(born June 2, 1840, Higher Bockhampton, Dorset, Eng.—died Jan. 11, 1928, Dorchester, Dorset) English novelist and poet who set much of his work in Wessex, his name for the counties of southwestern England.
Early life and works.
Hardy was the eldest of the four children of Thomas Hardy, a stonemason and jobbing builder, and his wife, Jemima (née Hand). He grew up in an isolated cottage on the edge of open heathland. Though he was often ill as a child, his early experience of rural life, with its seasonal rhythms and oral culture, was fundamental to much of his later writing. He spent a year at the village school at age eight and then moved on to schools in Dorchester, the nearby county town, where he received a good grounding in mathematics and Latin. In 1856 he was apprenticed to John Hicks, a local architect, and in 1862, shortly before his 22nd birthday, he moved to London and became a draftsman in the busy office of Arthur Blomfield, a leading ecclesiastical architect. Driven back to Dorset by ill health in 1867, he worked for Hicks again and then for the Weymouth architect G.R. Crickmay.
Though architecture brought Hardy both social and economic advancement, it was only in the mid-1860s that lack of funds and declining religious faith forced him to abandon his early ambitions of a university education and eventual ordination as an Anglican priest. His habits of intensive private study were then redirected toward the reading of poetry and the systematic development of his own poetic skills. The verses he wrote in the 1860s would emerge in revised form in later volumes (e.g., “Neutral Tones,” “Retty’s Phases”), but when none of them achieved immediate publication, Hardy reluctantly turned to prose.
In 1867–68 he wrote the class-conscious novel The Poor Man and the Lady, which was sympathetically considered by three London publishers but never published. George Meredith, as a publisher’s reader, advised Hardy to write a more shapely and less opinionated novel. The result was the densely plotted Desperate Remedies (1871), which was influenced by the contemporary “sensation” fiction of Wilkie Collins. In his next novel, however, the brief and affectionately humorous idyll Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), Hardy found a voice much more distinctively his own. In this book he evoked, within the simplest of marriage plots, an episode of social change (the displacement of a group of church musicians) that was a direct reflection of events involving his own father shortly before Hardy’s own birth.
In March 1870 Hardy had been sent to make an architectural assessment of the lonely and dilapidated Church of St. Juliot in Cornwall. There—in romantic circumstances later poignantly recalled in prose and verse—he first met the rector’s vivacious sister-in-law, Emma Lavinia Gifford, who became his wife four years later. She actively encouraged and assisted him in his literary endeavours, and his next novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), drew heavily upon the circumstances of their courtship for its wild Cornish setting and its melodramatic story of a young woman (somewhat resembling Emma Gifford) and the two men, friends become rivals, who successively pursue, misunderstand, and fail her.
Hardy’s break with architecture occurred in the summer of 1872, when he undertook to supply Tinsley’s Magazine with the 11 monthly installments of A Pair of Blue Eyes—an initially risky commitment to a literary career that was soon validated by an invitation to contribute a serial to the far more prestigious Cornhill Magazine. The resulting novel, Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), introduced Wessex for the first time and made Hardy famous by its agricultural settings and its distinctive blend of humorous, melodramatic, pastoral, and tragic elements. The book is a vigorous portrayal of the beautiful and impulsive Bathsheba Everdene and her marital choices among Sergeant Troy, the dashing but irresponsible soldier; William Boldwood, the deeply obsessive farmer; and Gabriel Oak, her loyal and resourceful shepherd.
Hardy and Emma Gifford were married, against the wishes of both their families, in September 1874. At first they moved rather restlessly about, living sometimes in London, sometimes in Dorset. His record as a novelist during this period was somewhat mixed. The Hand of Ethelberta (1876), an artificial social comedy turning on versions and inversions of the British class system, was poorly received and has never been widely popular. The Return of the Native (1878), on the other hand, was increasingly admired for its powerfully evoked setting of Egdon Heath, which was based on the sombre countryside Hardy had known as a child. The novel depicts the disastrous marriage between Eustacia Vye, who yearns romantically for passionate experiences beyond the hated heath, and Clym Yeobright, the returning native, who is blinded to his wife’s needs by a naively idealistic zeal for the moral improvement of Egdon’s impervious inhabitants. Hardy’s next works were The Trumpet-Major (1880), set in the Napoleonic period, and two more novels generally considered “minor”—A Laodicean (1881) and Two on a Tower (1882). The serious illness which hampered completion of A Laodicean decided the Hardys to move to Wimborne in 1881 and to Dorchester in 1883.
It was not easy for Hardy to establish himself as a member of the professional middle class in a town where his humbler background was well known. He signaled his determination to stay by accepting an appointment as a local magistrate and by designing and building Max Gate, the house just outside Dorchester in which he lived until his death. Hardy’s novel The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) incorporates recognizable details of Dorchester’s history and topography. The busy market-town of Casterbridge becomes the setting for a tragic struggle, at once economic and deeply personal, between the powerful but unstable Michael Henchard, who has risen from workman to mayor by sheer natural energy, and the more shrewdly calculating Donald Farfrae, who starts out in Casterbridge as Henchard’s protégé but ultimately dispossesses him of everything that he had once owned and loved. In Hardy’s next novel, The Woodlanders (1887), socioeconomic issues again become central as the permutations of sexual advance and retreat are played out among the very trees from which the characters make their living, and Giles Winterborne’s loss of livelihood is integrally bound up with his loss of Grace Melbury and, finally, of life itself.
Wessex Tales (1888) was the first collection of the short stories that Hardy had long been publishing in magazines. His subsequent short-story collections are A Group of Noble Dames (1891), Life’s Little Ironies (1894), and A Changed Man (1913). Hardy’s short novel The Well-Beloved (serialized 1892, revised for volume publication 1897) displays a hostility to marriage that was related to increasing frictions within his own marriage.
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