On June 2, 1840, Thomas Hardy, the noted British poet and author of the naturalism movement, was born in the small village of Higher Bockhampton, just outside Dorchester in Dorset, England. He was born very frail and sickly, and was even thought stillborn until he finally breathed. Growing up with the help of his well-read mother, he excelled at reading and writing, having an enthusiasm to learn, which more than made up for his delicate form.
His father had a great passion for music and passed this onto his son whilst playing the violin during their times at home. Thomas later learned to play the instrument and the experiences he had playing around the local Dorset countryside would later form part of his literary works.
From the age of eight Thomas attended the local school in Lower Bockhampton (funded by the efforts of Lady Julia Martin, whose husband had bought the Kingston Maurward estate) which was only a mile or so from home.
A year later, Thomas attended the Dorchester Grammar School and began lessons in Latin, German, and French. When he turned sixteen, in 1856, he became an apprentice for a Dorchester Architect, John Hicks and was taken out of school to start his training as an architect and draughtsman. During his apprenticeship, he would often turn his thoughts to the literary classics, and according to Hicks ‘he often gave more time to his books than to drawing’.
A school next door to the Hick’s office provided additional literary encouragement for Hardy. He would often wander in and spend time discussing the classics with the schoolmaster named William Barnes. It was Barnes who impressed him to write some of his own works.
In 1862 he arrived in London to begin work as an architect and over the next six years became established and even won several architectural competitions. Whilst in London he continued to write and despite his architectural success he somewhat hankered for the days of growing up in Dorchester. Almost ten years later he returned to his old workplace with John Hicks. In 1870 Hardy was sent to plan a church restoration at St. Juliot in Cornwall. There he met Emma Gifford, sister-in-law of the vicar of St.Juliot. She encouraged him in his writing, and they were married in 1874.
Hardy published his first novel, Desperate Remedies in 1871, to universal disinterest. But the following year Under the Greenwood Tree brought Hardy popular acclaim for the first time. As with most of his fictional works, Greenwood Tree incorporated real places around Dorset into the plot, including the village school of Higher Bockhampton that Hardy had first attended as a child.
The success of Greenwood Tree brought Hardy a commission to write a serialized novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes, for Tinsley’s Magazine. Once more Hardy drew upon real life, and the novel mirrors his own courtship of Emma. Finally the Hardys moved back to Dorchester, where Thomas used his architectural prowess to design and build Max Gate.
Most famously Thomas Hardy set his novel The Mayor of Casterbridge in Dorchester. The blue plaque commemorating Mayor Henchard’s house is on the wall of Barclays Bank in Cornhill. Max Gate, Hardy’s home which he designed and built is a short distance from the centre of town, and the cottage where he was born is a slightly longer amble across the fields towards Bockhampton. His statue sits at the Top O’Town roundabout.
After publishing The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy followed in 1887 with The Woodlanders and in 1891 one of his best works, Tess of the d’Urberville.
Emma Hardy died in November 1912, and was buried in Stinsford churchyard. Thomas was stricken with guilt and remorse, but the result was some of his best poetry, expressing his feelings for his wife of 38 years.
In 1914 Thomas married his secretary, Florence Emily Dugdale who would later publish The Early Life of Thomas Hardy, 1840-1891 and The Later Years of Thomas Hardy, 1892-1928 (1930). Thomas Hardy passed away fourteen years later on January 11, 1928 at his house of Max Gate in Dorchester. He was held in such high regard by the British government that his body was interred at the Poet’s Corner, in Westminster Abbey. His heart however, is buried beside his first wife, Emma Gifford, in St. Michael’s Church in Stinsford less than a mile away from his birthplace.
Today, Max Gate is under care of the National Trust, as is the Hardy Cottage in Higher Bockhampton. Both of these historic locations are open to the public and are well worth a visit if you are following the Hardy Trail.
The Dorset County Museum, in the centre of Dorchester, on High West Street, boasts a treasure trove of Dorset’s literary past including a complete replica of Thomas Hardy’s work at Max Gate. It also houses hundreds, if not thousands of books, photographs and manuscripts relating to him, and to William Barnes.
The statue of Thomas Hardy beside the Top o’ Town roundabout is one of the most recognisable landmarks in Dorchester. It depicts Hardy sitting on a tree stump, looking thoughtfully ahead with a book on his lap