday Morning Tragedy’. Hardy, maybe the first poet to write about abortion,21 therein denounces not the abortive potion that kills a young woman but the moral condemnation and finger-pointing that the mother fears she and her daughter will be subjected to and that lead that mother to make her fatal decision. The daughter dies for the sake of respectability, and eventually for nothing because the lover refraining from marrying her in the first place now wishes to.

34Less tragic but not less bold is ‘Panthera’, in which Hardy expanded on the hearsay according to which Jesus was a Roman officer’s illegitimate son. Unconceivable in prose, ‘[the poem] produced hardly an angry word from his reviewers’ (Page 44). Even more daring is ‘God’s Education’ in which the speaker directly addresses God and blames him for the cruel plagues of old age and death, to which accusations God replies that he never saw things that way and eventually acknowledges man’s intelligence and moral superiority. Had Hardy written that he doubted the very use and existence of so cruel a God he would not have been clearer.

35Other poems deal with sex, un-eternal love and desire, three highly problematic topics. ‘One Ralph Blossom Soliloquizes’ is a humorous piece about the said Ralph who recalls the highly appreciated sexual partner he was for five women out of the seven he seduced. In ‘Her Initials’, the speaker compares the everlasting radiance of his poetic mood to the now lacklustre aspect of his former beloved one’s initials. In ‘I Look into My Glass’ the speaker acknowledges his/her ageing body and his/her long gone emotional sensitivity only to eventually contradict himself/herself and confess how still ‘throbbing’ his/her body and heart are.

36Another characteristic of the poems is the variety of the speakers. In the novels, the narrator remains the same identifiable voice, even though its censorial tone, used at the beginning, later disappears (Page 478). The short stories introduce a variation. They present a variety of narrative postures and levels of narration, with intradiegetic narrators who, sometimes, happen to be women (see Bantz). But this freedom of the short story to allow a secondary level of narration is limited, whereas the supremacy of the extradiegetic narrator as the teller of tales and only figure of power never varies in the novel, as literary conventions then recommended. Indeed, none of the unconventional female characters, whose fate is told by an extra- or an intradiegetic narrator, would have qualified for narrating her own story, the role being reserved to a framing discourse.

  • 22 Solomon Selby in ‘A Tradition of 1804’ (Wessex Tales) and the ‘rustics’ of ‘A Few Crusted Character (...)

37To this, poetry offers a real change and a challenge to the traditional male extra-heterodiegetic narrator. It gives a voice to prostitutes (‘She at His Funerals’, ‘A Trampwoman’s Tragedy’), to the women labelled ‘fallen women’ by the Victorians (‘The Ruined Maid’, ‘Tess’s Lament’), to illegitimate mothers (‘The Dead Bastard’), to poor people in general (‘A Poor Man and a Lady’). In other words, poems offer a place where these voices’ discourses can achieve a legitimacy of their own. In prose they are usually and conventionally framed, by patronizing or simply by instances on a higher level of discourse. It is the case when they are intradiegetic22 or integrated into the narrator’s discourse, as with direct, indirect or even free indirect speech. In the poems they are freed from any other discourse and they speak for themselves. No other authority exists above them, a framing discourse that is, apart from the paratext represented by the title.

38Hardy’s stance in his poems is political as much as it proceeds from literary choices. He gives a voice to those muted in the society of his time, women and the poor, with whom maybe he found common ground. He came from modest stock and

. . . his intense feelings of isolation, his deep sense of alienation from the Victorian middle class world he had entered as a popular, if controversial, novelist, must have urged him to a close understanding of the condition of women, in so far as he and they felt, sorely, the effect of society’s institutionalized values; in so far as each had to struggle to be heard, to gain recognition; in so far as oppression by either class or sexual division was the experience of both. . . . Not only did Hardy identify with the oppressed classes, seeing himself (to use his word) a ‘misfit’ in the society [sic] . . . but he was also constantly, painfully, at loggerheads with critics. Such perpetual censure, such unremitting condescension on the part of the critics, such a sense of suffocation, frustration and humiliation must surely have intensified what is in my opinion his acute sensitivity towards, and sympathetic insight into, the plight of women curbed and bound to ‘fit’ in the world of men. (Morgan xv-xvi)

39Further than giving a free voice to women of any condition, the poems are also innovative as they at times present ungendered voices, as though what mattered then was not the gender of the speaker but the intensity and reality of the experience. The speaker becomes neutral:

Neutre, c’est-à-dire sans identité sexuée […] pas assign[é] à une identité car à ce moment-là ce n’est pas la question. […] [Les] moments [sont] très fréquents, où l’on ne se sent ni homme ni femme, où l’on est, simplement, dégagé. (Cannone 30)

  • 23 When she is at Jude’s and her wet garments are drying on two chairs before the fire, she blushes, b (...)

