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.”
But I’ve already digressed. I’m writing mainly to share a few excerpts from his letters that find him at his morose peak (nadir?). As a kind of warm-up, here’s a note from 1898 in which he critiques a prime minister’s funeral—always an exercise in good taste.
I went to see Gladstone “lying in state’” this morning—thought it can hardly be called in state—so plain, even to bareness was the whole scene—a plain oak coffin on a kind of altar covered with a black cloth, a tall candle at each corner, a cross, & “requiescat in pace” embroidered on the white pall under the coffin. Two carpenters in front of me said “a rough job—¾ panels, & 1¼ framing” referring to the coffin, which was made by the village carpenter at Hawarden.
Imagine the relish with which he must have recognized those two workmen as brothers-in-arms. 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.
You’d think a latent, adolescent sadomasochism would be hard to top. You would be wrong. More dubious still is the letter of condolence Hardy wrote to Rider Haggard in 1891, when Haggard had just lost his ten-year-old son:
Please give my kind regards to Mrs Haggard, & tell her how deeply our sympathy was with you both in your bereavement. Though, to be candid, I think the death of a child is never really to be regretted, when one reflects on what he has escaped.
That thought in itself is unremittingly bleak. It gets worse when you discover that Hardy lived out a kind of punch line: in 1904, he helped to judge a contest in search of Britain’s most photogenic babies.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.