Literary Corner Cafe

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Today in Literary History - English Novelist and Poet Thomas Hardy Dies


On January 11, 1928, the great English novelist, short story writer, and poet, Thomas Hardy died in Dorchester, Dorset, England at the age of eighty-seven.

Thomas Hardy was born at Higher Bockhampton, a village in the parish of Stinsford to the east of Dorchester in the county of Dorset, England. His father, who was also named Thomas, worked as a stonemason and builder. His mother, Jemima, was a well-read woman, and it was she who educated her young son until he went off to school at Bockhamptom at the age of eight. Although Hardy showed much academic potential, and did especially well in Latin, his family lacked the financial means to send him to a university. When Hardy’s formal education ended at age sixteen, he was apprenticed to a local architect, John Hicks, where he trained in Dorchester.

In 1862, Hardy moved to London and enrolled at King’s College. Though he won prizes from the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Architectural Association, Hardy disliked London. He missed the countryside and he was all too aware of the class divisions that were still firmly in place and his own social inferiority. Five years later, concerned about his health, he returned to the Dorset countryside and decided to dedicate his life to writing.

In 1870, while restoring the parish church of St. Juliot in Cornwall, Hardy met Emma Lavinia Gifford, and the two promptly fell in love, marrying in 1874. Although Hardy and Emma would later become estranged, Emma’s death in 1912 had a profound effect on the writer, and he made a trip to Cornwall to revisit places that had been special to the two during their courtship. His work, Poems 1912-13 are his reflections on Emma’s passing.

In 1914, Hardy married Florence Emily Dugdale, his secretary. The new Mrs. Hardy was thirty-nine years younger than her husband, and though Thomas Hardy did seem to love Florence, he remained preoccupied with Emma’s death, a preoccupation he tried to overcome by writing poetry.

Thomas Hardy considered himself a poet, first and foremost, and a poet who wrote novels for financial gain only. His poetry, which was first published while he was in his fifties, has had a significant influence over modern English poetry, with the poets of the 1950s and 1960s citing Hardy as a major influencing figure. Hardy’s poetry displays elements of the Romantic and Enlightenment periods of literature, while his novels belong firmly to the Naturalism movement.

Today, many people are unaware that Thomas Hardy ever wrote poems, though his novels have become classics of English literature and are loved the world over. They center around tragic figures, who are at the mercy of the workings of fate and the social customs of the day.

Hardy’s first novel failed to find a publisher, and dismayed, Hardy destroyed most of the manuscript. Encouraged to “try again” by his friend, the Victorian poet and novelist, George Meredith, Hardy’s next two novels were published anonymously. In 1873, he published A Pair of Blue Eyes, a novel that draws on his courtship of Emma, under his own name. The term, “cliffhanger” is said to have originated with the serialized version of this novel in “Tinsley’s Magazine,” in which the character of Henry Knight is left literally hanging onto a cliff.

It was in Hardy’s next novel, Far From the Madding Crowd that he first introduced the fictional county of Wessex (based on Dorchester). Far From the Madding Crowd was successful enough for Hardy to give up architecture and devote himself entirely to writing, as he wished to do. Over the next twenty-five years, he wrote and published ten more novels, including The Return of the Native in 1878, The Mayor of Casterbridge in 1886, The Woodlanders in 1887, and Tess of the d’Ubervilles in 1891. Tess of the d’Ubervilles attracted some criticism due to its sympathetic portrayal of a “fallen woman,” but Hardy said its subtitle, A Pure Woman: Faithfully Presented, was intended to raise middle-class Victorian eyebrows.

It was Jude the Obscure, published in 1895 that met with strong, negative outcries from the public for its frank portrayal of sex and its apparent attack on the sanctity of marriage, and it was often referred to as “Jude the Obscene.” Booksellers sold the novel in brown paper bags, and it’s said the Bishop of Wakefield was so incensed he burnt his copy. Hardy seemed to take this criticism in stride, but in the 1912 postscript to the book, he referred to the bishop’s burning of Jude the Obscure by writing: “After these verdicts from the press its next misfortune was to be burnt by a bishop – probably in his despair at not being able to burn me.” Despite his outward good humor, the criticism of Jude the Obscure caused Hardy to decide never to write another novel, and from that time on, he devoted himself to his poetry.

In December 1927, Hardy became ill with pleurisy. He died at his cottage at Max Gate just after 9:00 pm on January 11, 1928. He dictated his final poem to his wife on his deathbed. His funeral was held on January 16th at London’s Westminster Abbey. Hardy’s burial became controversial because his family and friends wanted him to be interred at Stinsford, in the same grave as his first wife, Emma. His executor, Sir Sydney Carlyle Cockerell, however, insisted that he be interred in Westminster’s Poet’s Corner, instead. A compromise was reached when it was decided that his heart would be buried at Stinsford with Emma, while his ashes were interred in Poet’s Corner.

Hardy’s work has been admired by many writers who came after him, including D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. The great contemporary Irish writer, William Trevor is an admirer of Thomas Hardy saying, “That’s where all my tragedy comes from.”

In 1910, Hardy was awarded the Order of Merit. His cottage at Bockhampton and Max Gate in Dorchester are now owned by the National Trust.

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