Thomas Hardy: a literary life
Later than usual because of the Bank Holiday, Blue Badge Guide Rob Curtis told the May meeting of the History Society the story of Thomas Hardy’s life, and how it influenced his writings.
Rob’s background as a tour guide trained in Dorset gave him a special interest in Hardy, since he had studied Hardy as part of his qualification. At one time he had even applied, unsuccessfully, to be a curator of Max Gate, one of Hardy’s residences. His detailed knowledge lent his talk quite a scholarly perspective, and it was well illustrated by images of the man, his friends and family, and the places in which he lived.
The theme of the talk was essentially that Hardy’s writings were directly influenced by his physical surroundings, and by his personal relationships. He was not an adventurer, or a risk-taker; rather he was an introvert, a lover of reading, music, and the natural environment. Thephysical images of Hardy from youth to old age were a poignant illustration of the character of this rather melancholic figure.
Hardy was born in 1840 in a cottage in Higher Bockhampton, just outside Dorchester but at the edge of an area of wild heathland. His family had lived there for generations, and he spent the first twenty years or so of his life there. He was articled to an architect in Dorchester and came to specialise in the restoration of churches.
After a period working in London he returned to Dorset. An assignment in Cornwall caused him to meet Emma Gifford, whom he married after a 5 year courtship. It was not a happy marriage, and to Hardy’s great disappointment, produced no children. During this time he commissioned and built his own house – Max Gate, a large Victorian red brick country house outside Dorchester. His increasingly unhappy wife retreated to an attic room, where she remained until her death in 1912. Hardy was remorseful at the way he had behaved towards her, but this did not hinder him from marrying his secretary, Florence Dugdale, less than 2 years later. Despite the 39 year age difference between them, this marriage was more successful.
Hardy’s early poetry was not well received, so he switched to writing novels. His reputation slowly grew, until his final work, Jude the Obscure (1895), caused outrage due to its controversial subject matter. In his later years he returned to writing poetry but became increasingly reclusive. He died at Max Gate in 1928, and following a dispute about the most appropriate place of his burial, his heart was buried with his first wife, Emma, in Stinsford, and his ashes in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.