Thomas Hardy was born June 2, 1840, in the village of Upper Bockhampton, about three miles from the town of Dorchester in Southwestern England. The impressions of his early youth — the people, the events, the surrounding countryside — became part of the subject matter of his "Wessex" novels and stories. The town of Casterbridge itself, for example, is modeled after Dorchester.
Hardy's father was a builder and stone mason and was by no means wealthy. His mother loved reading, and under her care young Thomas was given an ample introduction to the classics, folk songs, ballads, and local stories and legends. Music was also a common feature of the Hardy household. Thomas's father taught him to play the violin, for he himself was violinist in the church choir and often played at parties, weddings, and festivals. Music was a great love throughout Thomas Hardy's life and often figures in his writing. At least three important scenes in The Mayor of Casterbridge involve music.
Education and Apprenticeship
Hardy did not study at a university. His formal education consisted of a year in a village school at Lower Bockhampton and additional private schooling in Dorchester during which he learned French and German. When he was sixteen, his father apprenticed him to a Dorchester architect, John Hicks, where he was taught architectural drawing for the restoration of churches and old houses. Indeed, this association taught him much of local family histories and folklore. When the day's work was completed, Thomas usually undertook advanced Latin studies and the task of teaching himself Greek.
In 1862 Hardy went to London as a draftsman and worked in the office of A. W. Blomfield, an architect. During this time he won a number of prizes for essays, and he began to steep himself in architectural and art studies, classic literature, contemporary poetry, and fiction. In 1867 he returned to Dorchester to a better position as a church-restorer with his former master, and began to write more steadily.
Years as a Novelist (1867-1895)
From this time on, Hardy wrote poetry and novels, though he dedicated himself chiefly to the novel form until 1895. At first Hardy published anonymously, but as interest grew in his work, he began to write under his own name. His novels were published for the most part in serial form in well-known magazines both in England and America. His major novels are:
Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), 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). His works were highly acclaimed (the success of Far from the Madding Crowd enabled him to give up architecture and to marry), but he also encountered literary hostility. Jude the Obscure received such harsh criticism that Hardy gave up the writing of novels entirely.
Years as a Poet (1895-1928)
Hardy retired to his house in Dorchester and there turned to poetry almost exclusively. Before his death he completed over 800 poems and a long epic drama, The Dynasts (1908). His first marriage was not a happy one, but in 1914, two years after the death of his first wife, he married a second time. The remaining supremely happy years of his life were spent in matrimonial devotion and reticent tranquility. The last two decades of Hardy's life were increasingly full of honors.
With the death of George Meredith in 1909, he became undisputed holder of the title of greatest living man of letters, and in 1910 he was awarded the Order of Merit. His house, Max Gate, became a literary shrine, and there he received many visitors from all over the English-speaking world. He continued to publish poetry well into the 1920s, even though he was then over eighty. He died at the age of 87 on January 11, 1928.