Thursday, January 3, 2008

What they did to Thomas Hardy (2008)

From the January 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

The writer Thomas Hardy died, eighty years ago, in January 1928. Here's what we said at the time.

Primarily this journal is an organ of political propaganda. As such, any attempt to appraise the work of the late Thomas Hardy would be somewhat out of place. But there is one feature connected with his death which needs underlining and emphasising. We refer to the attitude of that old enemy of mankind, the Church. Here was a man who throughout most of a long and thoughtful life, had no use for the Church and its teaching whatever. Although at one time an orthodox Churchman, he has since confessed he found no happiness therein. As an artist in life, he truthfully portrayed the part played by the Church in rural conditions. He recognised its utility to certain primitive, immature minds. But, as a man, he had no need of it. He saw men and women as the puppets of circumstance. He saw life as a

"Chequerboard of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays."

And to Destiny he imputed an almost impish irony. Throughout his works, like a theme, there runs this thread of cynical frustration.

But it seems there are heights of irony of which even Hardy never dreamed. For hardly had he breathed his last, before the Church, whose teachings he had repulsed in life, claimed his corpse for her own. Apart from the fact that he was a known Agnostic, Hardy had specifically recorded in the opening sentence of his will, his desire to be buried with his own folk at Stinsford. No matter, he was a great man, too great for the Church to attempt to belittle, so they annexed him. There was a further difficulty : Hardy was known to have opposed cremation, and cremation is necessary before burial in the Abbey. The way out of that dilemma was easy. Ignore it. Hardy was dead anyway. What of his relatives, his friends? Yes! they were opposed to the old man's last wishes being trampled on. The Daily News correspondent interviewed his brother Henry, his sister Kate, and a cousin, Teresa Hardy. He records :—"They were all very emphatic in declaring their disappointment at Hardy being taken away from them. . . . Teresa Hardy, when I asked her if she did not appreciate the honour done to her cousin, said : 'There is nothing in honour. He wanted to be buried in Stinsford Churchyard, and I think it is cruel not to do as he wished.' " Even the Mayor of Dorchester, Mr. W. F. Hodges, said the proposed Abbey burial would leave a sore feeling in the town.

No matter! The Church must have its poppy-show. An ingenious expedient was suggested. As they could not have Hardy's body buried with his ancestors, the local Rector suggested they might have a piece of him, and it was hurriedly arranged that poor old Hardy's heart should be cut out and buried at Stinsford. As all the world knows, this was done. What Hardy would have thought of the whole proceeding, one can imagine. It is difficult to conceive anything more repulsive and disgusting, in an age which so constantly claims to be "enlightened," and the comments of posterity should be worth reading. Sentiment still plays an important part in human affairs, and possibly will so continue for many years to come. But it is hard to imagine the sentimental majority of people viewing the barbaric mutilation of gentle old Hardy's body with any feelings other than loathing.

W.T. Hopley

The 1982 ’Socialist Thinkers – People Who History Made’ Lecture Series