Shepherd Fennel's Cottage, Higher Crowstairs, frontispiece for Wessex Tales by Henry Macbeth-Raeburn. at Higher Bockhampton, Dorset, served as the model for a number of such rural dwellings in Hardy's fiction, including the cottage of Shepherd Fennel at Higher Crowstairs in "The Three Strangers," first published as a magazine short story in 1893 in Longman's in Great Britain and in Harper's Weekly in America in two instalments (3 and 10 March). 1897. 8.6 x 15.8 cm, framed, in Hardy's anthology Wessex Tales, volume thirteen of the Osgood, McIlvaine Complete Uniform Edition of the Wessex Novels, in eighteen volumes (1895-1897). Subsequently, the elegant line drawings of the young Scottish illustrator Henry Macbeth-Raeburn (1840-1947) were replaced in the 1912 Macmillan edition of the Wessex Novels (1912 onward) with photographs, so that later readers did not experience the atmospheric image of the wind- and rain-swept cottage as a keynote to the volume of five regional tales that first appeared together as Wessex Tales in two volumes under the Macmillan imprint on 4 May 1888. The other stories in the volume are "The Withered Arm," "Fellow-Townsmen," "Interlopers at The Knap," and "The Distracted Preacher." Only in the 1912 Macmillan Wessex Edition volume did the Napoleonic-era tales "The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion" and "A Tradition of Eighteen Hundred and Four" join the group.
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]
The illustrations for Under the Greenwood Tree, The Hand of Ethelberta: A comedy in chapters, Wessex Tales, and A Laodicean: A story of to-day appear courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.
Fifty years ago such a lonely cottage stood on such a down, and may possibly be standing there now. In spite of its loneliness, however, the spot, by actual measurement, was not more than five miles from a county-town. Yet that affected it little. Five miles of irregular upland, during the long inimical seasons, with their sleets, snows, rains, and mists, afford withdrawing space enough to isolate a Timon or a Nebuchadnezzar; much less, in fair weather, to please that less repellent tribe, the poets, philosophers, artists, and others who 'conceive and meditate of pleasant things.'
Some old earthen camp or barrow, some clump of trees, at least some starved fragment of ancient hedge is usually taken advantage of in the erection of these forlorn dwellings. But, in the present case, such a kind of shelter had been disregarded. Higher Crowstairs, as the house was called, stood quite detached and undefended. The only reason for its precise situation seemed to be the crossing of two footpaths at right angles hard by, which may have crossed there and thus for a good five hundred years. Hence the house was exposed to the elements on all sides. But, though the wind up here blew unmistakably when it did blow, and the rain hit hard whenever it fell, the various weathers of the winter season were not quite so formidable on the coomb as they were imagined to be by dwellers on low ground. The raw rimes were not so pernicious as in the hollows, and the frosts were scarcely so severe. When the shepherd and his family who tenanted the house were pitied for their sufferings from the exposure, they said that upon the whole they were less inconvenienced by 'wuzzes and flames' (hoarses and phlegms) than when they had lived by the stream of a snug neighbouring valley.
The night of March 28, 182-, was precisely one of the nights that were wont to call forth these expressions of commiseration. The level rainstorm smote walls, slopes, and hedges like the clothyard shafts of Senlac and Crecy. Such sheep and outdoor animals as had no shelter stood with their buttocks to the winds; while the tails of little birds trying to roost on some scraggy thorn were blown inside-out like umbrellas. The gable-end of the cottage was stained with wet, and the eavesdroppings flapped against the wall. — "The Three Strangers," p. .
Written in January, 1883, when the Thomas Hardy and his wife, Emma, were living at Wimborne, the story is set about five miles north-east of Dorchester (the Casterbridge of Hardy's novels and short stories), the "Fifty years ago" and "The night of March 28, 182_" together pointing to a date of narration earlier than 1883. Denys Kay-Robinson notes that, although Hardy had in mind a specific spot on the downs near Charminster,
It is doubtful whether this cottage ever existed, but the 'hog's-back elevation which dominated this part of the downs' can be pinpointed as Hog Hill, south-east of Grimstone Down. . . . . Another school of thought places 'Higher Crowstairs' farther east, on Waterson Ridge, where all Hardy's requirements — except the cottage itself — are also to be found. 
That "The fiddler was a boy of those parts, about twelve years of age" — as the writer himself was in 1852 — suggests an autobiographical quality, as young Thomas played fiddle with his relatives for various community events throughout his early adolescence. Although there are some twenty-two characters present at Shepherd Fennel's remote cottage (nineteen having been invited for the christening party), the first and second strangers are the most clearly delineated. The two contrast one another, the latter being effusive, garrulous, and highly demonstrative, the former remaining in the shadow of the chimney corner. Momentarily Hardy leads us to believe that the third stranger, "a picture of abject terror," is the prison escapee, even though readers have probably just concluded that the first man's strange behaviour makes him the most likely suspect. However, in the 1897 frontispiece, executed undoubtedly at Hardy's expressed instruction, Henry Macbeth-Raeburn has focussed on the eternal struggle between humanity and nature, so that the shepherd's cottage on the upland slope becomes a symbol of civilisation's eternal battle with the inimical elements.
Additional Resources on Hardy's Short Stories
- The Novels of Thomas Hardy
- An Introduction to "The Three Strangers"
- A new book on Hardy and book illustration by Philip Allingham
- Book Illustration in the Victorian Period: Great Britain and America
Relevant Illustrations and Photographs from "A Thomas Hardy Gallery"
- Hardy's Family Cottage at Higher Bockhampton, Dorset
- Hangman's Cottage at Colliton Park, The Walks, Dorchester
- Avice Caro's Cottage near Church-Hope, Portland
- Tess Durbeyfield's Cottage at Marlott village, Dorset.
Gatrell, Simon. Hardy the Creator: A Textual Biography. Oxford: Clarendon, 1988.
Hardy, Thomas. Wessex Tales. Illustrated by Henry Macbeth-Raeburn. Volume Thirteen in the Complete Uniform Edition of the Wessex Novels. London: Osgood, McIlvaine, 1896.
Millgate, Michael. Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revisited. Oxford: Oxford U. P., 2004.
Pinion, F. B. A Hardy Companion. Trowbridge, Wiltshire: Macmillan, 1968.
Purdy, Richard L. Thomas Hardy: A Bibliographical Study. Oxford: Clarendon, 1954, rpt. 1978.
Ray, Martin. Thomas Hardy: A Textual Study of the Short Stories. London: Ashgate, 1988.
Seymour-Smith, Martin. Hardy. London: Bloomsbury, 1994.
Turner, Paul. The Life of Thomas Hardy. A Critical Biography. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.
Wright, Sarah Bird. Thomas Hardy A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2002.
Last modified 23 January 2017