Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was one of the moderns well before our image of the modern writer was fully formed - in his choice of sophisticated and daring subjects, and in tensions produced by the amalgam of psychic and familial contradictions which his personality harbored and his art labored to encompass and express.
Born a Dorchester ''countryman'' into ''a family that had come down in the world,'' Hardy apprenticed to a local architect, but fled to London to pursue ''self-education'' and literary success. For all that, the poems and stories he hoped would distance him from his inhibiting background vividly evoked ''the old rural England of ballads, folk dances, the organic community, and the oral tradition.'' His most successful novels (''Under the Greenwood Tree,'' 1872; ''Far From the Madding Crowd,'' 1874; ''The Mayor of Casterbridge,'' 1886) made him a reputation as a writer of ''pastorals'' primarily indebted to George Eliot.
Hardy always lived in several worlds simultaneously. His seeming conflict with his origins was contradicted by his closeness to his strong, possessive mother, and the family clannishness in which he shared. Later in life, celebrated and sought after by an ever-increasing public, Hardy and his wife maintained residences in both Dorchester and London: It was as if he feared forfeiting his access to either world. In a parallel way, Hardy's many infatuations with admiring, sympathetic women coexisted more or less peacefully with his long, stoically endured marriage to the eccentric, contentious Emma Gifford, and his later marriage, after Emma's death in 1914, to his young disciple Florence Dugdale, ''the possessor of a temperament scarcely less depressive than his own.''
These and other intricacies, although parts of a life almost totally devoid of surface drama, become - in the remarkably capable hands of Michael Mill-gate - the stuff of an absorbing, surprisingly moving story of literary vocation. It is a sad story, because Hardy struggled all his life to move beyond the writing of novels, which he regarded as mere ''trade,'' and devote himself to the preferred art of poetry. Millgate emphasizes this tension throughout detailed chapters on each of the major novels, and a consistent concentration on the rejections and misunderstandings his books met with, including ''the cheerful incomprehension of most of his own family . . . (and) the envious disbelief of many of his neighbours.''
There would never really be complete relief from such misunderstanding. The consensual critical rejection of ''The Return of the Native'' (1878) and the few but telling savagings of ''Tess of the D'Urbervilles'' (1891) heightened Hardy's yearning to become exclusively a poet. Then, when ''Jude the Obscure'' (1896) was virtually dismissed as misanthropic drivel, Hardy abandoned fiction for good. Finally, in an irony that even this supreme pessimist could hardly have foreseen, the volumes of poetry that he continued to produce on into old age were themselves vilified for their monotony and cynicism. Though it may demonstrate the law of compensation, it hardly seems sufficient that, as Millgate says, Hardy's ''reputation, his unique standing as both a major novelist and a major poet, has continued to strengthen and develop.''
Though several ambitious studies of Hardy have been published in recent years , Professor Millgate's appears to be the finest, as it is surely the most comprehensive, based on such ''hitherto unknown materials'' as contemporary newspaper accounts, local records, and the correspondence unearthed for the ongoing ''Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy'' - of which project Millgate is co-editor. It also exhibits exemplary candor, for instance, in discussing Hardy's ''vigorous but somewhat ponderous reaction to adverse criticism . . . (and) curious incapacity to see his work as it might be seen by others.'' It never departs from demonstrating how ''Hardy's best work tends to have strong and specific roots in his own background and experience.'' A splendid book, unreservedly recommended