Thomas Hardy's extraordinary journey from modest beginnings as the son of a builder to the pinnacle of British literary society was the result of his exceptional talent and fierce ambition. His road to critical acclaim and commercial success was fraught with numerous challenges as he steered his way between two worlds in a class-conscious society. Claire Tomalin, the author of distinguished biographies of Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft and Samuel Pepys the last receiving the 2002 Whitbread Book of the Year award gives us an elegant and incisive account of Hardy's life in Thomas Hardy.

Her careful narrative vividly evokes his development from a bright young man, unable to go to university, who works as an architect's clerk while becoming an aspiring author. He found his true voice with Far from the Madding Crowd, where he established the territory in which he worked best in fiction, in which rural landscape is drawn with a naturalist's eye and he portrays country people as they cope with custom and change. Tomalin notes that while in all of his works Hardy wasted no scrap of experience, some readers may have misunderstood him. Although he has been read as a realist, she notes, he was not producing documentaries but writing fiction. In addition to his work, at the center of his life for many years was his first wife, Emma Gifford. She was the inspiration for some of his best work, both before and, with regard to his poetry, after her death in 1912. He was in love with her, there was no doubt of that, Tomalin writes, but she was also a precious commodity a mine,' as he so frankly told her. . . . She gave him material for his writing. Years later, Emma felt that her husband cared more for his fictional women than he did the real ones he encountered. Tomalin writes perceptively about Hardy's relationships with other women, including his mother and his second wife, Florence.

Throughout Thomas Hardy Tomalin takes us behind the scenes of late 19th- and early 20th-century literary life in England and shows that Hardy was a shrewd businessman as well as a major author. She explains that early in his career he did whatever was necessary to have his work serialized in publications and for circulating libraries, as well as being deemed appropriate for family reading. Nevertheless, she writes, [h]e did want to become a serious novelist, and his best novels are great works of imagination each with its own seam of poetry sewn into the narrative. Tomalin gives us skillful and helpful readings of Hardy's fiction and poetry and considers the poems an essential part of the narrative of his life. Although his works sometimes aroused controversy because of his views on religion and marriage, Tomalin says that he remained conventional and conservative in his personal life. He chose not to get involved with causes, for example, because he believed a writer was more effective if he appeared open-minded on strictly political questions. Tomalin's beautifully crafted biography helps us to better understand the man and his work.

Roger Bishop is a retired Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.

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