THOMAS HARDY: THE WORLD OF HIS NOVELS by J. B. Bullen, Reviewed by Elizabeth Helsinger

By J. B. Bullen
(Frances Lincoln Limited, 2013) 256 pp.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Helsinger on 2014-01-28.

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This beautifully produced book is a re-visiting, in more than one sense. As readers probably familiar with at least one of Hardy's Wessex novels (on film if not in print), we are invited to revisit his fictions through immersion in the places that spurred him to create them. Hardy himself was returning to the country of his childhood when in 1867 he left architecture in London to write in and about Dorset. For Bullen, too, this book is a revisiting: his first book, more than twenty-five years ago, was a study of Hardy's visual imagination in his fiction (The Expressive Eye, 1986). This palimpsest of circular journeys is, however, less about repetition than about registering the tension between rootedness and transformation in both the seers and the seen. It's about what happens to central Hardy characters no less than to the novelist, the critic, and the reader: to Clym in The Return of the Native (1878) and Grace in The Woodlanders (1887), but also to Tess in Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) and Jude in Jude the Obscure (1895). Like Hardy himself, Bullen, and Hardy's readers, Hardy's characters inhabit a changing world (where railroads cross timeless landscapes, even in Wessex).

Yet we remain anchored in personal and cultural memories: memories embedded, for Hardy, not only in places and buildings but in the stories, ballads, and songs of an oral tradition still alive in his childhood. (Donald Davidson and Thom Gunn have convincingly argued that the novels and poems grow out of old ballads; see Davidson, "The Traditional Basis of Thomas Hardy's Fiction," Southern Review 6 [1940] and Gunn,"Hardy and Ballads," Agenda 10 [1972]). Bullen's focus, however, is on the "process of transformation" (19) to which Hardy's visual imagination subjected both the revisited and the remembered Dorset. By transforming Dorset, he created the landscapes, buildings, and characters of Wessex, that fictional composite of country, landscape, society, and culture in which we so powerfully believe. So powerfully, indeed, that we make avid pilgrimage to seek Clym and Eustacia on Egdon Heath, Henchard and Farfrae in Casterbridge, and Tess, Alex, and Angel in the forest at Cranbourne Chase, Talbothay's farm in the Valley of the Great Dairies, and the bleak heights of Flintcomb-Ash. Or, next best, take pleasure in a book like this one, which skillfully interweaves its evocative accounts of Hardy's life, of Dorset and Cornwall places, and of the stories unfolded from places in six of his novels (and a few poems) so that we vividly re-experience them.

In this book Bullen remains true to his earlier insights in The Expressive Eye -- itself expanding on Tom Paulin's Thomas Hardy: The Poetry of Perception (1975) -- that Hardy was a profoundly visual writer whose imagination was stimulated by actual places. Bullen's earlier study examines the landscapes of Hardy's life and their fictional counterparts in his novels, but also identifies a range of art works shaping particular places and characters that Hardy discovered in London during a formative decade in the 1860s. Landscapes and paintings together, Bullen argued, fed Hardy's imagination. Hardy's Wessex is Dorset transformed not only by Hardy but by the visions of painters like his favorite J. M. W. Turner, whose influence on Hardy Bullen further discussed in "The Gods in Wessex Exile" (The Sun Is God: Painting, Literature and Mythology in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Bullen [1989]).

The new book has more to say about the role of visual art in shaping Hardy's fiction. While Bullen concentrates on actually visitable scenes, he effectively shows how not only Turner's paintings but also Hardy's own sketches and early watercolors (nicely reproduced in color on non-glare paper) helped him to re-imagine place in the novels and poems. As emphasized by both Paulin (Poetry of Perception 5) and Bullen (Expressive Eye 3), Hardy always referred to the places evoked so memorably in his Wessex writing as "impressions," meaning by that term the active intervention of a particular eye and hand, shaped by willed cultural and individual remembering and fitted to the demands of an imaginative project, to the story of Tess, Clym, or Jude.

How well does Bullen's book succeed in its self-appointed task? It aims less to recreate Hardy's process, inevitably a speculative endeavor, than to lead us (educating by leading us out, literally, into Hardy country) along a possible path from the complex taking of impressions to the writing of character and scene. Let the opening of Bullen's chapter on Tess serve as an example.

Following an entry in Hardy's notebooks for September 1888, Bullen starts by taking us on a train ride and walk to the top of Bubb-Down hill, whence one can see the country not only of the novel he had just published (Woodlanders) but also the setting of what would become the Valley of the Little Dairies (Tess's birthplace) in Tess. "Looking east," he writes in his notebook, "you see High Stoy and the escarpment below it....[T]he Valley of the Little Dairies is almost entirely green, every hedge being studded with vines. [And] on the left you see to an immense distance, including Shaftesbury" (qtd. 139). Turning the page of Bullen's book, we confront that prospect (in both senses) in a double-page color photograph, the virtual landscape opening out with something of the same expansiveness that rewards a walker after the climb. Rather than letting us rest there long, however, Bullen seeks to explain more deeply the novel's impact by probing the gaze behind that view: what happens to it when we shift, with Hardy, from walking in Dorset to reading Tess?

