In Hardy Country

On the Ridgeway, a broad grass path on the northern edge of the Berkshire downs, there is a lonely spot of great beauty near where the road from Wantage, in the Vale of the White Horse below, crosses the path on its way over the downs to Hungerford, fourteen miles to the south. A strong wind blows even on clear days, and during a storm the wind whistles as it does on sound tracks. Some of the fields have been ploughed, but mostly the land is pasture, treeless and, by the standards of the region, hedgeless. Though the downs are only a few hundred feet above the vale, the slope is so steep, and great heights in that part of England so rare, that the views are wide and exhilarating.

This isn’t Hardy country at all; in its stark and unaccommodating grandness it bears little resemblance to the Dorsetshire Wessex of Under the Greenwood Tree, Far from the Madding Crowd, and The Return of the Native. But Jude Fawley stood here, and was told that he could see Christminster, or Oxford, fifteen miles away, on a really clear day. There is perhaps just enough smog around Oxford now to prevent anyone’s ever seeing a spire, but it is possible to imagine it, which is really what Jude had been doing anyway. Rereading Jude I had been struck by the way the novel keeps coming back to this place, and to the road leading south over the downs to the village Hardy calls Marygreen, in fact called Fawley. He describes it so vividly and insistently that I felt certain the place had some special meaning for him. Hardy’s paternal grandmother was raised in Fawley, and his sister Mary taught for a number of years in the village of Denchworth, in the Vale of the White Horse.

The present life and landscape are sufficiently like what Hardy had seen and Jude lived in that the inevitable changes can be easily ignored when one makes the pilgrimage. Shepherds have used the Ridgeway itself for thousands of years, and the presence of a few houses, pavement on the highway that crosses it, and a few ploughed fields does nothing to keep the view from being the same as could be seen before the Romans came. There is a bridleway to Fawley, too, that is only slightly more primitive than the main Wantage-Hungerford road would have been in Hardy’s time. And Fawley itself is something of a revelation.

Hardy says in the opening chapter of Jude that the old parish church in Marygreen-Fawley had fallen into disuse in the nineteenth century and a new, unattractive one was being built; a cornerstone says the new church was dedicated in 1865, and the building is indeed unattractive. A similar disuse has overtaken the old cottages of the sort Jude’s Aunt Drucilla lived in, so that at present there are no dwellings one can confidently date earlier than the middle of the last …

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