An Introduction To Hardy's Wessex

Dorset's most famous writer, Thomas Hardy, was born at his family's cottage at Upper Bockhampton in 1840. His father was a stone-mason and he himself trained as an architect, specialising in church restoration. In 1862 he went away to London to further his interests. He wanted to write poetry, but could not get published. When in 1868 he wrote a novel, "The Poor Man And The Lady," which attacked the London upper classes, he was put off publishing it by the publisher's advisor the poet George Meredith, who felt it immature and naive.

Disappointed Romantic
Hardy is often characterized as a disappointed Romantic. Some biographers suspect that in his youth he had an affair with a young woman, Tryphena Sparks, who turned to be a long-lost cousin or niece, and that this cruel trick of Fate influenced his artistic temperament. He was also deeply affected by the suicide of his friend and youthful mentor Horace Moule. He certainly had a lifelong fascination with "Gothic" scenes such as graveyards. The Romantic movement had developed the Gothic novel (such as Frankenstein), and in the Victorian era this developed in turn into the Gothic social melodrama, with the new sub-genres being the crime mystery and the "sensation novel."

A Desperate Remedy
Hardy's first published novel, Desperate Remedies (1871) was an attempt at the latter. Hardy's title was inspired privately by the idea prose was really a desperate remedy for the true literary form, poetry. However The Spectator called it a desperate remedy for an empty purse. Though he had written the novel anonymously, Hardy was very hurt by this, especially as he had to pay the publisher to issue it and made no profit at all.

Writing What You Know
Instead, inspired by his neighbour the poet, schoolteacher and linguist William Barnes, who championed the speech of country folk in preserving the Dorset dialect as the purest survival of Saxon and Elizabethan English — and thus the authentic voice of old rural England and part of England's cultural heritage — Hardy now began writing about the country life and folk he knew. In 1872 he began his series of pastoral Wessex Novels with Under The Greenwood Tree. Originally titled The Mellstock Quire, it is a gentle comedy about a rural choir, suggested partly by the fact Hardy's mother had first seen his father in the church choir. The novel was one of the first to have ordinary country folk treated sympathetically so that the 'poor man' instead of the lady was given the main character parts in the story —rather than the usual ladies and gentlemen of the provincial novel of the time. However, it was not actually written in Barnes's 'Dorzet' dialect, and so was accessible to a general readership in a way Barnes's work was not.

Literary Success
From 1872 to 1895, Hardy wrote a dozen of his "Wessex Novels" as commissioned story-serials for Victorian family magazines, and he also wrote nearly fifty short stories for magazines in Britain and America. In London, he had missed the countryside and was now inspired to come up with his most evocative title: Far From The Madding Crowd. He wrote this 1874 serial-novel on the window-sill of his family cottage, but it was such a success he was able to move out and get married. (This time, The Spectator commented the anonymous novel was so good its author might even be George Eliot, the [actually female] author of Middlemarch.) With a series of magazine-story commissions, he could afford by 1883 to have his own villa built outside Dorchester, called Max Gate. He lived there for the rest of his life, first with his wife Emma, and then after her death in 1912 with his much younger second wife, Florence.

Providence And Gloom
Hardy's later, major works were tragedies, and he was criticised as a pessimist, a gloomy fatalist hostile to the optimistic Victorian doctrines of social progress and divine Providence. In a famous quote, a critic asked, "What has Providence done to Mr Hardy that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex and shake his fist at his Creator?" Hardy's increasing commitment to a modern social realism would be based on observation of the injustices and sexual hypocrisies with which we now associate the Victorian age. However, at the time, such realism was regarded as in bad taste, and brought him into conflict with his magazine editors. Jude The Obscure especially upset many, including his wife Emma, and was branded "Jude The Obscene."

Hardy And Poetry
With this, Hardy abandoned prose writing altogether. In his remaining years, he confined himself to lyric poetry, completing almost a thousand poems, on themes ranging from a cycle of love poems to his late wife Emma, to the lost loves of his youth, the sinking of the Titanic, and his dog Wessex. Unlike the work of the other Romantic poets like Keats, who died young, Hardy's poetry is more the voice of the older man, characterized by its quiet melancholy quality.

