Selected products from Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy OM was an English novelist, whose Victorian realism was inspired by the Romantic movement, particularly Wordsworth, and by Dickens, who was also critical of much of Victorian society. Unlike Dickens, though, who writes primarily about cities and towns, Hardy sets much of his work in the semi-fictional country of Wessex, focusing on the decline of rural practice in England. He was known first for his novels, but towards the end of his life his poetry began to see publication and he is now considered one of the major poets of English literature, influencing various poets in the 1950-60s, most notably Philip Larkin.
Hardy was born in the hamlet of Upper Bockhampton in the Stinsford parish about three miles east of Dorchester in Dorset, England, on 2nd June 1840, in a two-storey brick and thatch cottage. His father Thomas worked as a self-employed master mason and local builder contractor, while also playing the violin. His mother, Jemima, a former maid-servant and cook, was well-read in Latin and French romances in English translation, and she enjoyed retelling the folk stories and legends of the region while she educated her son until the age of eight when he first attended the local National School in Lower Bockhampton, which had opened that year in 1848. The school was run by the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church. From his parents, he received all of the interests and passions which would shape his writing and his life; the interest in architecture and love of music from his father, and his interest in rural lifestyles and traditions from his mother, along with a passion for literature. The Hardy family were descended from the Le Hardy family, who had resided on the Isle of Jersey since the 15th century. They had several ancestors of significant import, though at the turn of the eighteenth century the family had experienced a sharp economic collapse, a circumstance which would become key to the narrative of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Maul Turner writes of Hardy’s childhood that “apart from parental influences, Hardy’s childhood was dominated by two things: the local church, and the natural world around him”.
After two years at the National School, his mother enrolled him at a non-conformist school in Dorchester, run by the British and Foreign School Society, and while there he learnt Latin and French, amongst other subjects. To compliment his education, he read Greek and Roman classics in translation, and the Bible, which he knew in close detail, and he expressed a
fondness for romances. In addition to his favourite authors, William Harrison Ainsworth, Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas, he read Shakespeare’s tragedies and, although ultimately he rather enjoyed school, he preferred to read books in relative solitude. While he was in Dorset, he bore witness to the decline of the traditions of the pastoral society in the face of the rise of industrialism.
Deemed unlikely by his parents and his teachers to lead a successful scholarly or clerical career, Hardy gained an apprenticeship in 1856 at the age of sixteen to John Hicks, a local architect whose speciality was in church restoration. The occupation saw him travelling extensively around Dorset, while back at the office he met another apprentice, Henry Bastow, with a similar interest in classical literature, poetry and religious matters. His only opportunity to read was in the morning before work between the hours of five and eight, and while he was working and reading here he met the poet William Barnes, also a local schoolmaster, who published poetry focusing on rural life in local dialects, and it is quite possible that it was this encounter which encouraged him to write poetry about similar themes. Within this poetry are various ideas which he picked up while on his apprenticeship, and he showed his poetry to Horace Moule, son of the vicar and a student at Queen’s College, Cambridge, who, eight years Hardy’s senior, became his best friend and mentor and encouraged him in his reading of Greek tragedy and more contemporary English literature. The most significant works of literature published at this time, which will no doubt have influenced Hardy, were Alfred Tennyson’s poems Idylls of the King, George Meredith’s Richard Feverel and Evan Harrington, Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White and George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. Alongside these works of fiction was Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, which had a profound influence on Hardy.
Suspending his architectural apprenticeship and heading for London in April 1862, he rented lodgings at 3, Clarence Place at Kilburn, near the Edgware Road. This move is widely considered to be the result of an unsuccessful love affair; he had already had infatuations with two girls in Dorset, who “scorned him as too young”, and just prior to his move he had proposed to and been rejected by a Dorchester girl, Mary Waight, also significantly his senior. These rejections arguably encouraged him to move and begin afresh in new surroundings. While in London, he spent five years working as Arthur Blomfield’s assistant architect, a noted restorer and designer of churches. Blomfield valued Hardy’s work for him and put his name forward to be a member of the Architectural Association.
Meanwhile, he attended Charles Dickens’s public lecture and spent time exploring the scientific and cultural offerings of London society, visiting museums and galleries, and seeing plays and operas. Further reading included the word of Herbert Spencer, Thomas Henry Huxley, John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin and Charles Darwin. The combined effect of these writers was to cause him to abandon plans of ordination in the Anglican Church, becoming increasingly disillusioned with the more institutional forms of Christianity. His own poetry flourished, spurred on by reading Robert Browning and Algernon Charles Swinburne, though it was still rejected for publication. He wrote the satire How I Built Myself a House in 1865, published in Chambers Journal and which was the first of his work to achieve recognition, winning him a prize. He also persevered with his poetry, though it remained unpublished.
