Thomas Hardy and Dorset

Thomas Hardy

Dorset's most famous literary figure, Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was born and lived most of his life in the county.

Many of the major themes in his work, the characters and the landscapes they inhabit, are drawn from the Dorset countryside. The county of Dorset has been principally associated with agriculture right up until the late twentieth century, and remains the only county in England without a single mile of motorway.

Many tangible icons and memorials to the county's historical and mythological past remain. These include the Iron Age hill-forts overlooking the course of the river Stour; the long barrows and Bronze Age cursus of Cranborne Chase; sites associated with Celtic mythology such as Badbury Rings, Maiden Castle, Knowlton Circles; and the Cerne Giant.

The nineteenth century saw the beginning of great change to the small, agricultural communities. The most memorable characters in Thomas Hardy’s novels, Tess, Henchard, Bathsheba, Gabriel Oak, Giles Winterborne, Marty South, are all Dorset folk.

Dorset offered Thomas Hardy the contrasting towns of Dorchester (Roman and intimate) and Weymouth (Georgian and glamorous); the dairying river valleys; Egdon Heath, the ‘wild regions of obscurity’ of his childhood; and many village downland and woodland communities.

Dorchester (Casterbridge)

Dorchester, the county town of Dorset and named Casterbridge in Thomas Hardy's novels, is the centre of Hardy Country and the main setting for The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886).

Thomas Hardy's study is preserved in the County Museum in the town centre.

Designed by Hardy himself, Max Gate became his home from June 1885 until his death in 1928. It is now owned by the National Trust.

Hardy chose this location on the edge of town as it enabled him to look out across open fields towards Winterborne Came and the world of his friend, the dialect poet, William Barnes who, like the musicians gallery in Stinsford church where Thomas Hardy’s father played the violin, reminded him of a rural way of life celebrated in Under The Greenwood Tree (1872).

The destruction of that way of life is artfully shown in The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), where Henchard’s reliance upon weather lore, verbal agreements and rule of thumb are replaced by Farfrae’s more calculated economic methods and technical innovation.

This tiny cottage at Higher Bockhampton, about two miles east of Dorchester and now also a National Trust property, was Thomas Hardy's childhood home. His heart is buried close by in Stinsford Churchyard.

Stinsford Church and Hardy’s cottage are featured in Under the Greenwood Tree and such poems as ‘Domicilium’, ‘The Self-Unseeing’, ‘Afternoon Service at Mellstock’ and ‘Voices from Things Growing in a Churchyard’.

‘The gallery of Mellstock Church had a status and sentiment of its own. A stranger there was regarded with a feeling altogether differing from that of the congregation below towards him. Banished from the nave as an intruder whom no originality could make interesting, he was received above as a curiosity that no unfitness could render dull.’

North of Dorchester

Exploring the area in and around the Blackmoor Vale, termed by Hardy the 'Vale of Little Dairies'.

'Here in the valley, the world seems to be constructed upon a smaller and more delicate scale; the fields are mere paddocks, so reduced that from this height their hedgerows appear a network of dark green threads overspreading the paler green of the grass. The atmosphere below is languorous, and is so tinged with azure that what artists call the middle distance partakes of that hue, whilst the horizon beyond is of deepest ultramarine.'
from Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Between July 1876 and March 1878 Thomas Hardy lived at Riverside Villa, just outside the town. This was the happiest period of his marriage, and whilst here he wrote The Return of the Native (1878) and several poems, such as ‘Overlooking the River Stour’ and ‘On Sturminster Foot-Bridge’ relating to the view, the river and the Mill walk.

Reticulations creep upon the slack stream’s face
When the wind skims irritably past,
The current clucks smartly into each hollow place
That years of flood have scrabbled in the pier’s sodden base;
The floating lily leaves rot fast.
On a roof stand the swallows ranged in wistful waiting rows,
Till they arrow off and drop like stones
Among the eyot-withies at whose feet the river flows:
And beneath the roof is she who in the dark world shows
As a lattice-gleam when midnight moans.

Hardy returned to Sturminster Newton in June 1916 to revisit Riverside Villa and in June 1921 to see the Hardy Players perform The Mellstock Quire, a dramatisation of Under The Greenwood Tree, in the Castle ruins.

One of the principal locations of Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891). Our route includes Tess’s Cottage, St Gregory’s Church and the Crown Hotel, the basis for the Pure Drop Inn, which John Durbeyfield tells Pa’son Tringham serves a ‘very pretty brew in tap – though, to be sure, not so good as at Rolliver’s’.

Rollivers is probably Old Lamb House, on the west side of Walton Elm crossroads. This fertile and sheltered landscape ‘in which the fields are never brown and the springs never dry’ is the first in a series of landscapes that punctuate the changes in mood and circumstances of Tess’s life. In his portrayal of the Blackmore Vale he notes that it is ‘for the most part untrodden as yet by tourist or landscape-painter’.

Shaftesbury has a key role in Tess and Jude the Obscure. It is here that Sue and Phillotson lived at Ox House in Bimport, round the corner from The Duke’s Arms (based on the Grosvenor Hotel) in the High Street. Jude walked along Abbey Walk, the site of the former Abbey, which was founded by King Alfred (871-901) and became one of the wealthiest Benedictine nunneries in England. From here there is a marvellous view of the Blackmore Vale.

