MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD
How Bazaar proved its mettle by publishing Thomas Hardy’s challenging writing
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