Hah. Hahahahahah. Haaaah.
I should disclaim, first and foremost, that I have read ONE ENTIRE BOOK by Thomas Hardy, so my opinions on this subject are FAR FROM DEFINITIVE. That said, my understanding is that my impression from that book was pretty representative of his work in general, since I remember discussing this with my tutor at Oxford and she was like, …yep that is what he does every time. (She was, uh, not a huge fan. “I always wonder,” she said at the beginning of the tutorial, “if we have George Eliot, then what’s… the point… of Thomas Hardy?” And then she proceeded to look really guilty and tried to find interesting things to say about him for an hour.)
[[MORE]]My main beef with Hardy can be boiled down to a couple of things. I distinctly remember thinking, when reading him, that he was doing ALL OF THE THINGS that you are told not to do when writing, and that it was driving me insane. Now, obviously any kind of proscriptive rules for writing are a waste of time — don’t use adverbs! etc etc — because there’s always somebody who can break them to great effect. But I am talking, like, “show don’t tell” — which again, can be reversed, but NOT ALL THE TIME. There are just some basic instinctual things that you learn that are, you know, valuable, and a LOT of that was not evident in what he was doing — it just felt like bad writing to me. A lot has changed stylistically since the Victorian period but this is sort of more basic than that — you do not get this sense reading, ahem, George Eliot. I would be more specific but it’s been so long that I just don’t remember more detailed observations. But this was very frustrating to me.
The major thing, though, was the way he constructed plot in the book that I read for this tutorial, which was The Mayor of Casterbridge. Plot, IN MY VIEW, should always, always stem from character. (There’s a writing rule somebody has surely broken, skillfully and to great effect! In fact, the main example to me of something that is insanely compelling, and has great characters, but often has major plots that are driven by outside forces, is The Wire, which is all about… how the system destroys everything.) Unless you are writing a satire, in which case the whole point of the work is political, the characters have to be the driving force of what you are doing. End of story. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have other ideas, or that you can’t have a political point — but good, compelling stories almost always come from plots based around characters, which ideally have stemmed from the characters (or that at least feel that way). The plot in The Mayor of Casterbridge is schematic: he clearly had an idea, about a social issue, and then shoved characters into this formula, and it doesn’t work. It feels cheap, and manipulative, and frustrating. And my understanding is that this was pretty much how he always wrote. (He also devised plots that were nominally sympathetic to the plight of women, but the main female character in The Mayor of Casterbridge, at least, is a total feminist nightmare.)
Again, I AM NOT AN AUTHORITY ON THIS SUBJECT; I am sure scholars of Thomas Hardy would disagree with my reduction of his technique. But I did. Not. Like. It. If you compare that to Jane Eyre, for instance: obviously, the governess falling in love with her employer plot is a total trope, right? I mean, that book is the epitome of the trope, but it was still a trope. And it’s not a very plotty book, exactly. But: based on Jane and Rochester’s personalities, it COMPLETELY MAKES SENSE that they would fall for each other. Similarly, it COMPLETELY MAKES SENSE that Rochester would have coped with his wife’s… problems by doing what he’s done, AND that he would have then reacted to locking her up in the attic by going into a self-loathing shame spiral. When Jane finds out, her leaving causes a huge dramatic event in the book — and it feels completely natural, because OF COURSE Jane has to leave. It would be completely inauthentic to the character for her not to. The same with her choosing not to go to India with St John later. Obviously the book ends on a deus ex machina, but I just wanted to pick a simple and familiar counter-example from that (approximate) period.
So basically, I RECOMMEND AVOIDING THOMAS HARDY. Of course there are people who enjoy him, and godspeed to all of you, love what you love, but when you have alternatives like the Brontës, George Eliot, and Henry James, to name but a few, I don’t… really… see… the point.