Between the Pages: Thomas Hardy’s Life

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Between the Pages is a new, weekly blog series which explores the life, times and creative works of well-known authors. I plan to run the blog series until the end of 2015, focusing on one author per month. New posts every Tuesday, plus occasional bonus posts.

The first post in the series is a brief biography of the author, the second looks at the historical period of the author, and the third post discusses their creative works. Finally, the last post includes selected quotations and short excerpts by the author.


Thomas Hardy was born in June 1840, only a few years after the Victorian era began, in the small hamlet of Upper Bockhampton (known today as Higher Bockhampton) in the English county of Dorset.

Thomas Hardy, circa 1910 - 1915. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas Hardy, circa 1910 – 1915.
Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

If you’re unfamiliar with English geography, Dorset is situated in South West England, on the coast of the English Channel. It is renowned as being a beautiful county, with a variety of landscapes: rolling chalk downs, valleys, cliffs and coastline, and it provides the backdrop to Hardy’s writing.

Hardy's cottage, where he was born and wrote several of his novels. Image copyright: Chris Shaw. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Licence. Image source: Geograph.

Hardy’s cottage, where he was born and where he wrote two of his novels.
Image copyright: Chris Shaw. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Licence. Image source: Geograph.

Thomas Hardy didn’t come from a wealthy family background. His father (also named Thomas) was a stonemason/builder and his mother, Jemima, worked as a servant from the age of thirteen. His mother had aspirations for a future working as a cook in London and she educated herself by reading a lot in the scholarly household where she was employed.

“Being a servant in a rich household made you a spectator of another world, and reading allowed you to travel even further” (Tomalin, 2007: 12).

Interestingly, Hardy’s mother was not keen on the prospect of marriage and she encouraged her children not to marry. Tomalin says that “the reason for her objection was never explained” (2007: 78). Perhaps Jemima objected to the inequalities that women faced in marriage at the time in terms of legal status, but that doesn’t explain why she expressed her strong views even to her sons.

However, an unwed pregnancy — followed by a shotgun wedding — soon put a stop to Jemima being able to fulfil her ambitions of a working life in London. The couple settled in the country parish of Stinsford, where Thomas Hardy was born a few months after the wedding.

Although the discussion of country parishes and English scenery may conjure up images of bucolic country living, life for rural folk could be hard — living off the land and subsistence farming, without opportunities for education or employment, and with the shadow of the workhouse hanging over you if you became too poor to support yourself.

However, the Hardys were not impoverished and from the age of ten, young Thomas was educated in a school in Dorchester, a nearby town. Tomalin’s biography of Thomas Hardy states that “it was common to start work in the fields at the age of nine” (2007:42), so Hardy was lucky to have parents who had enough money and insight to be able to give their young son the opportunity of an education.

They could not afford to send him away to receive a university education; at the age of sixteen, he was apprenticed as an architect. Hardy moved to London in 1862 when he was twenty-two, where he studied at King’s College London and worked on architectural projects as an assistant of Arthur Blomfield.

During his time spent in London, Hardy must have learned a lot. However, he didn’t like “the Big Smoke” (London’s nickname would have been much more apt during the Victorian era than it is now, when thick fogs known as ‘pea soupers’ frequently covered the city) and the deep rifts between rich and poor that he witnessed there.

Fog over the Houses of Parliament - Victorian pea soupers would have been much worse and sometimes restricted visibility so you could barely see in front of you. Photo by Lies Thru a Lens. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Fog over the Houses of Parliament – Victorian pea soupers would have been much worse and sometimes restricted visibility so you could barely see in front of you.
Photo by Lies Thru a Lens. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1867, Hardy returned to his home county, where he began to work on church restoration projects. It was around this time that he started writing novels. I have been a fan of Hardy’s work since my teens, when I studied Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd. Despite having read many of his novels and his poems, I didn’t know what prompted Hardy to start writing, and that’s one of the things I wanted to find out while researching his life for this blog post.

Hardy didn’t start out as a novelist. He began his literary career by writing poetry and he sought inspiration from his experience and the subjects he knew.

It faces west, and round the back and sides
High beeches, bending, hang a veil of boughs,
And sweep against the roof. Wild honeysucks
Climb on the walls, and seem to sprout a wish
(If we may fancy wish of trees and plants)
To overtop the apple-trees hard by

(A link to the full text of Domicilium)

I love Hardy’s poetry, but his first poem is quaintly pretty and doesn’t have the same power as many of his other poems. I’ll share my favourites with you when we discuss his writing.

In the late 1860s, Hardy began writing a novel. His first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, was written in response to his anger about the social disparities that he witnessed. However, it was never published (Hardy was rejected five times), and he destroyed the manuscript when he was older.

Jules Adolphe Aimé Louis Breton - Returning from the Fields (A scene that would have been common in Hardy's time). This image is in the public domain, thanks to the Walters Art Museum.

Jules Adolphe Aimé Louis Breton – Returning from the Fields (A scene that would have been common in Hardy’s time).
This image is in the public domain, thanks to the Walters Art Museum.

He continued writing and his first published novel, Desperate Remedies, was printed in 1871. A year before, he had met his wife-to-be, Emma Lavinia Gifford, when he was restoring a church in St. Juliot, Cornwall. They married in 1874, by which time Hardy had published Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) and Far from the Madding Crowd, which first appeared in serial form in the well-respected literary magazine, the Cornhill Magazine.

By this time, Hardy was becoming a serious novelist. Publication in the Cornhill was a big milestone and Far from the Madding Crowd was a success. He went on to publish novels such as The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, Two on a Tower and The Return of the Native. Between 1871 — 1928, Hardy’s creative output was consistent and he published at least a dozen novels, along with verse and poems.

His literary success is undeniable, but his personal life was somewhat more turbulent…

Stonehenge is the backdrop to a dramatic and tragic scene near the end of one of Hardy's novels, which I'll discuss in this series of posts. Do you know which one? Photo credit: Simon Wakefield. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Stonehenge is the backdrop to a dramatic and tragic scene near the end of one of Hardy’s novels, which I’ll discuss in this series of posts. Do you know which one?
Photo credit: Simon Wakefield. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In the next post — to be published on Friday — we’ll explore Hardy’s personal life, his difficult first marriage and his personality. 

References

Quotes and factual info sourced from Tomalin, C. (2007). Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man. Britain: BBC Audiobooks Ltd by arrangement with Penguin Books Ltd.

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10 thoughts on “Between the Pages: Thomas Hardy’s Life

  1. I love this series! I also love Thomas Hardy. I had the good fortune to study his work twice in my master’s program, once in a Thomas Hardy seminar and once in a class on British Modernism. I am excited to learn more about him through your blog!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hardy is my favourite late Victorian author. I wrote my bachelor’s thesis on Tess of the D’Urbervilles – still my favourite novel by him. And his poetry tends to be unjustly unappreciated, it’s a shame, his beautifully gloomy and stark at times.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Between the Pages: Thomas Hardy’s Life (part II) | Cultural Life

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