MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD

How Bazaar proved its met­tle by pub­lish­ing Thomas Hardy’s chal­leng­ing writ­ing

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Contents - By Kathryn Hughes

When Thomas Hardy was look­ing for a mag­a­zine to se­ri­alise his con­tro­ver­sial nov­els de­scrib­ing the lives of young women in pro­vin­cial Vic­to­rian Eng­land, he didn’t need to search for very long. Harper’s Bazaar, reck­oned to be ‘un­ri­valled amongst pe­ri­od­i­cal pub­li­ca­tions’ by a com­men­ta­tor of the time for its com­bi­na­tion of lit­er­ary pres­tige, pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics and high­gloss chic, was the ob­vi­ous des­ti­na­tion for such taboo-break­ing work. In­deed, ex­plained one ad­mir­ing critic: ‘There is scarcely a poet, or a story-writer or nov­el­ist of any rank in Amer­ica or Eng­land who is not a con­trib­u­tor to the mag­a­zine’s pages.’ What’s more – and this was cru­cial to Hardy – Bazaar paid top dol­lar. Three of his most ac­com­plished books from the late 1880s on­wards – Tess of the d’Ur­bervilles, The Wood­lan­ders and The Pur­suit of the Well-Beloved – were all pub­lished in Bazaar in quick suc­ces­sion.

Apart from the money, it was the qual­ity of the mag­a­zine’s writ­ing that had drawn so many of the best nov­el­ists to Bazaar from its ear­li­est days in the 1860s. Mary Booth, the founding edi­tor, was her­self an acclaimed short-story writer and lit­er­ary trans­la­tor. Dur­ing the Civil War, she had even earned a thankyou note from Abra­ham Lin­coln for in­tro­duc­ing the Yan­kee read­ing pub­lic to key revo­lu­tion­ary texts from France, de­signed to raise morale in the fight against the slave-own­ing South.

Mean­while, Mar­garet Sang­ster, who took over from Booth in 1889, was a dis­tin­guished poet in her own right who found her­self obliged to make her liv­ing by her pen fol­low­ing the death of her hus­band. Pas­sion­ate about the professional prospects that jour­nal­ism of­fered the first gen­er­a­tion of work­ing women, Sang­ster told a grad­u­at­ing class at Smith that ‘no vo­ca­tion al­lur­ing to women pos­sessed wider op­por­tu­ni­ties and richer re­wards than this’.

Sit­ting in his Dorch­ester study on the other side of the At­lantic, Thomas Hardy was un­der no il­lu­sion that it would be easy to find an Amer­i­can mag­a­zine will­ing to print his scan­dalous new novel, Tess of the d’Ur­bervilles. Tess is a beau­ti­ful but un­worldly vil­lage girl who is twice be­trayed by men pre­tend­ing to be her pro­tec­tor. First comes Alec d’Ur­berville, her up­per-class dis­tant cousin, who rapes her while she is asleep, leav­ing her preg­nant. Then An­gel Clare, a gen­tle­manly rad­i­cal, who begs Tess to marry him, but sub­se­quently spurns her when he dis­cov­ers that she is not the ‘spot­less’ crea­ture he had fondly imag­ined. Hardy’s novel burns with rage at the un­fair­ness of Tess’ sit­u­a­tion, and the ti­tle of one sec­tion of the book sums up the au­thor’s feel­ings about the sex­ual dou­ble stan­dards of Vic­to­rian Eng­land – ‘The Woman Pays’.

Sev­eral Bri­tish mag­a­zines had turned down Tess be­fore it was pub­lished in Bazaar. Mar­garet Sang­ster, the edi­tor, took her role as lit­er­ary taste-maker se­ri­ously, per­son­ally plough­ing through the hun­dreds of manuscripts that were sub­mit­ted to the New York of­fice ev­ery week. What she was look­ing for, she said, was ‘the au­thor who re­ally has a mes­sage, who has some­thing to say and knows how to say it’. If she took a man­u­script home and found her­self read­ing it all night, then she knew it was right for Bazaar.

There were other ways in which Hardy’s nov­els were a good fit with the mag­a­zine. As a trained ar­chi­tect, he had a dis­cern­ing eye for what to­day would be called ‘the ma­te­rial cul­ture’ or so­cial fab­ric of Wes­sex, the fic­tional land­scape based on his na­tive Dorset. In his nov­els, Hardy re­peat­edly uses cloth­ing and ac­ces­sories such as para­sols, but­tons and scarves to build up a sub­tle yet solid sense of his fe­male char­ac­ters’ in­ner worlds. In The Wood­lan­ders, also se­ri­alised in Bazaar, Hardy drama­tises the psy­cho­log­i­cal and so­cial chasm be­tween the cen­tral cou­ple Grace Mel­bury and Giles Win­ter­borne in terms of the clothes they wear. Grace, a

lo­cal girl who has been sent away to board­ing-school to be­come a lady, is no­tice­able by her ‘fash­ion­able at­tire’, much of which has come from the Con­ti­nent, while Giles clings to the home­spun broad­cloth of the yeo­man.