As Bullen reminds us, Hardy's reworking of the ballad of the ruined maid made Tess his most controversial novel. Tess is throughout eroticized, for Hardy's readers as well as for those who see her in the novel (the narrator, other characters). The effect, Bullen argues, is carefully achieved through Hardy's manipulations of all our gazes, which are made to see Tess always as a figure in a landscape, never in isolation. Hardy generates characters like Tess out of the geographical, cultural, and social environments in which he, intensely, sees them. This is true despite the education that sets Tess apart from her family and fellow villagers: she has the language but also the burdens of consciousness suffered by those who have left the village. Later, Angel Clare will be surprised to discover in her an "ache of modernism" familiar to him but unexpected in the unspoiled child of nature, daughter of a much older landscape, that he takes her to be.

With the visual prospect of the "original" of Tess's birthplace Bullen juxtaposes the novel's own first sight of Tess in the place Hardy renames Marlott: "an engirdled and secluded region, for the most part untrodden as yet by tourist or landscape-painter" (Tess [Oxford 2008] 18). Here, Bullen observes, "the neutral prose of Hardy's original note to himself is transformed into a landscape that is benevolent and sheltering. Then there is the inclusion of the tourist and landscape painter. Though their presence in the valley is rare, it is not unknown, and using the special gaze of these two figures Hardy begins to shape how and what the reader might see in the valley" (142). Hardy invites us to see place, and eventually, Tess, through the eyes of these two rare visitors, attending especially to light and color ("The atmosphere . . . is so tinged with azure that what artists call the middle-distance partakes also of that hue, while the horizon beyond is of the deepest ultramarine" [Tess, 18]). In the next sentences, Bullen points out, we are pushed to look more deeply, supplementing the tourist-painter's gaze with the more informed looking of the native for whom the seen evokes the known and the remembered: a society whose cultural memory is expressed through its customs, such as the ritual club-walking and May Day dance at which Angel and his companion first see Tess in the fulness of her Wessex setting. As readers (of Hardy, and Bullen) we too are first cast as tourists and landscape-seekers alert to patterns of light and color, but then pushed to look with the native's informant's eyes on the cultural performance of social ties, acts through which a deeper knowledge of the landscape, its seasons, and its people is slowly laid down in collective memory.

As the chapter proceeds, Bullen delicately weaves together the unfolding story of Tess with a continuing investigation of the places to which Hardy's story takes her. Under Bullen's direction, we travel with the help of maps, photographs, and reproductions of Hardy's sketches and Turner's paintings, accompanied by quotations from Hardy's notes and from the novel. We re-live Hardy's gentle manipulations of his characters' and readers' gazes.

According to Bullen, the novel's larger narrative and symbolic structure as well as the look of particular scenes reflects the influence of one painter's eye. While built from ballad stories of seduced and abandoned country maidens, stories now embedded in Dorset places, the tragedy of Tess is literally colored by Hardy's memories of the paintings of Turner, particularly the later works that embody his half-personal, half-cultural mythopoeics of the sun's struggle against inevitable darkness.

In Bullen's retelling, The Golden Bough (1834, above) presides over the opening act of Tess's tragedy, the May Day dance; in the painting, maidens dance in a golden glow while the Cumaean Sybl, holds aloft a branch of mistletoe -- sexual symbol and Aeneus' glowing guide through the underworld.

A detail from Turner's Bacchus and Ariadne (1840, above) suggests the darkening next act: its Dionysiac, foreboding, orange-lit scene resembles the chaff-obscured red haze of the drunken barn dance that Tess sees in Chaseborough, on the night of her seduction or rape by Alex d'Urberville.

Finally, The Angel Standing in the Sun, subtitled The Flight of the Angel of Darkness (1846) is Bullen's emblem for the novel's climactic scene. Turner's angel, the Angel of the Apocalypse seen by St. John, is a winged figure with upraised sword, outlined in red and standing at the center of a great vortex of blinding yellows; beyond its glare, tiny human figures retreat into the surrounding dark. Bullen sees the vision of Turner and St. John evoked by Hardy's depiction of the now-lost though exalted Tess after she kills Alex: regaining her Angel's love, she flees with him from the law only to sink at last, exhausted and in darkness, on the sacrificial altar of Druidic sun worship at Stonehenge.

Did Hardy's visual imagination turn to Turner, as Bullen suggests? Perhaps that is not the right question to ask of this book. I am not completely convinced, but I am certainly seduced by the weave of lovingly printed images and text: Dorset landscapes, Turner paintings, Hardy's prose, and Bullen's. (I should note that there is also a brief chapter on Hardy's poems.) Bullen gives us not a scholarly argument (though his new book is informed with his and others' earlier scholarship) nor just another of the by-now many Thomas Hardy's Dorset books (though this one, traveling in that country again, offers a few fresh locational discoveries). Rather, the pleasures of this book (and they are real) come from its ability to re-enchant us in a way that is not un-Hardy-like, to draw us again into the intensely seen, heard, and felt world of the novels and poems. It set me to re-reading Hardy, with different eyes.

Elizabeth Helsinger is the John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor of English, Art History, and Visual Arts Emerita at the University of Chicago.

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