Finding Hardy at Last

‘Mr. Thomas Hardy composing a lyric’; drawing by Max Beerbohm, 1913
‘Mr. Thomas Hardy composing a lyric’; drawing by Max Beerbohm, 1913

To call Thomas Hardy half a Londoner may sound rather like suggesting that William Faulkner was something of a New Yorker. Didn’t Hardy invent the English realm of “Wessex,” or at least rescue it from a thousand years of disuse? Wasn’t he a native of that place, born in a tiny village near Dorchester? He “ventured,” he said in a preface to a new edition of Far from the Madding Crowd, “to adopt the word…from the pages of early English history, and give it a fictitious significance as the existing name of the district once included in that extinct kingdom.”

Then things got a little out of hand, and what Hardy called “a partly real, partly dream-country…solidified into a utilitarian region which people can go to, take a house in, and write to the papers from.” Mark Ford reminds us in the opening pages of his remarkable book that the utilitarian region now displays the name everywhere: “Wessex Auctions, Wessex Building Services, Wessex Cars, Wessex Dental, Wessex Electrical, Wessex Fertility, Wessex Golf Centre….” King Alfred would have been delighted. Or perhaps not.

In any event Hardy himself was fully aware of the advantages of the franchise. “Could you,” he wrote to his publishers in 1888,

whenever advertising my books, use the words “Wessex novels” at the head of the list…. I find that the name Wessex, wh. I was the first to use in fiction, is getting to be taken up everywhere: & it would be a pity for us to lose the right to it for want of asserting it.

Of course one can write about a country, real or dream-bound, without residing in it, but Hardy was raised in what became Wessex and lived there for most of his life. Much of the condescending nonsense written about him relies on what was seen to be his country style. Henry James thought Far from the Madding Crowd was “clever” but deeply unconvincing as far as its human characters went: “the only thing we believe in are the sheep and the dogs.” Somerset Maugham decided that Hardy, even when dressed for a social occasion, had “a strange look of the soil”—whatever that look might be. Leslie Stephen, a great admirer of much of Hardy’s work, found “the descriptions of country life admirable” without looking forward much to anything he might say about the city. Even Stephen’s daughter, Virginia Woolf, while insisting that she saw nothing of “the simple peasant” in Hardy, managed to cast him as an idyllically rustic writer, “naturally swept off into imagining and creating without a thought of its being difficult or remarkable.”

Large myths are in the air here, and they are in no way dispelled by the fact that the claim…

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