To write the Life of Thomas Hardy is an epic undertaking. You have to disinter two complicated marriages, while wading through the interminable Dynasts and the no longer famous Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall. Epic must begin not stolidly ab ovo in the manner of traditional biography, but arrestingly in medias res. The first decision is therefore the choice of vignette for your prologue. Ralph Pite and Claire Tomalin begin as follows: “You have to leave your car in the car park and walk up the lane” and “In November of 1912 an ageing writer lost his wife”. Admirers of Tomalin’s work will have no difficulty in assigning these openings to their respective authors, not least because she is too elegant and economic a writer ever to use the word “car” twice in any sentence, let alone the all-important first one. Her best books are about marriages or quasi-marital relationships: Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, above all Dora Jordan and the future King William IV. Her prologue accordingly turns Emma, the first Mrs Hardy, into a version of the madwoman in the attic, sleeping alone on the top floor of Max Gate, reading and writing all day in a second attic room, having her breakfast and lunch brought up by her maid. The writerly decision to take the trouble to record the latter’s name (Dolly) is the authentic Tomalin touch


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