Thomas Hardy was born on June 2, 1840, in the village of Upper Bockhampton, near Dorchester in Dorset (the county in southwest England he refers to in his novels as 'Wessex'). His father was a stonemason and a violinist. His mother enjoyed reading and relating all the folk songs and legends of the region. Between his parents, Hardy gained all the interests that would later appear in his novels and his own life: his love for architecture and music, his interest in the lifestyles of the country, and his passion for literature.
At the age of eight, Hardy began to attend Julia Martin's school in Bockhampton. However, most of his education came from the books he found in Dorchester, the nearby town. He learned French, German, and Latin by teaching himself through these books. When he was 16, he was apprenticed to a local architect, John Hicks. Under Hicks' tutelage, Hardy learned much about architectural drawing and restoring old houses and churches.
In 1862, Hardy was sent to London to work with the architect and church restorer Arthur Blomfield. During his five years in London, he immersed himself in the cultural scene by visiting museums and theatres and studying classic literature. He even began to write his own poetry, which idealized rural life, but could not find a publisher. In 1867 he returned to Dorchester and became a church restorer. He also entered into a temporary engagement with Tryphena Sparks, a 16-year-old relative.
Since Hardy was unable to find public for his poetry, the novelist George Meredith advised him to write a novel. In 1867 The Poor Man And The Lady was complete, but many publishers rejected the book and he destroyed the manuscript. His first popular novel was Under the Greenwood Tree, published in 1872. At first he wrote anonymously, but as his popularity increased, he began to use his own name. Like Dickens, Hardy's novels were published in serial form in magazines that were popular in both England and America.
The next great novel, Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) was so popular that the profits enabled Hardy to give up architecture and marry Emma Gifford, who had encouraged his devotion to writing.
Meanwhile, more novels followed in quick succession: The Return of the Native (1878), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), The Woodlanders (1887), Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895). In addition to these larger works, Hardy published three collections of short stories and five smaller novels, all moderately successful.
Though Hardy never lost his love of traditional country life, his great novels became progressively bleaker, reflecting his pessimism at nature's cruelty and the tragedy of human life depicted in the self-destructive fates of his characters. He also daringly challenged many of the sexual and religious conventions of the Victorian age. So, though his fiction received much praise, many critics found his works extremely shocking, especially Tess and Jude. In fact, the outcry against Jude was so great that Hardy decided to stop writing novels and return to his first great love, poetry.
Over the years, Hardy had divided his time between his home, Max Gate, in Dorchester and lodgings in London. In his later years, he remained in Dorchester to focus completely on his poetry.
In 1898, Wessex Poems was published, some of which had been composed 30 years before. He then turned his attentions to an epic drama of the Napoleonic Wars in verse, The Dynasts; it was finally completed in 1908. During the remainder of his life, Hardy published several collections of poems. Before his death, he had written over 800 poems, many of them published while he was in his 80s.
By the last two decades of his life, Hardy had achieved as much fame as Dickens. In 1909, he succeeded his friend George Meredith to the presidency of the Society of Authors. A year later King George V conferred on him the Order of Merit and in 1912 he received the gold medal of the Royal Society of Literature. In addition, the success of the Wessex Editions, the definitive versions of all Hardy's early works, resulted in Max Gate becoming a literary shrine.
Hardy also found happiness in his personal life. His marriage to Emma Gifford had not been particularly happy, although Hardy grieved at her sudden death in 1912. But in 1914, he married Florence Dugale, a woman in her 30s and almost 40 years younger. From 1920 through 1927 Hardy worked on his autobiography and, after his death, his devoted wife published it in two volumes under her own name.
After a long and highly successful life, Thomas Hardy died on January 11, 1928, at the age of 87. His ashes were buried in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey.
According to a literary anecdote, his heart was to be buried in Stinsford, his birthplace. All went according to plan until a cat belonging to the Hardy's sister snatched the heart from the kitchen, where it was being temporarily kept, and disappeared into the woods with it.
For a complete listing of works by Thomas Hardy, see Links and Bibliography.
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