By Tom Howard
Hardy Country is, of course, perfect territory for the armchair traveler. Thomas Hardy’s novels, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Far From the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, are filled with poetic evocations of rural Wessex and Dorset. At the same time, few nineteenth century novelists, including Charles Dickens and George Moore, have a harder edge or a stronger grasp of grim reality than Hardy. Tom Howard’s brief book, Hardy Country, is essentially a souvenir book or, the much denigrated, “coffee table” display book. Yet, like many such works, it provides a delightful escape with wonderful, if not exciting, photography of southern Britain as well as a neat and succinct account of Hardy’s life and works.
Howard’s introduction provides the nexus between the author’s life and his writings, declaring that “Few writers can have drawn so directly on their own lives and background as Thomas Hardy did in his poems, novels and short stories. . . . In both his, and the reader’s imagination the sense of place is extraordinarily powerful and his fiction has become as inseparable from the countryside in which it takes place as any real events that happened there.”
Born in 1840, the beginning of a terrible decade known throughout Europe as the ‘Hungry Forties,’ Hardy would live to see Charles Lindberg land in Paris at the end of his famed Atlantic flight. Born to parents of the Waterloo era, he grew up in a Dorset where wives still could be sold or traded at local markets by their husbands, where smugglers were still hanged in public executions, and where fields, unchanged for five hundred years of plowing, threshing and harvesting, were facing the advance of steam engines. He grew up in an England inflamed by the great quarrel over the Corn Laws, the Chartist Reforms and the Revolutions of 1848. Fortunately, his family, large and convivial, provided a safe shelter full of stories and music, although his mother, strong, even puritanical and swift to anger, instilled a frugal and cautious approach to life.
In 1862, after a few years of architectural apprenticeship, Hardy moved to London to practice his profession and to write. An early work published in 1864, turned his attention increasingly to literature and to producing serial stories that paid far better than his architectural fees. Almost from the beginning his works evoked his experiences in Dorset and Cornwall, but the publication of Far From the Madding Crowd in 1874 was not initially considered suitable for the ‘family readership’ so beloved by the Victorians. Nevertheless, it enabled Hardy to marry and move back to Dorset.
In the future, although he would move back and
forth between the country and London, Hardy’s work remained rooted in
and true to the beloved rural areas of Dorset and Cornwall and Somerset, an
area generalized as Wessex in his novels. Yet, despite repeated promises to
his editors not to offend the most fastidious, the novels became increasingly
daring, even sexually explicit, until with the publication of Jude the
Obscure even his most conventional reader recognized that
Hardy was a force to be reckoned with in modern literature.
Howard’s book presents a straightforward
and prosaic life of Hardy in his introduction, but subsequent chapters on
Hardy’s Wessex, Dorchester, The Blackmore Vale, Egdon Heath, The Valleys
of the Frome and Piddle and The Dorset Coast are excellent in their description
of actual sites utilized by Hardy in his works and poetry. In particular,
Howard understands Hardy’s innate love of the land, his connection to
the people and to the rhythms of nineteenth century life, his sensibility
to the duality of human nature, physical and spiritual, male and female. By the time, Hardy Country is completed, the reader can trace not only the places and story lines of the novels but also can plan an itinerary for a future trip to walk the hills and vales in company with Thomas Hardy’s benevolent spirit and a six pack of his novels in hand.
Not surprisingly, considering the compelling drama his plotting, Thomas Hardy’s novels have proven a windfall for Hollywood. Of many versions, including Ian Sharp’s and Roman Polanski’s recent efforts, perhaps the most intriguing historically is the 1924 version, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, directed by Marshall Neilan four years before Hardy’s death. Blanche Sweet plays Tess with the depths of sad eyed despair only achieved in silent film. An excellent scholarly biography of Hardy is F. E. Halliday’s Thomas Hardy: His Life and His Work. More recently, Wayne Burns’, The Flesh and the Spirit in Seven Hardy Novels is elegantly written, provocative and controversial in the best sense of the term, forcing readers to re-examine and re-evaluate one of the great writers of the modern era.
By E. Deanne Malpass.