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Life of Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy was born on 2nd June, 1840, at Higher Bockhampton, a hamlet in the parish of Stinsford, some two and half miles east of Dorchester. The author’s grandfather, Thomas Hardy (the first), settled in Bockhampton in 1801, in a house which his father had built for him. By trade he was a master mason but his chief interest was music. On his arrival at his new home he set himself to organize the little band of musicians who not only provided the sacred music for the services in Stinsford Church but also performed when music was required at secular festivities in the neighbourhood – christenings, weddings and other social parties. In this he was assisted by his son Thomas (the second) who, after his father’s death in 1837, continued both to manage the family business and to direct the musical activities of the village.

Thomas Hardy (the second) married Jemima Hand and Thomas (the third and the subject of these notes) was the eldest child of a family of four. His mother was a woman of strong character and vigorous mind, but he seems more to have resembled his father in his quiet unassuming nature. From his father, too, he inherited his love of music and his abiding affection for the Dorset countryside.

As a small child he was very forward for his age and not over strong, but his health improved and at the age of eight he was sent to the village school. A year later, in 1849, he was sent as a day-boy to a private school in Dorchester where he was well grounded in Latin among other subjects. After school hours and in the holidays he often joined his father when playing at weddings and parties in the neighbourhood of his home. In 1856, when he was 16, Hardy was placed as a pupil with Mr. Hicks, an architect whose offices were at 39 South Street, Dorchester, and for the following six years the great interest of his life – ‘the three strands’, as he called them – were architecture, the study of the classics and his love of the countryside.

In 1862, at the age of 22, he went to London to extend his experience in architecture. He worked under Mr. (afterwards Sir) Arthur Blomfield in the Adelphi for six years, during which time poetry was his main interest. His first published prose article ‘How I built myself a House’ appeared in Chambers’ Journal in 1865, but his poems were invariable refused by the publishers to whom he sent them, although in later years he collected many of them in his volume of ‘Wessex Poems’.

Ill-health obliged Hardy to return to Dorchester in 1867 when he again joined Hicks. By this time he was bent on writing and his submission of the manuscript of a novel to Messrs. Chapman and Hall, the publishers led to his meeting with George Meredith who gave the young author advice on the technique of novel writing. The first novel of Hardy appeared later in a shortened and much modified form as a magazine story under the title of “An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress”.

On the death of Hicks, Hardy continued for a while with Mr. Crickmay, the successor to the practice. In the course of his professional duties Hardy was sent in March, 1870, to make surveys for the restoration of the church of St. Juliot, near Boscastle, in Cornwall. He was entertained at the rectory where he met the rector’s sister-in-law, Miss Emma Lavina Gifford, who was a few years later to become his first wife.

The restoration of St. Juliot’s was to be Hardy’s last architectural work of any importance. He returned to London where he devoted himself to writing, being able, however, to make occasional visits to Cornwall.

Hardy’s first published novel, ‘Desperate Remedies’, which appeared in 1871, was not a success. In spite of its discouraging reception he was persuaded to publish ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ in 1872, and this was well reviewed and received. Then followed ‘A Pair of Blue Eyes’ as a serial story in Tinsley’s Magazine. In 1874 came Tar from the Madding Crowd’ as a serial story in the Cornhill Magazine. Its merits were at once recognised and it achieved great success.

In September, 1874, Hardy and Miss Gifford were married at St. Peter’s Church, Paddington, London. For a while they moved from place to place and they spent the summer and autumn of 1875 at Swanage where Hardy completed The Hand of Ethelberta’. The following year, after a short trip abroad in Holland and on the Rhine, they found what they had been seeking for some time — a country cottage. This was on the banks of the River Stour in the little Dorset market town of Sturminster Newton. Here they lived for two years —’our happiest time’ as Hardy later described it.

But Hardy decided that the practical side of his vocation as a novelist demanded that he should live in London. So, early in 1878, they moved to a house at Upper Tooting close to Wandsworth Common. For three years they lived here making many new friendships and finding time for a holiday trip to Normandy and occasional visits to Dorset.

