Claire Tomalin and I got off on the wrong foot while I was reading her biography of Thomas Hardy. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Tomalin had fallen a little in love with Hap — and I mean, come on; what’s not to love, what with his being the meanest writer in the English language and the awful way he treated both of his wives? — and that her enamoration was getting between me and the truth about Hardy. (That truth being: “He’s the worst.”)
Here’s a quick example. On page 307 of the paperback of Thomas Hardy, we get a luncheon anecdote. Henry Newbolt and the poet W.B. Yeats were at the Hardys’. Hardy was deep in questioning Newbolt about his thoughts on Italian architecture; Emma, Hardy’s wife, was regaling Yeats with “much curious information about the two very fine cats” (that’s from an account left by Newbolt, quoted in Tomalin’s book), proving once and for all the Emma Hardy is my Spirit Animal because what I, too, have is a lot of curious information about my two very fine cats.
I’ll continue quoting from Newbolt’s account: “At last Hardy rose from his seat and looked towards his wife: she made no movement, and he walked to the door. She was still silent and unmoved: he invited her to leave us for a few minutes, for a ceremony which in accordance with his wishes was to be performed without witnesses. [Editor’s note: ?!?] She at once remonstrated, and Yeats and I begged that she should not be asked to leave use. But Hardy insisted and she made no further appeal but gathered up her cats and her train with perfect simplicity and left the room.”
A bit of background: Hardy has been a jerk to his wife Emma for most of the latter part of their marriage and for most of Tomalin’s biography — to the point where he’s actively flirting with other women because why not. I give you this bit of background because I’m hoping you’ll feel the sting of this commentary by Tomalin as much as I did:
“Emma must have exasperated Hardy beyond endurance for him to have treated her as he did on that occasion, in the presence of two eminent visitors. What was worse was that her presence made him so uneasy that all his considerable charm took flight, and he appeared nervous and uneasy with his gusts as well as cold and unkind to his wife.”
See: it’s all Emma’s fault. Because that’s how Tomalin rolls. It couldn’t be that Hardy’s an asshole and even if he were an asshole, like now, like in that anecdote — it’s only because Emma made him into one by just existing in the room, talking of cats with Yeats.
(Oh! And! Emma left some diaries behind, after she died — she predeceased Hardy — and they were pretty critical of Hardy as a human being. Here’s Tomalin on that scenario: “Meanwhile Hardy had found Emma’s diaries, with their angry and contemptuous accounts of his behaviour. Sensibly enough [Editor’s note: whoo boy] he decided they were largely the product of a mind subject to delusions [Editor’s note: !!!] and refused to allow them to spoil his renewed vision of her as the love of his life.” . After Emma’s death, Hardy had a renaissance of love for her that’s pretty weird and controlling — especially since he actively moons over his dead wife in front of his living new wife because, as I mentioned earlier: THE WORST.)
Claire Tomalin and I still aren’t right with each other, especially once I moved on to her biography of Charles Dickens that came out late last year. For starters, she made a weird error about a debt that Dickens’s father, John, owed. John took out a loan of £200 to be paid back at £26 per annum for life. As in: until John Dickens died. As in: there was no point where John Dickens would be able to cross that off his [interrupting right now to say that those wonderful cats of mine I was mentioning up top? Totally in a fight to the death in the library where the fat one keeps condescendingly tapping the tiny orange one on the head and I’m sorry you’re not here to see this since (a) it’s awesome; and (b) it would mean I wouldn’t have to type all this out, we could just complain about Claire Tomalin in person like civilized and mature adults] to-do list. Only Tomalin says, “it should have taken a little more than eight years [to pay back]” and then, I forgot to mention, John Dickens wasn’t able to keep up with the payments on the loan so his brother-in-law, Thomas Barrow, ended up paying the loan off. So it’s even weirder when Tomalin writes, “but his financial incompetence was such that he was still paying it off thirty years later.” Only that can’t be true for a number of reasons, not least of which: the loan had already been paid off by Thomas Barrow. And then also, if John Dickens had been able to keep up with the original terms of the loan (and, by the way: what idiot agrees to loan terms like that? John Dickens, that’s who) then of course he would have still been paying the loan back thirty years later.
And then she weirdly mischaracterizes the relationship between Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell as sort of a wacky, not-as-sexy Moonlighting thing when really it was sort of a wacky, not-as-sexy boy-did-they-hate-each-other thing. (Dickens once wrote in a letter, “If I was Mr Gaskell oh how I would choke her!”)
Oh AND then there’s this that my friend Catherine sent me from the Irish Times: What the Dickens? Why biographers don’t always tell the whole story.
Turns out, Tomalin may have been taken in by a hoax — something she only realized after the bio was printed. The now-known-to-be-bunk story is: Dickens and Dostoevsky met in 1862, had a heart-to-heart where Dickens poured out a LOT of heavy stuff about himself to a Russian stranger, and Dostoevsky wrote about it. Tomalin quotes this (fake) Dostoevskian passage at length in her biography from a translation she came across but never thought, “Hm. I wonder what this looks like in Russian?” Because if she had, she would have learned that there does not appear to be an original of this conversation at all. From the article:
“She initially found the account of the meeting “electrifying” but began to have doubts after her biography was published. Then she and her husband, the writer Michael Frayn, looked for the original source of the account, not the translation she had relied on. She could find nothing to back up the English account, and other biographers who used the translation also admitted that they were unable to verify its source.”
Oh Claire Tomalin. You’re simply the worst.