In which Mark Ford imagines discussing his new book, Thomas Hardy: Half a Londoner, over lunch in a London pub.
A: Well, yes, but did you know that the first novel in which he uses the term consistently is The Hand of Ethelberta, which is set largely in London. It occurs 16 times there! It was only very gradually that Hardy came to realize the potential of the concept of Wessex – in fact a London-based friend called Kegan Paul realized it first: in 1881 (Hardy was at this time living in the London suburb of Tooting) Kegan Paul wrote a long article for a London paper on Hardy’s creation of Wessex, and even advised Londoners to visit Dorset and seek out the originals of Hardy’s mythical country. The whole Wessex-themed tourist industry, you might say, was dreamed up by a London publisher and journalist – rather as the ‘ploughman’s lunch’ we are eating in this faux-rustic pub in Shepherd’s Bush was dreamed up by a London-based ad firm in the 1950s.
Q: Hmm, pass that authentic rural pickle, will you? But doesn’t that make Hardy seem a bit of sham?
A: Here you go … No, not at all – he was a realist. He couldn’t get his first novel, which was largely set in London, published, and had to pay for his second to be issued by a pretty dodgy publisher, Tinsley – he lost about £15 on the deal in the end. He came to understand the London publishing industry and what it wanted. He turned himself into a London professional. You’ve got to understand he came from a pretty poor background – indeed his mother’s mother had received poor relief. His parents invested a lot in him becoming a successful architect, and his mother was not at all happy when he became a novelist. A very risky trade. Plus he had to support a middle-class wife on what he earned from his books. There’s a great scene in Tess when Angel and Tess load the Talbothays milk on to a train bound for London, and Angel says it will be ‘watered down’ by the time it reaches Londoners’ breakfast tables. Hardy’s probably surreptitiously talking about the accommodations he had to make with the London publishing industry here.
Q: So you are saying he wouldn’t have become the novelist – and the poet – that he did if he hadn’t gone to London? Do you want another pint of Harvester’s?
A: No more mead for me … Absolutely. No question. Those five years in London in his early twenties were crucial. In many ways they ended in failure, though he did write some wonderful poems, such as ‘Neutral Tones’, and he educated himself in this period, very strenuously indeed, which led to the breakdown of his health. The key thing, though, was – when he went back to Dorset he had been urbanized, or one might say modernized – he understood what Tess calls ‘the ache of modernism’. He was a native returning – and it was the distance between himself and the region where he’d grown up that allowed him to convert it into Wessex.
Q: If he liked London so much, why didn’t he write about it more?
A: Well, journeys to and from London, by train – the railway reached Dorchester when Hardy was eight – are crucial to lots of the novels, particularly Desperate Remedies, A Pair of Blue Eyes, The Hand of Ethelberta and The Well-Beloved. Not, I concede, his most famous novels, but all four are wonderful in their different ways. And he wrote over 50 poems set in London, including some of his very best, such as ‘Coming Up Oxford Street: Evening’ and ‘The Woman I Met’, which is about an encounter with the ghost of a London prostitute. And the Life, his autobiography, has dozens of anecdotes, observations, accounts of London life – in fact it’s really almost as much about his life in London as in Dorset. And of course, after Tess, he was practically the most famous writer on the planet – maybe Kipling was a bit more famous. He got invited everywhere, and beautiful hostesses courted him, and he’d fall in love with them, but none would go as far as he seems to have wanted them to go. He and Emma would spend the four months of ‘the Season’ in London almost every year. One year they even took their own servants up with them. And from the 1890s onwards Wessex pilgrims streamed down to Dorchester from the capital, following Kegan Paul’s advice – and many would ring the doorbell at Max Gate and ask if they could have tea with their favourite rural novelist – only to be told he was up in London – likely as not attending some exclusive soirée in Kensington!
Q: What an extraordinary life!
A: It really was. And this Dick Whittington aspect has been overlooked because it doesn’t fit in with the myth of Wessex. But that’s sort of what it was – coming to London led to the making of him … or so I argue … but he was always ill there, and nearly died when he and Emma were living in Tooting, and he realized that there was a ‘mechanical’ aspect to the novels he wrote when living there at the end of the 1870s. He couldn’t live there, but he depended on it for his livelihood. In this sense he really was, as he put it in a letter to Edmund Gosse after he grew too old and ill to make it up to the capital, ‘half a Londoner’! All this talking has made me thirsty again – I think I’ll have a pint of London Pride.