Thomas Hardy’s life can be divided into three phases. The first phase (1840-1870) embraces childhood, adolescence, apprenticeship, first marriage, early poems and his first unpublished novel. The second phase (1871-1897) is marked by intensive writing, which resulted in the publication of 14 novels and a number of short stories. In the third phase (1898-1928), the period of the writer’s rising fame, he abandoned writing novels and returned to poetry.

Childhood and youth

Thomas Hardy was born on 2 June 1840 in a brick and thatch two-storey cottage in the hamlet called Higher Bockhampton, in the parish of Stinsford, about three miles east of Dorchester, the county town of Dorset. With the exception of five years, Hardy lived all his long life in his home county. Both of Hardy’s parents were of Dorset origin. His father, also named Thomas, was a self-employed master mason and building contractor. The Hardys were an old Dorset family, which had descended from the Le Hardy family residing in the Isle of Jersey since the 15th century. One of the ancestors, Le Clement Hardy, was lieutenant-governor of Jersey in 1488. Another kinsman, Sir Thomas Hardy (1769-1839) was Admiral Horatio Nelson’s aide and best friend. At the turn of the eighteenth century the family experienced a rapid economic decline.

Hardy’s mother, Jemima, was a former maidservant and cook. She came from a poor family, but she had acquired from her mother a love of reading, and her literary tastes included Latin poets and French romances in English translation. She provided for her son’s education. First she taught little Thomas to read and write before he was four, and then she instilled in him a growing interest in literature. Hardy had a great affection for his mother throughout all her life. His father, who was a keen violin player, passed on to young Thomas a love of music. Both Thomas’s father and paternal grandfather were important members of the Stinsford Parish Church choir. As Paul Turner writes: “Apart from parental influences, Hardy’s childhood was dominated by two things: the local church, and the natural world around him.”. (6)

Hardy received his early schooling at the local National School in Lower Bockhampton, which opened in 1848. The school was run by the “National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church”. In 1850, when he was ten, Jemima Hardy enrolled her son at a non-conformist school run by the British and Foreign School Society in Dorchester, where he learnt Latin and French among other subjects. Young Thomas had begun his formal education at the age of eight and ended at the age of 16. However, as a boy, he read both Greek and Roman classics in translation and the Bible, which he knew exceptionally well. He was also very fond of reading romances. His favourite authors were William Harrison Ainsworth, Walter Scott, and Alexander Dumas. In addition, he read Shakespeare’s tragedies. Although he was quite fond of school, he preferred solitude and reading books. In Dorset young Thomas witnessed the decline of the old pastoral society and the rise of industrialism.

Apprenticeship

Unable to pursue a scholarly or clerical career, Hardy became apprenticed in 1856 to a local architect, John Hicks, who specialised in church restoration. His occupation required extensive trips to various locations in Dorset. At Hick’s office Hardy met another boy, Henry Bastow, who had a similar interest in classical literature, especially poetry, and in religious matters. Hardy could only read early in the morning, between five and eight, before he left for the office. In Dorchester he met a local schoolmaster and an poet William Barnes (1801-1866), who published poetry about rural life in local dialect. He may have been the inspiration for Hardy to start writing poetry on a similar theme.

Hardy’s architectural apprenticeship, which lasted a little more than four years, provided him with important experiences which would later inform his fiction and poetry. While still in Dorchester, Hardy met Horace Moule, a vicar’s son, and a student of Queen’s College, Cambridge. Eight years older than Hardy, Horace was at the start of a career as scholar. He became Hardy’s best friend and mentor who encouraged him to read Greek tragedies and contemporary English literature. At that time the most recent developments in English literature included the publication of Alfred Tennyson’s poems Idylls of the King, George Meredith’s two important novels Richard Feverel and Evan Harrington, Wilkie CollinsThe Woman in White and George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. Apart from those, in 1859, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, a book which exerted a profound influence on Hardy.