40Such voices, in late nineteenth- early twentieth-century poetry, are probably a rare if not unique example. They certainly stem from Hardy’s interest in the issue of gender, which he explored in his short stories and in his novels as well. Writing on Far from the Madding Crowd, Linda M. Shires notes that it echoes the ‘growing uncertainty at the end of the nineteenth century about: what is a woman?’ (Page 127). In Jude too, the character of Sue certainly gains much of her puzzling force from her constant attempts to erase gender.23

  • 24 Cross-dressing in ‘The Distracted Preacher’ is an example.

41Examples in the poems abound. For instance there is no other clue than the autobiographical dimension allotted to Hardy’s first poem ‘Domicilium’, or to a love poem like ‘When I Set out for Lyonness’ to authentify their speaker as male. Less debatable are the speakers of other poems ‘I Look into My Glass’, ‘A Torn Letter’, or ‘The Unborn’, among others, who cannot easily be considered one gender to the exclusion of the other. The concise form of poetry enabled Hardy to maintain the voice’s ambiguous gender throughout a whole piece—and thus suggest gender instability, reversibility and ambivalence. In the novels or the stories, gender ambiguity could only be manifested in distinct episodes.24

42Hardy was writing in an era of social, economic and scientific change, and of consequent unrest and need to reaffirm established categories. Gender was one of them:

[The] responses are also typical of the fin de siècle. In periods of cultural insecurity, when there are fears of regression and degeneration, the longing for strict border controls around the definition of gender . . . , as well as race, class, and nationality, becomes especially intense. If the different races can be kept in their places, if the various classes can be held in their proper districts of the city . . . and if men and women can be fixed in their separate spheres, many hope, apocalypse can be prevented and we can preserve a comforting sense of identity and permanence in the face of that relentless specter of millennial change. (Showalter 4)

43He did the opposite. He blurred borders, between man and woman but also between other categories, warring soldiers for example like in the war poem ‘The Man He Killed’, where the narrator identifies his enemy as his next of kin because of their common humanity.

  • 25 The ‘true case’ is based on the story of Mary Ann Taylor, who had already been dead some fifty yea (...)

44To Hardy, only poetry permitted such play with fixed categories he viewed as far less important than shared human experiences like love, war, pain, grief, desire. Even more generally, poetry certainly appealed to Hardy on two counts. First, as condensed thought, it could proceed from one single vision (the self in the mirror, two girls meeting) and be written almost at one stroke, on the spur of the moment (he did it for ‘The Trampwoman’s Tragedy’).25 A poem, and to a lesser extent a short story, does not need a plot nor does it need to build its characters’ biography; it can be the expression of one single idea and depict one single moment, whereas a novel, and again to a lesser extent a short story, always astride between the two genres, seeks to portray the development of life in time. Secondly, a poem’s reliance on rhythm, rhyme, a limited number of lines, a division into stanzas, creates an aesthetics of form that in turn can provoke a distance from realism. Such distance is perhaps the reason why poetry was probably thought by censorious reviewers to be less grounded in reality, and therefore more benign and less harmful than the novel.

45Yet for Hardy, departure from realism did certainly not mean departure from reality. These lines by Robert Penn Warren could have been his:

  • 26 Robert Penn Warren, ‘Formula for a Poem’ in Saturday Review, March 1922, 1958, p. 23.

The poem . . . is a little myth of man’s capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see—it is, rather, a light by which we may see—and what we see is life.26

Conclusion: Pioneers

‘Perhaps the world is not illuminated enough for such experiments as ours! Who were we, to think we could act as pioneers! . . . the time was not ripe for us! Our ideas were fifty years too soon to be any good to us’ (Jude the Obscure 428, 482)

  • 27 Jude ends on discording sounds (Sumner 79). In The Well-Beloved, written before Jude but published (...)

46Jude’s grievous acknowledgement of the untimeliness of his and Sue’s experiment because the world was not ready for it certainly echoed Hardy’s own bitterness in the 1890s at feeling misunderstood in his attempt to ‘drag the novel into the adult world’ (Page 43). He felt that his material, the novel, was too rigid to accommodate the unsuitable and unmentionable subjects he considered worth dealing with as part and parcel of human experience: religious doubt, a sense of the absurdity of life,27 anger against an absent god, love, sexual desire, eugenics. He was proved right when Jude the Obscure was renamed ‘Jude the Obscene’. On the other hand, his untraditional use of the poetic form was received condescendingly and not taken seriously, at least at the beginning (Page 466).