In Tess, Shaston is on milestones and is one of the boundaries of the young Tess’s world, gazing from from her home in Marlott. Thomas Hardy was fascinated by Shaftesbury, calling it ‘the city of dream’ because of its history and ‘one of the queerest and quaintest spots in England … breezy and whimsical’.

Thomas Hardy wrote about Hambledon Hill

At Hazelbury Bryan (Nuttlebury), Middlemarsh (Marshwood), High Stoy and Minterne Magna (Little Hintock) you can see the disappearing landscape described in The Woodlanders (1887). There are places that have barely changed since long before Thomas Hardy’s time, and that have a bearing on the contrasts produced in Hardy’s writing.

‘Here the trees, timber or fruit-bearing as the case may be, make the wayside hedges ragged by their drip and shade, their lower limbs stretching in level repose over the road, as though reclining on the insubstantial air. At one place, on the outskirts of Blackmoor Vale, where the bold brow of High-Stoy Hill is seen two or three miles ahead, the leaves lie so thick in autumn as to completely bury the track. The spot is lonely, and when the days are darkening the many gay charioteers now perished who have rolled along the way, the blistered soles that have trodden it, and the tears that have wetted it, return upon the mind of the loiterer.’

South of Dorchester

Weymouth is a site of worldly pleasure in Thomas Hardy’s writing and is more or less the antithesis to Egdon Heath and other desolate areas. The town’s importance stemmed from the patronage of King George III, who spent his summers here, in his later years. In the afterglow of this regal splendour, Weymouth became the choice holiday resort in the south.

Diggory Venn in The Return of the Native describes the excitement of the place where ‘out of every ten folk you meet nine of ’em in love’. In Hardy’s poem in praise of cider, ‘Great Things’ he writes of ‘spinning down to Weymouth town / By Ridgway thirstily’ and in The Dynasts (1908) it is ‘King George’s watering-place’.

Thomas Hardy lived and worked in Weymouth in 1869, enjoying a morning swim in Weymouth Bay and joined a quadrille class, which provided ‘a gay gathering for dances and love-making by adepts of both sexes’. He lived at 3 Wooperton Street. Here he wrote poetry and, when his work took him to St Juliot in Cornwall, he embarked on a significant love affair.

He stayed in Weymouth in 1871-2 lodging at 1 West Parade, now Park Street, returning to the Bockhampton cottage to complete Under the Greenwood Tree. Weymouth’s Esplanade, the Gloucester Lodge Hotel and Old Rooms are featured in The Trumpet-Major (1880), renamed Budmouth in the 1895 edition to bring the novel within fictional ‘Wessex’.

An 18 mile stretch of shingle offering fabulous coastal walks. Thomas Hardy walked on Chesil Beach many times, observing the fishermen and bathers as he took the air. It is featured in The Well-Beloved (1897).

South-east of Dorchester

An area that includes rugged heathland and spectacular coastal paths.

Egdon Heath is Thomas Hardy’s collective name for several individual heaths to the south and east of Dorchester. This unproductive wasteland of gorse, heather and bracken was a familiar part of Hardy’s childhood and retained a powerful atmosphere of hostility to civilisation, providing a refuge for the outcast and the rejected.

The heath provides a rich setting for the interplay between landscape and character in The Return of the Native and is the site of the supernatural in the 1888 short story ‘The Withered Arm’. The Heath has shrunk to less than half of the size it was in the 1920s, yet in places still retains a mysterious character.

The heath also includes The Return of the Native trail from Higher Bockhampton towards Bere Regis, in the footsteps of Eustacia Vye and Clym Yeobright, visiting Rainbarrows and Shadwater weir.

‘Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well with a little preparation. She had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman…. She had Pagan eyes, full of nocturnal mysteries, and their light, as it came and went, and came again, was partially hampered by their oppressive lids and lashes; and of these the under lid was much fuller than it usually is with English women.’

Lulworth Cove

Sergeant Troy, the fascinating and faithless soldier in Far From The Madding Crowd (1874) swims from Lulworth Cove. ‘Troy came to a small basin of sea enclosed by the cliffs. He undressed and plunged in. Inside the cove the water was uninteresting to a swimmer, being smooth as a pond, and to get a little of the ocean swell, Troy presently swam between the two projecting spurs of rock which formed the pillars of Hercules to this minature Mediterranean’.

John Keats (1795-1821) landed here in September 1820 whilst a passenger on board the Maria Crowther bound for Italy.

His last night on English soil was spent at Lulworth on 30 September 1820. Here he carried with him one of the last poems that he wrote - the sonnet ‘Bright Star, would that I were steadfast as thou art’.

Thomas Hardy commemorated this in his poem, ‘At Lulworth Cove a Century Back’ under the mistaken belief that Keats wrote the sonnet during his landing.

For his 81st birthday a group of younger writers, including Robert Graves, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Siegfried Sassoon presented Hardy with a first edition of Keats’s 1820 poems.
For more discussion about Lulworth Cove, see also Lulworth Cove Writing Weekend

See also Thomas Hardy, A Ringstead Walk folowing the smugglers' trail from owermoigne to the coast.

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