London

In April 1862, Hardy decided to suspend his architectural apprenticeship and left for London. He rented lodgings at 3, Clarence Place, at Kilburn, near Edgware Road. Some biographers speculate that his decision was caused by yet another unsuccessful love affair. Thomas had already been infatuated with two Dorset girls: Elizabeth Sarah Bishop (Lizbie Browne), who “scorned him as too young,” and Louisa Harding, to whom he spoke only two words, a shy “Good evening” in the lane. (Halliday, 25,26) Now he had proposed and been rejected by a Dorchester girl, Mary Waight, who was older than he. Hence, possibly the move to London was caused not only by his desire to learn more but also to make a fresh start in life.

In London Hardy spent five years working as an assistant architect for Arthur Blomfield (1829-1899), who restored and designed churches, usually in a Gothic Revival style. Blomfield was very glad of his new associate and proposed him for a member of the Architectural Association. Hardy also explored the scientific and cultural life of London. In spring 1863, he heard Charles Dickens’s public lecture. He visited museums, galleries and attended plays and operas. Hardy particularly enjoyed Shakespeare and ancient tragedy at the Drury Lane Theatre. He read the works of Herbert Spencer, Thomas Henry Huxley, John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin and Charles Darwin. Under the influence of these works, Hardy began to reconsider his traditional Christian upbringing and decided to abandon his youthful plan of ordination into the Anglican Church. He became increasingly disillusioned with institutional Christianity. While in London Hardy also became acquainted with the poetry of contemporary Victorian poets, Robert Browning and Algernon Charles Swinburne, and he began to write his own poetry, but it was rejected for publication. In 1865, Hardy wrote a satirical sketch “How I Built Myself a House”, which was published in Chambers Journal and won him a prize. In that year Hardy bought a number of books on literature and began to study it more intensely. He also continued to write poetry which foreshadowed the themes of his later prose fiction: human misery, uncaring universe, loneliness, chance.

Back in Bockhampton

In July 1867, unable to have his poems published and weary of London, Hardy left the capital to return to Bockhampton and resumed working for Hicks. Shortly after his return, Hardy probably entered into a passionate affair with Tryphena Sparks (1851-1890), an attractive sixteen-year-old cousin. Tryphena was the youngest child of James and Maria Sparks, Hardy’s uncle and aunt, who lived in a thatched cottage in the nearby village of Puddletown. Some biographers believe that in the years 1868 to 1870, when she was a trainee teacher in the Puddletown school, she had a romance with Hardy, although there is too little evidence of their relationship. Nevertheless, Tryphena must have exerted some profound effect on Hardy’s life since she appears in disguise in many of his novels and poems. After her death Hardy wrote a poem pervaded with personal memories, entitled “Thoughts of Phena”.

First novels

Under the inspiration of George Meredith’s prose, Hardy began to write his first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, which he submitted to the publishing house of Alexander Macmillan. Although Macmillan did not publish it, he encouraged Hardy to keep writing. Meredith advised him to write novels with more plot. In 1869, John Hicks died and Hardy moved to Weymouth to seek employment as an architectural assistant. At the same time he began to write another novel, Desperate Remedies, which was also rejected by Macmillan but published anonymously in three volumes by the publisher William Tinsley in 1871. After the publication of Desperate Remedies, Hardy decided to devote himself fully to writing, although he could not yet achieve a literary or financial success. In 1872, he published his second novel, Under the Greenwood Tree. Encouraged by favourable reception Hardy published A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), the most autobiographical of all his novels, which introduced some of the themes he would develop in his later works. The fourth novel, Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) gained public notice and eventually brought him financial success. In 1878, The Return of the Native brought Hardy another publishing success. The ensuing years would bring him a constant rise in literary popularity. Hardy set all his novels in the fictional part of south and south-west England which he called Wessex.