47Still, unlike Jude he managed to carry out his goal and he was a pioneer. As Peter Brooks writes: ‘it is Thomas Hardy who finally unveils the body in the English novel’ (Brooks 144). In so uneasy a period with issues of woman and the body, he made both woman and the body, and more specifically the woman’s body, real and alive far more than what was expected by novel readers. As a poet too Hardy was a pioneer, and if his poetry was often looked down upon, some of his contemporaries, among whom Lytton Strachey, saw in it a new and modern form (Page 381). Comfortable with any literary genre (he also wrote drama), he swapped one, prose fiction, for another, poetry, because it fitted his purpose best. Independently of the cannon of the day, he crafted his own poetic style to give a shape to his personal and unconventional views:

Either he was not influenced by the current styles of poetry that were admired in his lifestyle, or else he was not adaptive and could not change from the style which he came into at the outset, as into a style that suited him. For one reason or the other, he continued in it, though he widened its range. (Gunn 317)

48Unlike Jude again, he succeeded. He had the last word in the battle against norms and is now, in academic circles, considered a literary master in the art of questioning conventions.

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Bantz, Nathalie. Les Nouvelles de Thomas Hardy. Stratégies narratives d’une écriture sous contrainte. Paris: Champion, 2011.

Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1984.

Cannone, Belinda. La Tentation de Pénélope. Paris: Stock, 2010.

Eagleton, Terry. Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory. 1976. London & New York: Verso, 2006.

Green, Laura. ‘“Strange [In]difference of Sex”: Thomas Hardy, the Victorian Man of Letters, and the Temptation of Androgyny’, Victorian Studies, 38:4, summer 1995: 523–549.

Gunn, Thom. ‘The Influence of Ballad Form’, Thomas Hardy. Critical Assessments, ed. Graham Clarke. East Sussex: Helm Information Ltd, 1993. 315–29.

Hardy, F. E. The Life of Thomas Hardy. 1840-1928. London: Macmillan, 1962.

Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.

——— . The Return of the Native. London: Penguin, 1994.

——— . Collected Short Stories. London: Macmillan, 1988.

——— . ‘Candour in English Fiction’.

Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending. Oxford: OUP, 1966.

Morgan, Rosemarie. Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy. London and New York: Routledge, 1988.

Page, Norman, ed. Oxford Reader’s Companion to Hardy. Oxford: OUP, 2000.

Porter, Katherine Anne. The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings. New York: Delacorte Press, 1970.

Ray, Martin. A Textual History of Hardy’s Short Stories. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1997.

Showalter, Elaine. Sexual Anarchy. Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle. London: Virago, 1992.

Sumner, Rosemary. A Route to Modernism. Hardy, Lawrence, Woolf. London: Macmillan, 2000.

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1 . . . his manuscripts [were] mutilated for serial publication’ (Porter 13).

2 In a letter to Leslie Stephen in 1874.

3 Mangled’ and ‘emasculated’ are adjectives used by Robert Langbaum in Oxford Reader, 209.

4 Different serial versions could also exist as installments could appear in British and American magazines, the latter being sometimes less rigorous. See for example the textual study of ‘Barbara of the House of Grebe’ (Ray 86–96).

5 The 1912 version of the texts is the one Hardy wanted to be considered official. Despite his efforts it is not always the case though. An example: the Internet version of ‘The Distracted Preacher’ ignores the alternative ending added in 1912.

6 Also, see Ray for all the alterations Hardy brought to his short stories.

7 Written and serialized in 1883, it was later included in A Changed Man, Hardy’s fourth and last collection of short stories published in 1913.

8 The story was first collected in A Changed Man, published in 1913. It was thus included in the complete works from that date only, A Changed Man becoming then volume 18.

9 There are three complete works editions, in 1896, 1912 (ending in 1931) and 1919–1920. There are four collections of short stories, Wessex Tales, published in 1888, A Group of Noble Dames (1891), Life’s Little Ironies (1894) and A Changed Man (1913); they were integrated into the complete works. Wessex Tales was volume thirteen in 1896, volume nine in 1912 and volume fifteen in 1919; A Group of Noble Dames was volume fifteen in 1896, volume fourteen in 1912 and volume twenty-two in 1919; Life’s Little Ironies was volume fourteen in 1896, volume eight in 1912 and volume fourteen in 1919; A Changed Man was volume eighteen in 1912 and volumes twenty-nine and thirty in 1919.

10 See Ray’s remark about Hardy’s preparation of the MS and the two serial versions of ‘On the Western Circuit’ for the story’s inclusion in Life’s Little Ironies in 1894. Ray 209–210.

11 Hence the alternative ending device, which he could not use too often though.

12 ‘[les] éléments conflictuels sont maintenus dans un état de tension ironique non résolue’ (Pierre Tibi), ‘La Nouvelle. Essai de compréhension d’un genre’. Cahiers de l’Université de Perpignan, 4, printemps 1995, [7–61] 20. My translation. For a further comment, see Bantz 355–56.

