It began when I was flipping through a volume of the letters of Robert Louis Stevenson and came across a letter to Henry James of December 5, 1892.* After bringing James up to speed on his threatened deportation from Samoa, Stevenson settled down to discussing books:
Hurry up with another book of stories. I am now reduced to two of my contemporaries, you and Barrie -- O, and Kipling! I did like Rider Haggard's Nada the Lily; it isn't great but it's big. As for Hardy -- You remember the old gag? -- Are you wownded, my lord? -- Wownded, 'Ardy. -- Mortually, my lord? -- Mortually, 'Ardy. Well, I was mortually wownded by Tess of the Durberfields. I do not know that I am exaggerative in criticism; but I will say that Tess is one of the worst, weakest, and least sane, most voulu books I have yet read. Bar the style, it seems to me to be about as bad as [sensational novelist George William Macarthur] Reynolds -- I maintain it -- Reynolds: or, to be more plain, to have no earthly connexion with human life, and to be merely the unconscious portrait of a weak man under a vow to appear clever, or a rickety schoolchild setting up to be naughty and not knowing how. I should tell you in fairness I could never finish it; there may be the treasures of the Indies further on; but so far as I read, James, it was, in one word, damnable. Not alive, not true, was my continual comment as I read; and at last -- not even honest! was the verdict with which I spewed it from my mouth. I write in anger? I almost think I do: I was betrayed in a friend's house -- and I was pained to hear that other friends delighted in that barmecide feast. I cannot read a page of Hardy for many a long day, my confidence is gone.Editor Ernest Mehew's quite good notes to the volume of Stevenson's letters reveal both James's initial opinion of Tess, which, it appears, is what prompted Stevenson to take it up, and his later, more damning assessment. In a letter the previous spring James had written,
The good little Tommy Hardy has scored a great success with Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which is chock-full of faults and falsity and yet has a singular beauty and charm.Though I'm more forgiving of Hardy's faults, that assessment is far from unfair. After receiving Stevenson's broadside, however, James replied,
I grant you Hardy with all my heart and even with a certain quantity of my boot-toe. I am meek and ashamed where the public chatter is deafening -- so I bowed my head and let Tess of the D's pass. But oh yes, dear Louis, she is vile. The pretence of "sexuality" is only equalled by the absence of it, and the abomination of language only by the author's reputation for style.James would surely be pleased to learn that Hardy's reputation as a stylist has taken a hit, as these days, he's praised in spite of his sometimes clunky prose, but if James thought Tess's sexuality was overplayed to the point of falseness, just think--D. H. Lawrence is still to come!
Longtime readers will know that I disagree heartily with Stevenson's and James's assessments (though I admire Stevenson's passion--oh, the books that provoke us to actual anger!**). Hardy is far from perfect, certainly, but while I am willing to give Hardy critics Jude the Obscure, a book whose determination on doom is so pervasive as to render it laughable, I can read Tess again and again and find myself swept up in it anew each time. The same goes, to a lesser extent, for his other major novels; The Mayor of Casterbridge, Far from the Madding Crowd, and The Return of the Native all have substantial charms.
After reading these letters, I went in search of a favorite Anthony Powell line about Hardy, which I found in a 1971 review of a critical biography of Hardy for the Daily Telegraph:
Hardy's failing was a total lack of humour, which, one feels, might have prevented some of the absurdities. He could do knockabout up to a point, or irony, but one has only to think of Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Proust, or Conrad***, to see the missing quality that is possessed by most of the great novelists in one form or another.On the next page of Miscellaneous Verdicts, the collection in which I found that review, is one from 1972 of a collection of Hardy's letters to his ill-situated semi-paramour Florence Henniker. Powell quotes the following passage from one of Hardy's letters:
In my enforced idleness, I have been reading H. James's Wings of the Dove--the first of his that I have looked into for years and years. I read it with a fair amount of care--as much as one would wish to expend on any novel, certainly, seeing what there is to read besides novels--and so did [his wife] Em; but we have been arguing ever since about what happened to the people, and find we have wholly conflicting opinions thereon. At the same time James is almost the only living novelist I can read, and taken in small doses I like him exceedingly, being as he is a real man of letters.I absolutely love this letter. How often do you find someone acknowledging, not simply that James is complicated, but that he can be so subtle as to leave readers with wholly different--and irreconcilable--understandings of what he was trying to say? And then there's the reminders of Hardy's perpetual insecurity: there's the dig about "what there is to read besides novels," from a man who'd seven years earlier given up the form; and also the reasons for his approval of James, that he is "a real man of letters," a contrast with Hardy, who seemed to perpetually need reassurance that he had reached the inner circle.
I'll close with the letter that sent me to Stevenson in the first place--and which, conveniently, pulls together most of the threads herein. It was sent by George Lyttelton to Rupert Hart-Davis on March 8, 1956; after airing a dislike of Austen (and a belief that Emma deserved spanking), Lyttelton writes about the Irish novelist and critic George Moore,
D[esmond] MacCarthy somewhere hints that G.M. had really read very little and that mere deliberate mischief played a great part in his dicta which listeners were glad to have for their wit and sometimes were shrewd enough. "What is Conrad but the wreck of Stevenson floating about on the slip-slop of Henry James?" is beastly good, though (of course) unfair. But how I do enjoy the old rascal; how attractive are complete absence of principle and an unlimited love of mischief, both apparently quite unselfconscious!True on all counts.