Thomas Hardy's "The First" Countess of Wessex," Later included in A Group of Noble Dames(New York: Harper & Brothers, 1891; London: Osgood, McIlvaine, 1896), without Illustrations.

The tragic short story of Betty, child-bride and heiress, was first published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 80 (December, 1889), 20-43, with headpiece and three illustrations by Alfred Parsons and four illustrations by C. S. Reinhart. The drawings by Parsons are all exterior views of the settings, while Reinhart's illustrate scenes from the story. Hardy and Parsons had together visited the ancestral home and grounds of the Horners, Melbury House, the model for King's-Hintock Court, in late January, 1889. Rebekah Owen records that "some of the Horners did not like [Hardy's] portrayal, nor Mr. Alfred Parsons’ giving an exact delineation of Mells Park in Harper's Magazine. Mr. Hardy had told Mr. Parsons not to draw the house exactly, nor, indeed, at all" (Weber, 1939, p. 74). Hardy styles Mells Park "Falls-Park," the home of Squire Dornell; Parsons illustrated both it and King's-Hintock Court. "The serial version appears to have been thoroughly bowdlerized. What Hardy gives us instead [of the forbidden fruits of secret meetings, a pregnancy, and an elopement, all features of the final, volume version] is a tale of melodrama and intrigue" (Martin Ray, A Textual Study, 81). The 1891 Osgood, McIlvaine volume "gives the unbowdlerized version of the story, but it is impossible to determine whether Hardy restored the text as it appeared in the manuscript or whether he re-wrote the story for the collected edition" (82).

The collaborative programme of illustration in Harper's New Monthly Magazine 80 (December 1889), is as follows:

The Contributions of Charles S. Reinhart: Painter and Illustrator

Six years after producing the four plates for the serial publications of Hardy's The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid, American-born but European-trained illustrator Charles Reinhart collaborated with Hardy's friend Charles Parsons on a series of seven illustrations for "The First Countess of Wessex" (Harper's New Monthly Magazine, December, 1889), Parsons being responsible for the architectural plates and Reinhart completing such character studies as "At the Sow-and-Acorn" (p. 27), and "She beheld the object of her search on the horizontal bough of a cedar" (p. 29). This division of labour is consistent with Algernon Graves’s classification of Reinhart's work in A Dictionary of Artists Who Have Exhibited Works in the Principal London Exhibitions from 1760 to 1893(London: Henry Graves, 1895) as "Domestic" (p. 231) and John Denison Champlin Jr.'s classifying Reinhart as primarily a "genre painter" (p. 21). Although Reinhart exhibited works in water-colour (for example, "Gathering Wood and At Close of Day," 1877) and black-and-white at the National Academy of New York, where he moved after the 1880s, he is chiefly remembered for such oil canvasses as "Clearing Up," "Caught Napping" (1875), "Reconnoitering" (1876), "Rebuke" (1877), "September Morning" (1879), "Old Life-Boat" (1880), "Coast of Normandy" (1882), "In a Garden" (1883), "Mussel Fisherwoman," "Flats at Villerville" (1884), "Sunday" (1885), "English Garden," and "Fisherman of Villerville" (1886). Despite this enormous output in that decade, he also produced illustrations for a number of American and British periodicals in the 1880s, and exhibited at Liverpool and at the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours. Whether he actually met or took direct instructions from Hardy for the plates on either The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaidor "The First Countess of Wessex" cannot be established.

In contrast to Parson's consistently sensitive and almost photographic realism of outdoor vistas and architectural studies, the quality Reinhart's work for the Hardy story's illustrations is inconsistent. The figures in "At the Sow-and-Acorn" are satisfyingly animated and three-dimensional, their costumes historically accurate and the setting, a booth in an eighteenth-century English public house, convincingly presented through the high- backed wooden settle, pewter tankards, shelving, low- ceiling, and long-stemmed pipes. The moment is well realized, too, through the contrast in the travelling garb of the two drinkers (their hats still on, their top-boots much in evidence) and that of their bare-headed interlocutor, whose stockings and shoes establish him as an inmate of the inn.

Even better, in terms of drawing in the round, is the quiet and tender scene between the lovers in "She Beheld The Object of Her Search Sitting on a Horizontal Bough of a Cedar," which has affinities with genre paintings of the seventeenth-century Dutch masters such as Vermeer and Hals in its conveying the subtle emotions of the sitters and in its adhering to the old maxim that every picture tells a story. Also very Dutch in its compelling the viewer to construct a narrative scenario is plate 6, "So He Stormed on till Tupcombe Entered Suddenly": the impassivity of the inmate (again suggested by indoor clothing, stockings, and shoes) is sharp contrast to the vigorous movements of the travellers and the picture's careful background detailing serve to connect it with "At the Sow-and-Acorn. "

On the other hand, Plate 8, "Betty Lay upon the Floor," is flat, insipid, and unmoving, despite the attempt at conveying emotion through the anguished face in the doorway. The figure on the floor is bodiless, the arrested figure of Betty is wooden, and the room's three-dimensionalism is questionable, so that the overall effect is that of a stage scene lacking conviction. Compare the excellent detailing of the ornate portrait in the sixth plate with scrawled, asymmetrical line sketch above the bureau in the eighth. The flatness of the composition in the last plate is certainly reminiscent of Reinhart's work for Wilkie Collins's The New Magdalen, although the extreme rigidity of the female figure and the misplaced chair certainly suggest a decline in the artist's technical and imaginative faculties after a trio of very engaging plates.

Created 5 April 2001

Last modified 8 January 2020