Love and marriage

When Hardy was occupied in the restoration of a church in St. Juliot, near the site of the legendary Castle Tintagel, King Arthur’s Camelot in Cornwall in 1870, he met for the first time Emma Lavinia Gifford, the local rector’s sister-in-law. He was captivated by both her looks and admiration for him. Emma, who was attracted by Hardy’s literary interests, encouraged him to write fiction and poetry. They soon fell in love with each other but waited four years to be married at St Peters Church, Paddington, London, on 17 September 1874. Curiously enough, none of Hardy’s family attended the wedding ceremony, which was performed by Canon Edwin Hamilton Gifford, Emma’s uncle, who later became Archdeacon of London. When they married, they were both thirty years old, but Hardy thought she looked much younger and she thought he looked much older. The first years of their marriage were quite happy. The couple spent their honeymoon in Paris and travelled extensively in England and on the Continent. However, in later years, Emma felt more and more estranged from her husband. She did not entirely approve of the content of his fictions, and last but not least, his romantic attachments to young artistic ladies, such as Florence Henniker, Rosamund Tomson, and Agnes Grove. Emma kept a secret diary in which she recorded her remarks and her complaints about her husband.

Max Gate

In 1885, the couple settled near Dorchester at Max Gate, a large mid-Victorian villa, which Hardy had designed himself where he lived for the rest of his life. In 1895-96 and 1907, Hardy made significant extensions and alterations to the house, including enlarging the kitchen and refurbishing his study. Hardy felt extremely comfortable at Max Gate, which he often called his country retreat. In 1886, his second tragic novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, was published. Its fictional setting resembles old Dorchester, a market town which Hardy knew very well. In 1887, Hardy and his wife Emma took a trip to Italy. They returned to Max Gate via Paris and London. In 1896, Emma introduced Hardy to the new fashionable sport of cycling. Hardy bought himself an expensive Rover Cobb bike, and the couple frequently toured the Dorset countryside. Apart from cycling, Hardy and his wife used to make annual visits to London in spring or summer. They attended theatres, operas, and social gatherings. After spending the summer 1896 in London, the Hardys extended their holidays and visited three English towns: Worcester, Stratford and Dover. Next they went to Belgium. Hardy saw the historic Field of Waterloo, where Napoleon was defeated. He had already made a plan of his epic drama The Dynasts, devoted to the history of Napoleonic wars.

Return to poetry

The publication of Tess of the d’Urbervilles in 1891 shocked and dismayed the Victorian public with its presentation of a young beautiful girl seduced by an aristocratic villain. In order to have the novel published, Hardy made some concessions about its plot; extensive passages were either severely modified or deleted outright. The same happened to his last novel, Jude the Obscure, published in book form in 1895. In 1898, disturbed by the public uproar over the reception of his two greatest novels, Hardy announced that he had ceased to write prose fiction. He returned to poetry, which he regarded as a purer art form than prose fiction. As a young man he could not make enough money to live on by writing poetry, so he had decided to write novels. However, after giving up the novel in adulthood, Hardy published a collection of his earlier poems under the title Wessex Poems (1898).

Between 1903 and 1908 Hardy wrote mostly in blank verse a great panorama of the Napoleonic wars, the epic drama The Dynasts. His literary authority was beyond dispute. In 1905, he was awarded an honorary degree at the University of Aberdeen and recognised as one of the most outstanding British authors. In 1910, King George V conferred on him the Order of Merit, and in 1912 he received the gold medal of the Royal Society of Literature. In 1913, Hardy, who had never graduated from college, received Cambridge honorary degree of Doctor of Letters. His popularity grew immensely and his novels were reprinted, some of them being dramatised and performed on stage. In 1914, the adaptation of The Dynasts was performed at the Kingsway Theatre, London. Between 1911 and 1914 Hardy disposed of most of his manuscripts; some of them were deposited in public libraries and museums, others were purchased, mostly by American dealers and collectors.

Emma’s death and second marriage

The sudden death on 27th November 1912 of Hardy’s wife Emma, with whom he had long been estranged, threw him into a complete disarray. After her funeral and burial in Stinsford churchyard, Hardy reproached himself that he had not realised how seriously ill she was. The death of his wife prompted him to write a number of poems that recalled his happy time with Emma when they were young. After Emma’s death Hardy did not remain alone at Max Gate. He was taken care of by his niece and a young woman, Florence Dugdale (1879-1937), who had been introduced to him while Emma was still alive. Florence was a Dorset schoolmaster’s daughter. She was a shy, charming woman with some literary aspirations who had published a few books for children and also written poetry, though with little success. Occasionally she did research for Hardy in London when he could not do it himself. Hardy became infatuated with the young woman who admired him as a great writer, and on 6 February 1914, he married Florence, who was almost forty years younger than he. Sadly, his second marriage soon proved to be disappointing as the first one, mainly due to the fact that Hardy was fond of “spending much of each day closeted in his study”. (Page, 166)