By 1867 Hardy had grown tired of London and returned to Bockhampton to resume his work with John Hicks. He embarked on a love affair with his cousin, Tryphena, who lived nearby and, though there is little historical evidence of their relationship, had a profound effect on
his writing at the time and appears in various guises throughout the poetry he wrote then, while also in the more obviously dedicated poem ‘Thoughts of Phena’. He now began his first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, which he submitted to Alexander Macmillan, a publishing house. Though Macmillan himself chose not to publish it, he encouraged Hardy to continue writing, and Hardy was advised to concentrate on his plotting. John Hicks’s death in 1869 caused Hardy to move to Weymouth seeking employment, and at the same time he began Desperate Remedies, also refused by Macmillan but later published anonymously in three volumes by WIlliam Tinsley, in 1871. This publication saw him resolve to dedicate himself fully to his writing, though he was not yet in a position to achieve financial security or literary success. His second published novel, Under the Greenwood Tree, appeared in 1872 and its favourable reception encouraged the publication of A Pair of Blue Eyes in 1873, the most autobiographical of his novels. Next came Far From the Madding Crowd in 1874, bringing with it critical acclaim, the attention of the public and ultimately financial success. 1878 saw more success with The Return of the Native, and the ensuing years saw him rise to ever greater popularity. By now he had developed the fictional Wessex and resolved to set all of his novels there.
It was while he was working on the restoration of a church in St. Juliot, Cornwall, that he met Emma Lavinia Gifford, the local rector’s sister-in-law. Captivated by her looks and her admiration for him, he fell in love with her and she would encourage his prose and poetry writing, attracted by his literary capabilities. It took them four years to marry, though, on 17th September 1874 in St Peters Church, Paddington, London. They were both thirty at marriage, though he thought she looked younger and she thought he looked older. None of Hardy’s family attended the service. In 1885 the couple settled near Dorchester at Max Gate, a large mid-Victorian villa, designed by Hardy and where he spent the rest of his life. He felt very comfortable there, calling it his country retreat. The Mayor of Casterbridge was published in 1886, and its fictional setting bears many similarities to Dorchester, the market town which he knew so well. He and Emma journeyed to Italy in 1887, returning via Paris and London.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles was published in 1891 to the shock of the prudish Victorian audience who were dismayed by with the cruel presentation of a young girl’s seduction and ruination by a rakish aristocrat. It only saw publication after Hardy made extensive alterations to its plot, editing or deleting vast passages. His last novel, Jude the Obscure, suffered the same levels of public outcry when it was published in 1895, and the uproar over these two novels so disturbed him that he returned to poetry, regarded by him and his audience as a purer form of artistic expression. He had not been able to make enough money as a young man to live off his poetry, but now as an adult living off the success of his novels he was able to survive comfortably, and even had a collection of his earlier poems published under the title Wessex Poems, in 1898. Meanwhile, in 1896 Emma had introduced him to the fashionable new pastime of cycling and he bought a high-quality Rover Cobb bicycle, frequently touring the Dorset countryside with his wife. They travelled extensively, to Paris, the Continent and throughout England, along with a visit to Belgium.
Hardy spent the years between 1903 and 1908 writing The Dynasts, and epic poem in blank verse about the Napoleonic Wars, and his literary authority saw him honoured by the University of Aberdeen with an honourary degree in 1905, bringing with it recognition as one of the most outstanding British authors. George V conferred on him the Order of Merit in 1910 and he was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Society of Literature in 1912. Further to his honourary degree at Aberdeen, Cambridge University named him a Doctor of Letters, his popularity continuing to grow the entire time. WIth this popularity came the dramatisation
and performance of various works, and in 1914 the adaptation of The Dynasts was performed at Kingsway Theatre in London. He now proceeded to sell or donate the majority of his manuscripts, either to museums or collectors.
Emma died suddenly on 27th November 1912, and despite having grown increasingly estranged he was greatly affected by her passing, reproaching himself after her burial for not having realised the extent of her illness. He proceeded to write numerous poems expressing nostalgia for their happier times in youth, and after her death he was now taken care of by his niece and a young woman, Florence Dagdale. She was shy and charming with literary aspirations of her own, having published a few books for children, and again her admiration for him led to his infatuation with her. They married on 6th February 1914, though the wedding quickly deteriorated with it became apparent that Hardy preferred “spending much of each day closeted in his study”. By now, he was in his seventies, though in spite of his ages he campaigned in favour of British involvement in the First World War. Many great writers visited him at Max Gate, for he left less and less.
In 1924 hew witnessed a stage production of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a performance so powerful that Hardy promptly became infatuated with the young actress playing Tess. From 1920 to 1927 he worked, in secret, on his autobiography, which was published in two volumes in 1928 and 1930 as the work of Florence Hardy. She made various emendations to the text, having typed the manuscripts, probably reducing the references to Emma and adding anecdotes and referring to letters. His 87th birthday passed, and he seemed increasingly weaker, staying in bed for long periods, until in 1927 he fell gravely ill, dying on the 11th January 1928. Just prior to his death, he asked Florence to read a verse from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,
Oh, Thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make,
And ev’n with Paradise devise the snake:
For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man
Is blackened - Man’s forgiveness give - and take!
His body was cremated and the ashes interred in Poet’s Corner in the South Transept in Westminster Abbey. The official of the two funerals was attended by the then Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, leader of the Opposition Ramsay MacDonald, the heads of Oxford and Cambridge University colleges where Hardy had been honoured, and various significant literary figures such as James Barrie, George Bernard Shaw and Rudyard Kipling. Meanwhile, his heart was buried alongside his first wife in Stinsford churchyard, Dorchester. He is best remembered by Evelyn Hardy, the critic, who writes “Hardy’s life was not primarily one of action. He was by nature a scholar and a writer: it is what goes on in the mind that holds us, and Hardy’s was rich with stored impressions”.