Born in 1840 in the English county of Dorset, author and poet Thomas Hardy is best known for his rural realism novels, including Far from the madding crowd (1874), Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), and the controversy Dark Jude (1895). Hardy’s characters, living in the fictional region of Wessex, struggle against the mores of industrialized Victorian England. Here are 11 facts about their reluctant creator.
Hardy was the eldest of four siblings. His father, also named Thomas Hardy, was a stonemason and his mother, Jemima, was a well-educated woman who taught her son at home. Hardy spent most of his childhood in the scenic countryside that inspired his imaginary Wessex.
As a teenager, Hardy apprenticed with local architect James Hicks, for whom he and his father had restored Woodsford Castle. Later, in his early twenties, Hardy worked for architect Arthur Blomfield in London before ill health forced him to return to his hometown of Dorset and another job with Hicks. He also worked for architect GR Crickmay in the seaside community of Weymouth.
Although he eventually turned to writing, Hardy never completely left architecture behind. A book published in 2018, The Wessex Project: Thomas Hardy, architectexplores Hardy’s work in the context of his literature.
In the mid-1860s, while Hardy was working for Blomfield, the Midland Grand Railway underwent a great expansion and hired Blomfield’s company to move a cemetery to St. Pancras in London.
The job fell to Hardy who, after exhuming and reburying the remains, took the hundreds of tombstones and arranged them in a circle around an ash tree. The place is now known as “the rustic tree” and even has its own Google reviews.
Charles Dickens is credited with popularizing the “cliffhanger”, a plot device in which a scene or story is interrupted at a dramatic moment. But scholars have said the term originated from Hardy’s 1873 novel, A pair of blue eyeswhich was first published as a series in Tinsley’s magazine. In the book, a character named Henry Knight literally hangs from a cliff.
Hardy designed the Victorian house he would live in from 1885 until his death in 1928, naming it Max Gate after a local tollbooth named for its keeper, Henry Mack (“Mack’s Gate”). Hardy’s brother built the house in two years.
Hardy continued to expand the house during his 43 years there and planted nearly 2,000 trees on the grounds. It has hosted a number of luminaries including Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, WB Yeats, HG Wells, George Bernard Shaw and the Prince of Wales, who would later be crowned King Edward VIII.
Today the house is owned by the UK National Trust and is open for tours. In addition to a vegetable garden, flower beds and a croquet lawn, the property includes a pet cemetery that Hardy and his first wife, Emma, created for their cats and dogs. Their favorite pet, a dog named Wessex who was known to bite visitors, is buried there.
Hardy’s Novel Dark Jude, which discussed sex and was critical of marriage, class, church and education, was considered too racy and controversial for Victorian sensibilities. It first appeared as a serial in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine from 1894 to 1895, for which Hardy was forced to make edits to some of the candid passages. He reinstated his prose when the novel was published in 1896.
Critics criticized it; the Bishop of Wakefield would have burned his copy. Discouraged, Hardy gave up writing novels, making Dark Jude his last work of fiction. He personally donated the original manuscript to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1911.
Hardy married Emma Gifford in 1874. Although the couple had a strained relationship, she encouraged him in his literary career and they both supported women’s rights, although with different approaches.
Emma has participated in marches and demonstrations and has written articles on women’s civil rights. She was a member of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage until 1909, when she felt she had become too militant.
Thomas viewed women’s rights from the perspective of the effectiveness of politics if women had more influence. He even went so far as to suggest that the British monarchy worked better under female monarchs. As for women’s suffrage, he thought it would disrupt social conventions – religion, marriage, gender roles, etc. Hardy was in favor of this reshuffle, but leaders of the suffrage movement believed his views would not help their cause (Hardy agreed) and so they did not announce his thoughts on the matter.
In July 1910, King Edward VII appointed Hardy to the Order of Merit, an honor awarded to those who had rendered “exceptionally meritorious service in our Crown Services or for the advancement of the arts, learning, literature and science. The order is limited to 24 living members at a time, and members may add “OM” after their name.
From 1910 to 1927, Hardy received 25 nominations for the award, including nine nominations in 1922 alone. Although Hardy’s work was well regarded, some felt it was excluded because his work did not meet the Nobel’s requirement that it should have an “idealistic streak”.
After the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, Hardy wrote a poem for a fund set up for survivors and families of victims. “The Convergence of the Twains: Lines on the Loss of Titanicdescribes the fateful meeting of the ship and the iceberg, and was published in The bimonthly magazine in June this year. The poem was republished on the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the ship.
Hardy is often described as shy or reluctant, and like many writers he wanted control over his stories, whether fictional or real. After Emma’s death in 1912, he burned a manuscript she had written, titled “What I Think of My Husband”, along with most of her journals. Emma also allegedly destroyed letters between her and Hardy.
Hardy then married Florence Dugdale, who was 38 years younger than him, in 1914. After the author’s death from pleurisy on January 11, 1928, Florence further suppressed Hardy’s correspondence and personal papers.
Hardy wanted to be buried at Stinsford in Dorset, a place he revered, near his first wife and family. But his executors had other plans. They pressured Florence to agree to have Hardy buried at the famous Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. To resolve the issue, Hardy’s heart was buried in Stinsford, while the rest of his cremated remains were deposited in the Abbey near Charles Dickens’ grave.