Final years

During the First World War Hardy was in his seventies. In spite of advanced age, he took an active part in campaigns defending Britain’s involvement in the war. He visited military hospitals and POW camps. In his last years Hardy rarely left Max Gate although he remained vital; he was still interested in world affairs. Regarded as the most outstanding writer of his time, he was frequently visited at Max Gate by writers, artists and politicians. His guests included James Barrie, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, A. E. Housman, Siegfried Sassoon, H. G. Wells, Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden, George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf, and many others.

From 1920 until 1927, he worked secretly on his autobiography, which was published in two volumes (1928 and 1930) as the work of Florence Hardy. It was later alleged that Florence had only typed the manuscript and added some minor corrections, but in fact, Florence’s emendations into the text seem to have been extensive. She probably reduced the number of references to Emma, included some anecdotes related to Hardy and added a few letters. Hardy destroyed almost all papers which he did not want to leave after his death. In 1924, he watched a dramatised version of his novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles given by the Hardy Players, an amateur group from Dorchester. The performance was so impressive that Hardy, despite his eighty years, became infatuated with the young actress who played Tess.

After his eighty-seventh birthday Hardy seemed much weaker than before. He did not leave Max Gate and stayed long in bed. He became increasingly reclusive and reticent about his past life. In the autumn 1927 he fell seriously ill. He died on the evening of 11 January 1928. Before he died he asked his wife to read a verse from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Gittings, 640):

Oh, Thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make,
And ev’n with Paradise devise the snake:
For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man
Is blackened — Man’s forgiveness give — and take!

Strangely enough, Hardy had two simultaneous funerals. His body was cremated and placed (probably against his will) in the Poet’s Corner (image) in Westminster Abbey in London. The official funeral was attended by the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and the Leader of the Opposition Ramsay MacDonald, heads of Oxford and Cambridge colleges, where Hardy was an honorary fellow, and some outstanding literary figures like James Barrie, Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, Edmund Gosse, A. E. Housman, Rudyard Kipling and George Bernard Shaw. At exactly the same time Hardy’s heart was buried alongside his first wife in Stinsford churchyard, Dorchester. The private service at Stinsford Church was attended by his brother Henry and local people who resembled characters from Hardy’s novels. Hardy left an estate of nearly 100,000 pounds which was divided among his wife, relatives, various libraries, museums and charities. As Evelyn Hardy wrote:

Hardy’s life was not primarily one of action. He was by nature a scholar and a writer: it is what goes on in the mind that holds us, and Hardy’s was rich with stored impressions. [2]

In his long and uneventful life Thomas Hardy wrote 14 novels, more than 40 short stories published in four volumes, over 900 poems and two dramas. Apart from his prose works and poetry, Hardy left a great number of letters, notebooks, pocket-books,diaries and memoranda, but most of them were burned in accordance with his last will. Only twelve of them survived. They are the “Architectural Notebook”, the “Trumpet Major Notebook”, the “Schools of Painting” notebook, the “Studies, Specimens, etc.”, the “1867” notebook, the volumes of “Literary Notes”, “Memoranda” and the “Facts” notebook. All have been published over the last fifty years.

References

Gittings, Robert.Thomas Hardy. London: Penguin Books, 2001.

Halliday, F.E.Thomas Hardy: His Life and Work. London: House of Stratus, 2001.

Hardy, Evelyn.Thomas Hardy. A Critical Biography. London: The Hogarth Press, 1954.

Millgate, Michael. Thomas Hardy. A Biography Revisited. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Page, Norman, ed. Oxford Reader's Companion to Hardy.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Tomalin, Claire. Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man.New York: Penguin Press, 2007.

Turner, Paul. The Life of Thomas Hardy. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001.


Victorian Overview Thomas Hardy Works

Last modified 7 February 2010