"It is the office of good literature, the distinction of classical literature, to give form in every age to the age's human mind." Thus critic Lionel Johnson appraised the works of Thomas Hardy, "the English novelist who continues the high tradition of the art, is faithful to the spirit of his age, but faithful also to the spirit of his country." True indeed to his land, Hardy attempted to give form to a small sector of his native southwest England, which he dubbed Wessex. Mindful of changes wrought by nature and the progress of history, and wishing to perpetuate the old customs of his land, he systematically used adjacent sections of Dorset County as the locale for each Wessex novel. These novels are the backbone of Hardy's prose writing.
Thomas Hardy was born on June 2, 1840, in Brockhampton, Dorset, England. At the time of his birth, the old family of le Hardy, as it was once called, was poor and barely above the status of the laboring class. Hardy was the eldest of four children. Too frail for school attendance, he was taught first by his mother, then in the private school of the lady of the manor. At eight, he was strong enough to enter the village school, whose master was competent and beloved. Regular church attendance, family participation in singing and playing musical instruments at church services and village functions, and inveterate walking and reading taught literary, biblical, and local lore to a child sensitive enough to receive and store it.
At sixteen, Hardy was apprenticed to an architect in Dorchester. At twenty-one, he was employed by a prominent ecclesiastical architect in London. His scope as an architect was thereby widened, as were his intellectual horizons. He spent his lunch hours in London's museums. He attended concerts, lectures, and plays, and he continued the study of the classics which he had begun in Dorchester, and also studied French. At this time, too,
Hardy began to write poetry. His first novel, Desperate Remedies, was published anonymously in 1871. This and his two succeeding novels, Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) and A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), although not popular successes, were favorably reviewed by the critics.
The editor of Cornhill Magazine requested that Hardy write a serialized novel. At this point Hardy was harboring the germ of a new idea: He thought of making it a pastoral tale with the title Far from the Madding Crowd — and the chief characters would probably be a young woman who farmed, a shepherd, and a sergeant of the cavalry. Loss of another writer's manuscript precipitated the magazine editor's acceptance of Hardy's material merely on the strength of an outline for the first two months of a year's installments. The novel, published in 1874, became Hardy's first popular and financial success.
Success enabled Hardy to discontinue his work as an architect, to marry Emma Lavinia Gifford (in 1874), and to spend the next quarter of a century writing novels. Although there were annual stays of a month or two in London and occasional trips to the Continent, the Hardys spent the major portion of their time in Dorset, called Wessex in his novels. Here Hardy designed and built Max Gate, which remained his home until his death at eighty-seven in January 1928.
Hardy made many friends in the world of literature and learning, and played an active social role in the London seasons. He wrote assiduously; when he was ill, he dictated his material to his wife. Those of his novels which he placed in the category of "Character and Environment" became best known: The Return of the Native (1878), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891), and Jude the Obscure (1896). On the brink of a new literary era, Hardy broached topics and themes with greater frankness and starkness than some Victorian readers liked; consequently, he lived through a period of outraged criticism. Today we wonder at the furor.
Later in his career, Hardy gradually turned again to the poetry he really preferred and, following Jude, he worked primarily in this medium. One of his greatest works is the mammoth verse drama (1904-8), which is about the Napoleonic wars.
The first Mrs. Hardy died in November 1912; the couple had no children. Hardy married for a second time in 1914 (at the age of seventy-four). His second wife, Florence Emily Dugdale, had long been a friend of both Hardy and his first wife and had worked as his secretary. After Hardy's death, she published a biography of Hardy that includes his own notes, letters, and comments. Some critics maintain that this biography is essentially an autobiography that Hardy wrote himself.
Hardy was given the Order of Merit in 1910 by King Edward VII. He enjoyed the veneration proffered him, the honors and awards and the visits to Max Gate by the famous. His death in 1928 was an occasion of national mourning. Though Hardy had wished to lie in the family vault at Dorset, the nation wished to honor him with burial in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey. A compromise was effected; as an eminent group of public and literary figures saw Dorset earth sprinkled on the casket of Thomas Hardy in the Abbey, his brother saw the heart of Thomas Hardy interred in the village graveyard at Dorset.
Recognition of Hardy's talents was widespread in his own time and has proved enduring. Translations of his works began right after 1874 with Far from the Madding Crowd; there were also early Braille editions. Today the average American bookshop carries more than one edition of Hardy's major works. The motion picture industry, too, has recognized Hardy, and Far from the Madding Crowd has been made into a movie.