With the publication of The Return of the Native’ in 1878 Hardy’s genius was fully recognised and for nearly twenty years he continued to write novels and short stories.  In October, 1880, at the time when The Trumpet Major’ was published, Hardy was over taken by a severe illness which confined him to his bed for six months, during which time, however, he finished ‘The Laodicean’. Deciding to give up living permanently in London, the Hardys returned to Dorset in 1881 and took a house at Wimborne Minster. Two on a Tower’ was published the following year.


In 1883 they moved once again, this time to Dorchester, which was to be their home for the rest of their lives. Not finding a house to suit them Hardy purchased a plot of land a mile from the centre of the town, on the Wareham road, where he built Max Gate, named after the turnpike gate which formerly stood there. It was not, however, until June, 1885 that the house was finished and they were able to occupy it. While Max Gate was their permanent home, they frequently visited London and kept in touch with their many friends making also occasional trips abroad.

Hardy’s next novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge’, was published in 1886. Most of the scenes are laid in Dorchester and the manuscript of the book was presented to the Dorset County Museum by the author in 1911. The Woodlanders’ followed in 1887 and in 1891 ‘A Group of Noble Dames’. In the same year Hardy’s most famous novel ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ appeared. It came out first as a serial story in The Graphic’, in a garbled form to suit the conventional tastes of magazine readers and, later in the year, when it was published in book form it was received with a storm of hostile criticism as well as with praise. His last novel Jude the Obscure’ was published in 1895 and aroused almost as much controversy as Tess had done a few years before.

Hardy’s career as a writer of prose fiction was now at an end and he was able to devote himself to poetry, which he had in fact been writing at intervals from very early days. He published two collections of his earlier works – Wessex Poems’ in 1898 and Poems of the Past and Present’ in 1901, and then he set himself to the great work which he had had in mind for many years past. This was The Dynasts’, an epic of the tremendous historical events of the Napoleonic era. It was published in three successive parts which appeared in 1903, 1906 and 1908. It is Hardy’s greatest achievement and the fullest and most complete expression of his genius. In 1909 he published Time’s Laughing-stocks , a collection of poems, some of early years and some of recent composition.

In 1910 the Order of Merit was conferred upon him and in the same year he received an honour that especially pleased him, the Honorary Freedom of the Borough of Dorchester. His genius was also recognised by honorary doctorates from the Universities of Aberdeen, Cambridge and Oxford.

Hardy’s first wife died in 1912 and in 1914 he married Miss Florence Emily Dugdale who after his death wrote his life in two volumes —The Early Life of Thomas Hardy and The Later Years of Thomas Hardy’.

From time to time Hardy continued to publish volumes of verse. Satires of Circumstance’ appeared in 1914; ‘Moments of Vision’ in 1917, ‘Late Lyrics and Earlier m 1922 and ‘Human Shows’ and ‘Far Fantasies’ in 1925. His last volume of verse Winter Words was not published until 1928, after his death. In 1923 was published The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall’, a version of the old mummers’ play.

As the years drew on Hardy’s days were spent more and more in retirement. He seldom left the peace of Max Gate, although he retained a keen interest in events both in the outer world and particularly in Dorchester. He attended from time to time the performances of dramatised passages from his works given by the Hardy Players, a company of talented and enthusiastic amateurs in Dorchester. His eightieth birthday, on 2nd June, 1920 brought many messages of congratulation from all over the country and a deputation from the Society of Authors brought a birthday gift.

In July 1923 H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, afterwards King Edward VIII, who was visiting Dorchester, lunched informally with the Hardys at Max Gate. Hardy’s last public appearance was in July, 1927, when he laid the foundation stone of the new buildings of the Dorchester Grammar School of which he had been for many years a Governor.

Hardy died at Max Gate on 11th January, 1928.  His ashes were laid to rest in Westminster Abbey , but his heart was buried in the little churchyard at Stinsford, close to the graves of his father and mother and other relatives.

Hardy is commemorated by a stone memorial at Higher Bockhampton – his birthplace – raised by some of his American admirers and by the statue by Eric Kennington in Colliton Walk, Dorchester.

Many rare and intriguing objects from the world’s finest Thomas Hardy collection are on show in the Dorset County Museum’s Writers’ Gallery