Poet and Novelist Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
I was looking for information on the Internet about Thomas Hardy when I came upon an interesting article on the Paris Review website. The opening paragraphs captured my attention:
Are you enjoying yourself at the moment? Please stop. It’s Thomas Hardy’s birthday, and he will wipe the smile right off your smug, contented, life-affirming face. You’re dealing with a man who knew how to deploy the word Niflheim, defined by the OED as “the region of eternal darkness, mist, and cold inhabited by those who died from old age or illness.” Hardy uses it to dispirited perfection in The Woodlanders, relating a kind of failure to connect: “But he continued motionless and silent in that gloomy Niflheim or fog-land which involved him, and she proceeded on her way.” Actually, The Woodlanders is full of an evocative, despondent murkiness. It extends even to the tiny twigs on the ground, which Hardy takes care to describe as they’re destroyed by a passing carriage: “they drove on out of the grove, their wheels silently crushing delicate-patterned mosses, hyacinths, primroses, lords-and-ladies, and other strange and common plants, and cracking up little sticks that lay across the track.”
Hardy wrote with a special zeal for death, and his sense of the morbid often lapsed into tone deafness. He witnessed two executions when he was a boy—maybe that had something to do with it. One of them was the hanging of Elizabeth Martha Brown, who was convicted of murdering her husband. By his own account, Hardy, then only sixteen, stood close enough to the gallows to hear her gown rustling; the hanging left an indelible mark on him such that seventy years later, in 1926, he could render it vividly in a letter to Lady Pinney, casting Brown’s final seconds in an unmistakably erotic light:
I am ashamed to say I saw her hanged, my only excuse being that I was but a youth and had to be in the town at that time for other reasons … I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back.
He added later:
The hanging itself did not move me at all. But I sat on after the others went away, not thinking, but looking at the figure … turning slowly round on the rope. And then it began to rain, and then I saw—they had put a cloth over the face—how as the cloth got wet, her features came through it. That was extraordinary. A boy had climbed up into a tree nearby, and when she dropped he came down in a faint like an apple dropping from a tree. It was curious the two dropping together.
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