All the same, nei­ther Mary Booth nor Mar­garet Sang­ster were, by their own ad­mis­sion, par­tic­u­larly en­gaged with clothes. Their se­cret weapon was a woman called Sal­lie G Shanks, an el­e­gant South­erner who was the mag­a­zine’s long-serv­ing fash­ion edi­tor. Shanks, like Hardy, was aware of the way in which cloth­ing could trans­form a woman’s re­la­tion­ship with her­self and her world. One of Bazaar ’s great sell­ing points was the speed with which it car­ried the lat­est fash­ion plates from France. To be of real use, though, Shanks knew these im­ages had to be but­tressed with clear in­struc­tions and pa­per pat­terns with which read­ers could recre­ate Parisian de­signs for them­selves. It was ex­actly these kinds of pat­terns that dress­mak­ers in Hardy’s imag­ined Wes­sex used to pro­duce the styles beloved of so many of his ru­ral hero­ines, peo­ple like Grace Mel­bury who de­ploy the new­est fash­ions to trans­form their so­cial and sex­ual iden­tity.

Hardy’s Amer­i­can read­ers, thumb­ing through Bazaar in the early 1890s, had ev­ery rea­son to con­grat­u­late them­selves on their dis­tance from the hope­lessly hide­bound so­ci­ety por­trayed in The Wood­lan­ders and Tess of the d’Ur­bervilles. Cer­tainly, Mary Booth carved out a life for her­self that sounds re­mark­ably pro­gres­sive. From her beau­ti­ful house on Cen­tral Park she ran a lit­er­ary and artis­tic Satur­day sa­lon fre­quented by fa­mous au­thors, great singers, mu­si­cians, states­men, trav­ellers, pub­lish­ers and lead­ing jour­nal­ists. Fur­ther­more, Booth shared that home with her friend, Anne Wright, ‘be­tween whom’, ac­cord­ing to her bi­og­ra­pher and the Bazaar con­trib­u­tor Har­riet Prescott Spof­ford, ‘there ex­ist one of those life­long and ten­der af­fec­tions which are too in­ti­mate and del­i­cate for pub­lic men­tion’.

The last novel Hardy pub­lished with Bazaar was The Pur­suit of the Well-Beloved, his most ex­plicit ac­count of the folly of male fan­tasies about women. Jo­ce­lyn Pier­ston is a highly suc­cess­ful, wealthy sculp­tor who spends his en­tire life look­ing for the myth­i­cal ‘well-beloved’ – the per­fect woman, the Pla­tonic stan­dard of beauty, who will ful­fil his ev­ery need. In his des­per­ate quest, Pier­ston falls in love with women from three suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions of the same fam­ily, but man­ages to spoil his re­la­tion­ships with each of them. Self­s­ab­o­tag­ing in the ex­treme, Pier­ston is in thrall to an eter­nal fem­i­nine ideal rather than ac­tual flesh-and-blood women with all their needs and nu­ances.

The Pur­suit of the Well-Beloved was se­ri­alised in Bazaar in 1892, just as the de­mand for fe­male suf­frage was gath­er­ing pace on both sides of the At­lantic. Bazaar had a strong record of sup­port­ing women’s rights. Booth had won praise from com­men­ta­tors for the way in which she had held down such a re­spon­si­ble job for 22 years, just as Mar­garet Sang­ster had al­ways dis­played a highly prag­matic brand of fem­i­nism, once ex­plain­ing proudly: ‘A woman in jour­nal­ism is paid as gen­er­ously as her brother or hus­band.’ Sal­lie Shanks, too, was happy to ac­knowl­edge that a new era was on its way. From around the time that Hardy’s fic­tion ap­peared in the mag­a­zine, the fash­ion pages in­creas­ingly em­pha­sised tai­lor­ing and shorter hem­lines, cre­at­ing the sharp, pared­down sil­hou­ette that was suited to a new gen­er­a­tion of women who were pay­ing their own way through the world and ex­pected to be treated equally with men.

Iron­i­cally enough, Hardy tried to con­cep­tu­alise this fig­ure of the ‘New Woman’ in his next and fi­nal novel, Jude the Ob­scure. Sue Bride­head, the hero­ine, is a clever, ed­u­cated proto-fem­i­nist who re­jects the con­straints of tra­di­tional mar­riage. The book caused an out­cry when it was pub­lished in Bri­tain. One bishop burned it cer­e­mo­ni­ously, while pro­vin­cial newsagents sold it in plain brown pa­per bags. Ap­palled by the furore that he had caused for dar­ing to por­tray a mod­ern woman in all her com­plex­i­ties, Hardy swore that he would never write an­other novel. For the rest of his long life, which lasted un­til 1928, he con­cen­trated on po­etry, a genre in which his re­flec­tions about con­tem­po­rary women and their com­plex re­la­tion­ships with men could hence­forth be com­mu­ni­cated obliquely, al­most in code.

Left: Mary Booth, Bazaar ’s first edi­tor. Op­po­site, bot­tom:

Thomas Hardy

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