Born in 1840, Thomas Hardy grew up in Victorian England and lived well into the twentieth century. By the time of his death in 1928, he was widely acclaimed as a major novelist and poet. His father was a master mason who gave his son a love of music; his mother was a former maidservant who fostered in her son a love of reading, teaching him to read and write at an early age.
Hardy spent his early years in a thatched cottage in a Dorchester village. His intimacy with the Dorchester environment is evident in the setting of Far from the Madding Crowd and other novels; his fictional “Wessex” is based on Dorchester. Hardy attended local schools till he was sixteen, when he apprenticed to an architect and continued to study on his own. The breadth of his study is hinted at in the many allusions in his novels to classical literature, the Bible and works of theology, the works of Shakespeare and other past writers and the works of recent and contemporary writers such as Shelley, to works of French and German literature, and to architectural terms. His early ambition was to become a scholar or a clergyman, but he gradually lost his religious beliefs as he studied biblical criticism and emerging scientific knowledge, especially Charles Darwin’s writings on species evolution.
In 1862 Hardy moved to London to continue his training as an architect and began to write poetry. His health, however, suffered in London’s urban environment, and he returned to Dorchester. Called in on a church restoration project in 1870, Hardy met Emma Gifford, the sister-in-law of the church’s clergyman. She encouraged his writing during their courtship, and after some less successful publications, Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) did well enough that Hardy’s career as a novelist was launched. The success of Far from the Madding Crowd, published in 1874, gave Hardy the confidence to give up his work in architecture and write full-time. He and Emma married in the same year.
The title of the novel is in a verse from Thomas Gray’s widely-admired 1751 poem, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequestered vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
The title perhaps refers to the sheltered life most of the characters in the novel live; and indeed, the character whose actions cause the greatest damage to life in the novel is the sole person who has traveled far and experienced the larger world. Critics of Hardy’s fictional Wessex then and now have commented that in that fair country, the rustics are all genial, quaint, happy, and well-fed, in contrast to the reality of life in the English countryside at that time. Yet Hardy’s “partly real, partly dream country,” as he called his Wessex, was perhaps not intended to reflect reality but to celebrate an ideal whose loss Hardy lamented.
Hardy’s next novels, The Return of the Native (1878) and The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), and, all set in his fictional Wessex, succeeded so greatly that Hardy became famous not only as a novelist but as a moralist, something to his surprise. Some aspects of Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), a novel in which a beautiful young woman is seduced by an aristocrat, alarmed his audience. Yet when Jude the Obscure appeared in 1895, Hardy was unprepared for the public controversy the novel engendered. Though it sold very well, leading critics lambasted its treatment of moral questions, and one bishop publicly burned his copy. Hardy himself argued that his novel was intensely moral and professed to be bemused by the uproar. Yet in 1898 Hardy declared that he would no longer write novels, given the critical reception of what time has judged to be his two greatest novels, and turned to poetry again.
Jude the Obscure also brought to the fore problems in Hardy’s marriage. He and Emma had spent their first years of marriage happily, traveling in England and Europe and then settling near Dorchester in a house that Hardy designed. Yet they had gradually become estranged: Emma disapproved of some of the content of Hardy’s later novels and of his personal affections for young, artistic women. Emma worried that readers might think that the failed marriages in the novel reflected her own relationship with Hardy. By late in their marriage, Emma had taken to living separately in their home, even taking most of her meals in her room. When Emma died suddenly in 1912, Hardy responded to his grief and his guilt (he had not known that she was ill) with an outpouring of poetry recalling their happier years.
Though he made his living as a novelist, Hardy preferred writing poetry and pursued this passion throughout his life. His poetic collections, published beginning in 1898, total more than 900 poems, including an epic masterpiece written over five years, The Dynasts, an account of the Napoleonic wars in which the major players are shown to be driven by forces beyond their control.
In 1914, Hardy married Florence Dugdale, a shy, literary young woman who had helped to care for his home after Emma’s death and who deeply admired Hardy’s writings and was prepared to put up with the long hours Hardy spent sequestered in his study.
The year 1914 also saw the beginning of World War I. Though in his seventies, Hardy felt called to serve his country, visiting military hospitals and camps and writing poetry inspired by the conflict. His home, in these later years, became a center of conversation for artists, politicians, and writers and kept him connected to the world’s events. Hardy wrote during these years as well, not only poetry but also his autobiography. Often thought of as a pessimist, he argued that he was instead a “meliorist,” which he defined as someone who has accepted his place in the universe and learned to glean happiness from one’s surroundings.
Hardy died from a long illness after his eighty-seventh birthday. He had requested burial by his wife Emma’s grave, but his cremated remains were instead placed in the Poet’s Corner in London’s Westminster Abbey. At the same time the remains were installed in a ceremony in the Abbey in London, his heart, which had been kept separate from the rest of his body, was interred beside Emma’s grave near Dorchester during a private ceremony.