Thomas Hardy: Biography and Literary Works

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Milestones in Hardy's Life and Literary Career
      Birth: About three miles east of Dorchester, in Dorset, England, there is a hamlet known as Higher Bockhampton. In a thatched-roof cottage that still stands at one end of this hamlet, Thomas Hardy was born on June 2, 1840. The place of his birth is important, for it is the center of a region he learned to know and love - a region he called "Wessex" and wrote about in all his books.

      Early life: The first of these books was published in 1871 when Hardy was nearly thirty-one years old and was still lacking in literary training and experience. His entire schooling had been confined to eight years between the ages of eight and sixteen. For five years he had worked as an apprentice in the drafting office of a Dorchester architect, John Hicks. When Hardy was twenty-one he went to London and found employment with Arthur Blomfield, a successful metropolitan architect, and remained with him for five years. But Gothic churches and old manor houses never succeeded in crowding books out of the central place in Hardy's affections. During his years in London, he tried his hand at composing verses, and when he discovered that editors showed no readiness to publish his poems, he turned at the age of twenty-seven to novel-writing.

      Literary Career as a Novelist: Hardy called his first attempt at fiction The Poor Man and the Lady. He sent his manuscript to Alexander Macmillan, the London publisher, who replied encouragingly but found too many faults in the work to be willing to print it. Hardy thereupon tried a second publisher, Chapam & Hall, and was fortunate enough to have his manuscript placed in the hands of their reader, George Meredith, the novelist. Meredith had an interview with Hardy and advised him to suppress The Poor Man (because of the vehemence of its social satire) and to write another novel "with more plot". Hardy took Meredith s advice and wrote Desperate Remedies, which was published anonymously and at his own expense in 1871. This was the beginning of a quarter-century's activity as one of the most successful and influential novelists that England has produced.

      Like Desperate Remedies, Hardy's next novel, Under the Greewood Tree, was published anonymously. In 1872 he was invited to contribute a story for serialization in Tinsley's Magazine and this novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), was the first to carry his name. When Far from the Madding Crowd was serialized in the Cornhill Magazine in 1874, the acclaim from critics as well as from the general public was cordial enough to encourage Hardy to do three things; he discarded further use of anonymity, he gave up all further practice as an architect, and in September, 1874, he married.

      Turns to Poetry: In the twenty years that followed, Hardy turned out ten more full-length novels, besides numerous short stories and articles. His fourteenth and last novel, Jude the Obscure, resulted in such an outcry that Hardy, always over-sensitive to criticism, shrank from further attempts to find expression in fiction and returned to his first love, poetry. In 1898 he surprised the world by publishing Wessex Poems, and throughout the next thirty years, he produced volume after volume of the verse until, by the time of his death, he had composed nearly a thousand poems. In addition to this achievement in metrical composition, Hardy wrote a gigantic dramatic epic the Napoleonic wars which he called The Dynasts (Published in three parts, 1904, 1906, 1908).

      Marriage: As stated above, Hardy's success with Far From the Madding Crowd enabled him to marry. He had met Emma L. Gifford, the young lady who became his wife when he had gone to Cornwall in 1871 to supervise the restoration of a dilapidated church. Ten years after this marriage, he built a house near Dorchester, and from 1885, on his address remained "Max Gate". He had no children. Mrs. Hardy died in 1912 and was buried in the country churchyard beside the Stinsford parish church which Hardy had attended as a boy. He had these words carved on her tombstone: "This for remembrance." The reader interested in the significance of this inscription should examine Hardy's poignant "Poems of 1912 - 1913 in his volume, Satires of Circumstances, Lyrics, and Reveries. In 1914 Hardy married again. Miss Florence Emily Dugdale, who had helped him with research on The Dynasts became the second Mrs. Hardy.

      Death and fame: When Hardy died, on January 11, 1928, burial in the Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey was offered, but there were many people who felt that an author whose heart had always been with Wessex folk among Wessex scenes ought not to have that heart carried off to alien soil. Hardy's heart was accordingly buried in the grave of the first wife at Stinsford, while his ashes were deposited next to those of Charles Dickens in Westminster Abbey.

      Evolving points of view in literary work: In the course of the three decades that followed Hardy's death, there came to be general critical agreement that his literary output was of very uneven quality. Some of his novels are excellent, others are mediocre, or worse, and many of his poems have seemed harsh and unmusical, even to modern ears attuned to the discordant. But a reading of Hardy's best novels and a study of his best poems will show the same gifted author at work in all seasons and all her moods, the same tender, sympathetic heart, and the same sorrowing mind. In studying this record of Hardy's earlier years, the reader should avoid making the all-too-common mistake of thinking that this novel was all written from a single, unchanging point of view. Hardy grew and developed, his philosophy of life matured, and the novels show this development. Far From the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native are the most fatalistic" (to use an overworked word that needs strict definition); The Mayor of Casterbridge in which Hardy quotes "Character is Fate", marks a distinct shift in his viewpoint; and The Woodlanders, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure are all three written by an older author with a riper social outlook and a clearer understanding of the causes of human unhappiness. The reader who grasps this immense advance on Hardy's part over the fragile charm of Under the Greenwood Tree will have no difficulty in understanding why, when John Dewey was asked to name, among books published in the last fifty years, the twenty-five which he regarded as the most influential, he put Tess of the D'Urbervilles first among English novels, or why Henry C. Duffin, when appraising the entire literary career of the Wessex author, called Jude the Obscure "the greatest of Hardy's novels."

      Novels: Desperate Remedies, 1871; Under the Greenwood Tree, 1872; A Pair of Blue Eyes, 1873; Far from the Madding Crowd, 1874; The Hand of Ethelberta, 1876; The Return of the Native, 1878; The Trumpet-major, 1880; A Laodicean, 1881; Two on a Tower, 1882; The Mayor of Casterbridge, 1886; The Woodlanders, 1887; Tess of the D'Urbervilles, 1891; Jude the Obscure, 1895; The Well-Beloved, 1897.

      Short Stories: Wessex Tales, 1888; A Group of Noble Dames, 1891; Life's Little Ironies, 1894; A Changed Man, 1913.

      Poems: Wessex Poems, 1898; Poems of the Past and the Present, 1901; Time's Laughingstocks, 1909; Satires of Circumstance, 1914; Moments of Vision, 1917; Late Lyrics and Earlier, 1922; Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles, 1925; Winter Words 1928; Collected Poems, 1931.

      Plays: The Dynasts: A Drama in Three Parts, 1903, 1906, 1908; The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall, 1923.

      Miscellaneous: Life and Art, 1925; Letters: Transcribed by the Original Autographs in the Colby College Library, 1954.

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