13 See Fabienne Garcier’s PhD dissertation ‘La Nouvelle irlandaise moderne: métamorphoses d'un genre (1880-1960)’ (Lille, 2001).

14 Further than designing discordant endings, Hardy was able in his stories to question marriage or deal with the issue of sex out of wedlock in such a way as to offer a contrapuntal reading to what he was obliged to write in his novels. See Bantz 332–39, for an example.

15 Hardy for example manages to render marriage, represented by Phillotson and Arabella, far less appealing and natural than Jude and Sue’s self-evident albeit morally unacceptable free love. The reader shivers with unease at Sue’s decision to marry again the man she previously fled from. Arabella is the real but distant mother of a child whose foster mother and father’s mistress, Sue, will be far more caring and loving.

16 The year he composed “Domicilium”, his earliest recorded piece.

17 Many of his poems were published in journals and magazines before being collected.

18 One of these was ‘A Trampwoman’s Tragedy’ (see further down). Another was ‘A Sunday Morning Tragedy’. It appeared one year later, in 1908, in the English Review, expressly founded by Ford Madox Ford to publish it.

19 Written in 1902, it was rejected by the Cornhill for unsuitability for a family magazine, printed in 1903 in the North American Review. It was collected in Time’s Laughingstocks in 1909. 7. Source: The Victorian Web:

20 Written in 1866 and published in Poems of the Past and Present in 1901.

21 It is the opinion of James Gibson, one of Hardy’s biographers. See Page 425. Hardy was obviously in favor of birth control, thinking it irresponsible to have children without the means to raise them. It is what Little Father Time accuses Sue of doing in Jude.

22 Solomon Selby in ‘A Tradition of 1804’ (Wessex Tales) and the ‘rustics’ of ‘A Few Crusted Characters’ (Life’s Little Ironies).

23 When she is at Jude’s and her wet garments are drying on two chairs before the fire, she blushes, but strangely not at herself, rather at her femininity thus exposed, in other words, at the femininity lodged in her clothes, as if part of this femininity came from the clothes. Then she says: ‘They are only a woman’s clothes—sexless cloth and linen’ (198). What is meant here? That femininity is ‘in the eye of the beholder’, in other words, that it is the other’s acknowledgment of our gender that makes it exist? That gender is an attribute one wears like a coat, as easily put on as taken off? Later Jude ponders over her curious unconsciousness of gender (203), which echoes what he had been told about Sue being ‘not exactly a tomboy’ but doing ‘things that only boys do, as a rule’ (162). Sue is puzzling because she asks the question of what it means to be one gender, and of what happens if one refuses to abide by all the requirements that are supposed to be part of being gendered. Women behaving like men and vice versa as well as cross-dressing are regular ingredients of Hardy’s fiction.

24 Cross-dressing in ‘The Distracted Preacher’ is an example.

25 The ‘true case’ is based on the story of Mary Ann Taylor, who had already been dead some fifty years when Hardy, returning from a bicycle ride to Glastonbury, Somerset, sat down to write the poem at Max Gate”. The Victorian Web,

26 Robert Penn Warren, ‘Formula for a Poem’ in Saturday Review, March 1922, 1958, p. 23.

27 Jude ends on discording sounds (Sumner 79). In The Well-Beloved, written before Jude but published after it, Hardy denounces the artificiality of the conventional happy ending through the grotesqueness of a marriage scene (Sumner 72).

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Nathalie Bantz-Gaszczak, « Hardy, Galileo and the Art of Transgression »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 79 Printemps | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2014, consulté le 24 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Nathalie Bantz-Gaszczak

Nathalie Bantz-Gaszczak teaches English in a senior high school in northeastern France. She defended her PhD dissertation on Hardy’s short stories at Nancy University in April 2009: “Les Nouvelles de Thomas Hardy. Choix stratégiques d'une écriture sous contrainte”. Her research focuses on the subversive aspects of Hardy’s works. More generally, she is interested in the theory of literary discourse and in norms and gender issues as they appear in literature and in social sciences discourses. She has started to translate a few of Hardy’s short stories still unpublished in French. She is a lecturer candidate.

Nathalie Bantz-Gaszczak enseigne l'anglais en lycée comme professeure certifiée. Dans sa thèse de doctorat consacrée aux nouvelles de Thomas Hardy (« Les Nouvelles de Thomas Hardy. Choix stratégiques d'une écriture sous contrainte », 2009), elle étudie les stratégies mises en place par l'écriture pour contourner la censure. Ses recherches actuelles portent sur l’inscription de la norme et de la déviance dans le discours littéraire. Plus généralement, elle s'intéresse à la réception et à la lecture du texte littéraire.

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