The Profitable Reading of Fiction by Thomas Hardy.

For this week's Deal Me In I drew 'The Profitable Reading of Fiction' by Thomas Hardy. As it happens I am very much behind on my Hardy essays (I had aimed to have read six by now: I've only read two), and the reason why I've been resisting Hardy's essays is that Hardy, in my mind, was no essay writer. I find them excruciating reads. They lack the beautiful flow seen in Woolf's essays and the confidence and assertion of Samuel Johnson in his essays, and Hardy's sentences, to use his very own words (albeit on a different matter): "put he it never so awkwardly". An unfortunate sentence, an unfortunate arrangement of words, that sum-up the Hardy essay reading experience.

On, then, to 'The Profitable Reading of Fiction' which was first published in the Forum in March 1888 (the same year as Hardy's Wessex Tales which I plan on reading in the next week or so). In this Hardy considers what he views as the "timeless theme" of the benefits of reading novels. He begins by defining "good" as something pleasurable (though this, he acknowledges, is not the sole definition of "good"). What is good or what is enjoyable will naturally vary from one to the next -
 The town man finds what he seeks in novels of the country, the countryman in novels of society, the indoor class generally in outdoor novels, the villager in novels of the mansion, the aristocrat in novels of the cottage.
A novel, in terms of being enjoyable, must in this instance be absorbing "if not absolutely fascinating", but to achieve this kind of escapism one must put one's whole faith into the author: "the author should be swallowed whole, like any other alliterative pill". By doing so one exercises "generous imaginativeness" and is able to profit simply be enjoyment.

Another way of 'profiting' is gleaning certain facts from a book -
 Excursions into various philosophies, which vary or delay narrative proper, may have more attraction than the regular course of the enactment; the judicious inquirer may be on the look-out for didactic reflection, such as is found in large lumps in Rasselas; he may be a picker-up of trifles of useful knowledge, statistics, queer historic fact, such as sometimes occur in the pages of Hugo; he may search for specimens of the manners of good or bad society, such as are to be obtained from the fashionable writers; or he may even wish to brush up his knowledge of quotations from ancient and other authors by studying some chapters of Pelham and the disquisitions of Parson Adams in Joseph Andrews.
The aim in this, "is a lesson in life, mental enlargement from elements essential to the narratives themselves and from the reflections they engender". Hardy goes on to write there is to be discovered universal truths in a wide historical range and,
Whether we hold the arts which depict mankind to be, in the words of Mr. Matthew Arnold, a criticism of life, or, in those of Mr. Addington Symonds, a revelation of life, the material remains the same, with its sublimities, its beauties, its uglinesses, as the case may be.  the finer manifestations must precede in importance the meaner, without such a radical change in human nature as we can hardly conceive as pertaining to an even remote future of decline, and certainly do not recognize now.
He goes on to note that modern novels with their sentiments and moralising cannot compare to the old classics, and "In this scarcity of excellence in novels as wholes the reader must content himself with excellence in parts". By reading the old classics we learn the difference between 'temporary' and 'eternal truths', and by reading one becomes more 'humanised' and illuminated.

Enjoyment, education, and empathy may all be learned from the reading of novels, but as Hardy notes at the end not all are capable of much more than the idle passing of time,
But, as with the horse and the stream in the proverb, no outside power can compel or even help a reader to gain good from such reading unless he has some natural eye for the finer qualities in the best productions of this class.
He concludes with the biting observation that it is these idle and superficial readers that become the most vocal critics,
What author has not had his experience of such readers?--the mentally and morally warped ones of both sexes, who will, when practicable, so twist plain and obvious meanings as to see in an honest picture of human nature an attack on religion, morals, or institutions.  Truly has it been observed that "the eye sees that which it brings with it the means of seeing."
Hardy's essays are, as I've said, exceptionally hard work. I dislike them more than I can say and get very little from them. For this reason I have to admit defeat: I have thirteen Hardy essays listed in my Thomas Hardy challenge and this is now only my third. I cannot read another ten - it is the most miserable experience reading them and then trying to find something to say afterwards! As my Hardy challenge was never meant to be a 'complete works' challenge, as Hardy is more noted for his novels and poetry, as I am in no way enlightened by the ones I've read so far, and as these essays make reading Hardy a pitiful experience, I must give up the essay part of that challenge. The idea of reading ten more could make me weep. So on that note I'm going to replace the final Hardy title of the Deal Me In with a Woolf essay and make this the last Thomas Hardy essay I will read or write about in the foreseeable future. Perhaps one day, far far into the future, I'll change my mind and return to them, but for now I'm much happier for my decision!

And that was my ill-fated twenty-first title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Coleridge - this will be my first Coleridge!

Until then, apologies for being so very negative. I'm not usually quite so unforgiving with books.

Comments

  1. a big tx for no more Hardy... even in his poetry i've never found his style to flow or maintain interest. all that i read of his work was some of the early novels, a couple of which were pretty good, but he's always a struggle to read, being imo clunky and rather erratic. some of the poems were okay, but i found, reading them one after the other, irksomely repetitive. actually i find Meredith and Eliot to be similar although not quite so awkward. for smoothness and comprehensibility, i much prefer Lytton Strachey, Gibbon, Haggard, and others like that... these opinions are the result of fifty years of reading and reflect only my own views, noone else. many tx for your wrestling match with TH!

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    1. I'll keep going with his fiction - I just have three more novels to read, two of which I've already read years ago and loved. And I am still looking forward to reading his plays! Poetry and short stories excite me a little less simply because I prefer long long poems and full length novels, so I'm not actually used to short poems and stories I'm afraid! Poetry I'm the worst at. But we'll see. And yes, no more Hardy essays. I just couldn't do it. In fact, I'm so relieved at my decision it hadn't really crossed my mind to be annoyed with myself for giving up a part of a challenge. But I'm not giving up the whole challenge. Yet anyway, we'll see what the poetry brings! :)

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  2. Wow, they must have been truly awful, as I know that you always search for even the slightest glimmer of hope in your reads. While I could never do a complete Hardy challenge, I do want to read a few more of his novels; I've only read Under The Greenwood Tree, a curious first choice, yes I know, but it was one of his more positive stories. It rather irked me, I must admit. I'm glad to hear though that you've loved some of his novels. There is still hope for me yet!

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    1. Under the Greenwood Tree is a rather odd first choice :) I don't think I was too keen on that one. You should go The Return of the Native next I think! I seem to think the most famous Hardy novels are the most famous for a good reason. There are a few minor ones I love (Two on a Tower, Desperate Remedies) but Greenwood Tree, Trumpet Major, Ethelberta, Laodicean... I couldn't get into those at all :)

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