'Where is fancy bred?'

Thomas Hardy and Desire: Conceptions of the Self, Jane Thomas
(233pp, £50.00, Palgrave)

Thomas Hardy's poem 'Her Song' is spoken by a woman remembering how she attracted a man with a song. The man then left her and she wonders if he still sings the song. The poem is full of typical Hardy phrases and inventions such as 'unforeknowingly', 'cup-eyed care' and 'time untouched me with a trace / of soul-smart or despair'. The poem describes, among other things, how two subjectivities once completed each other and how they go on yearning to do so. The DIY oddity of Hardy's language mimes not just the working of desire but the way that desire's work is constantly moving between absence and presence or loss and possession. Desire is never satisfied and never still. Typically for Hardy, the poem portrays desire and loss but, as Stephen Banfield has noted, seems to offer the poem itself as evidence of desire as a positive force. It is desire that has produced the poem and energised the speaking of it.

Such a conception of desire drives Jane Thomas's important and groundbreaking book. There is a pleasing symmetry in the book appearing 100 years after the poems for which Hardy is best-known, the so-called 'Emma' poems or 'Poems 1912-13'. But it is typical of Thomas's approach that she seeks to rise above 'the biographicalism favoured by the majority of commentators on these poems.' In contrast, she wants to remind us that the poems 'dramatise the condition of the artist poet who strives to bring what is lost or absent into the domain of language.' Lacan is used lightly but tellingly throughout to illuminate the discussion of desire's work. Thomas finds much to say about 'Poems 1912-13' that is strikingly original. My own thought is that the poems have been written about so extensively in the last 30-40 years because they present subjectivity as the kind of displaced performance that has come to dominate our cultural moment. Whoever the mourner of the poems is and whoever he is mourning are often less important than the fact his subjectivity is made up from a play of external views. The idea of the self as a performance and as a very public one is one source of Hardy's enduring fascination and relevance. Other nineteenth-century novelists such as Dickens and Gaskell also knew the self is a public performance but they allowed their readers and characters the illusion of having a choice about opting in or opting out. Hardy recognised that a public self, composed of the words and, crucially, the looks of others, was unavoidable and that its performance was never less than brutal and toxic for the self and others. Indeed, this is why so many of his novels begin on roads – not as a crude image of destiny or progress but as a material fact of exposure.

The relationship between the public performance of the self and other's selves is at once driven by desire and is the ground of desire. Thomas doesn't focus that explicitly on performance but a strong and subtle sense of what happens when desiring selves meet animates her argument. A combination of alert close reading and judicious use of theory allows her to explore how Hardy shows how desire articulates and shapes cultural, economic and social spaces and practices. And, unlike some writers on Hardy, Thomas ranges across major and minor novels, poetry, and shorter fiction. This not only helps her to avoid the accusation that she might have 'cherry picked' texts that suit her argument but also gives a powerful sense of a total Hardy Ōuvre that is missing from some other accounts.

It would be easy to read Hardy as a pessimist about desire because he doesn't comfort us – as do Dickens and Gaskell – with the idea that we can somehow bend desire to our will and make it produce something. Thomas makes a strong case for reading beyond pessimism although she could perhaps have made more of the strong sense that one takes away from so many Hardy texts of the author willing himself and not always succeeding to see beyond present conditions. At the same time, Thomas is at pains to show of the positive 'message' of many texts is not always located in their central characters. Hardy and Desire
is, then, an important book, the product of a lifetime's engagement with an author whose work eludes convenient critical narratives. The book also demonstrates the continuing usefulness of theoretically-inflected readings. One hopes that Palgrave will issue Thomas's book in paperback because it deserves a wide readership. To return to the poem with which we began, Hardy's linguistic oddities look increasingly like a 'having it both ways' answer to the question raised in the song in The Merchant of Venice, 'Tell me where is fancy bred. / Or in the heart or in the head?'

    © David Kennedy 2013