Hardy's "Wessex" Novels
One reason Hardy had given up prose was that he had had to censor his work to conform to family magazine conventions, and in 1912, the year his wife died, he restored the works to their original form for the Wessex Edition. His major novels have never since gone out of print. The Wessex Novels became the basis for an entire heritage subculture of biographies, literary texts, conferences, guidebooks, etc. Beginning in Hardy's lifetime and with his approval, the major novels were also popularised through stage, film and, after his death, radio and television dramatizations.
Hardy classed his 14 novels into three groups by literary approach: three early works such as Desperate Remedies with complicated plots he labelled Novels Of Ingenuity. A couple of other less Gothic but still Romantic works such as The Well-Beloved he termed Romances & Fantasies. The more realistic novels such as The Mayor Of Casterbridge, Tess Of The D'Urbervilles, and Jude The Obscure he called Novels Of Character & Environment.
Hardy was much interested in local traditions and folklore, in what life was like in his parents' and grandparents' day. He had a particular historical interest in recreating the Napoleonic Wars era. For example, his story "A Tradition Of 1804," in which Napoleon is spied landing at Lulworth to scout an invasion beach-head, is fictional, but local people insisted it represented — if not an actual historical event — then at least a true folk tradition. His novel The Trumpet-Major, set in the Weymouth area in 1804-05 on the eve of the Trafalgar victory, is based not only on military records Hardy researched in London but the oral testimony of surviving war veterans he spoke to in 1875. The Dynasts is a verse epic covering the ten years of the war, from Trafalgar to Waterloo in 1815. Overall, the novels' time-settings almost span the entire Victorian era.

"A Partly Real, Partly Dream Country"
Hardy used slightly disguised or ancient place names throughout his 13 Wessex novels and 47 short stories to create his "partly real, partly dream country" of Wessex. Though he labelled Dorset as "South Wessex" on the early tourist map he helped annotate, his own identifications here show his home county was the very heart of his Wessex. Hardy also felt it better to know a small part of the world well, and his intimate descriptions of country life throughout the year are deemed the key to his artistic success. His Wessex would be recognized as the epitome of the vanishing English rural heartland, in a critic's famous phrase, "a scene of vastness and echo."

On The Map Of Wessex
Hardy's first pastoral novel, Under The Greenwood Tree, is centred on the area where he grew up, around Stinsford church, here called "Mellstock." Far From The Madding Crowd, the first time he used the name "Wessex" — the old name of Alfred the Great's kingdom — to describe his general setting, is set around the nearest town, Puddletown, which he calls "Weatherby." Dorset's County Town, Dorchester, also makes the first of many appearances here, as "Casterbridge." The Hand Of Ethelberta is set in the Bournemouth-Swanage area (called "Sandbourne" and "Knollsea") where Hardy lived when first married in 1875-6. In The Return Of The Native, Hardy's great central setting of "Egdon Heath" is first brought to life, becoming almost a character itself. A Laodicean is thought to be partly modelled on Corfe and Kingston Lacy. Two On A Tower is set in and around Wimborne, where he and Emma lived 1881-3. As its title indicates, The Mayor Of Casterbridge focuses on Dorchester. The Woodlanders is set vaguely in central Dorset. (Hardy changed details after the first edition so the setting moved slightly from Evershot area to nearer Cerne Abbas.) Tess Of The D'Urbervilles has the greatest range of Dorset settings: Marnhull ("Marlott"), Cranborne Chase ("The Slopes"), Wool ("Wellbridge"), the Frome Valley ("the Vale Of The Great Dairies"), the Vale of Blackmore by Shaftesbury ("Vale Of The Little Dairies"), Bere Regis ("Kingsbere"), Beaminster ("Emminster"), Bournemouth ("Sandbourne"), the New Forest ("the Great Forest") and Stonehenge. The Well-Beloved concentrates on Portland as the "Isle Of Slingers." His last novel, Jude The Obscure, concerning a man's failed attempt to get into an Oxford college, is mainly set farther north, from Shaftesbury ("Shaston") to Oxford ("Christminster").
Hardy had always enjoyed cycling around Dorset looking at the originals of his Wessex places. He had no qualms about matching most of these settings up on a one-for-one basis with real places, and in 1913 he helped his friend and neighbour Herman Lea to produce the first "Hardy's Wessex" guidebook identifying the "real" sites, something that has since become a publishing industry. An official signposted Hardy Trail was created for the UK Year Of Literature & Writing 1995.

The Grand Old Man
In his later years, it was generally recognized that as well as being a major poet, Hardy was the last in the long line of great Victorian novelists, and he received formal honours including the Order Of Merit and five honorary university degrees. What Hardy had accomplished in the development of the English novel was to show how, in combining a certain Gothic sense of looming tragedy with an eye for social observation, and the Romantic poet's lyrical sensibility, the English novel's Realist and Romantic schools could both be encompassed even within the strict confines of the provincial setting. On his death at age 87 in 1928, he was called "England's greatest living writer." His ashes were buried in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey, but in a final Gothic touch, his heart was cut out and buried in his local churchyard, at Stinsford, his home parish of "Mellstock," which he had made so famous.
It has been said that no major English author is so closely associated with a locality as Hardy is with Dorset. Almost every guidebook and tourist article now refers to the area in terms of its setting in Hardy's Wessex novels. In this sense, Hardy put the 19th-century provincial novel on the map of England with his "partly real, partly dream country" as its heartland.

For more information on Hardy's writings, click here to view our
Reader's Guide To The Works Of Thomas Hardy .

Hardy's Cottage


Dorset churchyard


River Stour



Dorset church

Blackmore Vale

Woodland path by Hardy Cottage

Evershot village


Milton Abbas - village almshouses