The Tribune - Spectrum


, June 9, 2002

The wonder that is Wessex

The Wessex in which Hardy sets his tales and weaves their plots is essentially of his early childhood and of his immediate forebears. At that time, this area of England had exceptional natural beauty and was still remote and largely rural. Its inhabitants were barely touched by either industrial or agrarian revolutions, say Narendra Kumar & V.P. Mehta

Thomas HardyTHOMAS HARDY, mostly lived in the countryside. Except for some years when he was studying architecture in London he lived most of his life in Dorsetshire. All his major novels are set in this region, to which Hardy gave the name of Wessex. His novels are known as Wessex novels.

Hardy was born on June 2, 1840, at Higher Bockhampton, Dorset. It was a ‘lonely spot between woodland and heathland’. Bockhampton later became Mellstock in his novels. After early schooling at Bockhampton and Dorchester, he was articled to John Hicks, an architect who specialised in rebuilding and restoring Gothic churches. Later on he took up job with a distinguished ecclesiastical architect Arthur Blomfield. Hardy’s taking up of architecture as a profession was natural as his father and forefathers had been masons and master masons. To earn his living it appeared to him as the proper line.

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But, during this time Hardy showed an inclination towards literature, especially poetry. He made serious study of Shakespeare, Spenser, and Wordsworth. Lyrical Ballads and its 1805 preface particularly caught his attention. In many ways Hardy was close to Wordsworth. His love of nature, his depiction of rural life and folks, had many similarities with the great poet. Though they differed on their view of life, both found great pleasure and solace in nature.

Egdon Heath
Egdon Heath

In poetry, however, there was no money, which Hardy needed at this time. He turned towards the novel because there appeared some money in it, especially in serial writing for magazines. After a disappointing start with The Poor Man and the Lady and Desperate Remedies he achieved considerable success with Under the Greenwood Tree, a pastoral romance. Novel-reading public liked it and it had favourable reviews.

Hardy came into notice. However it was with the publication of Far from the Madding Crowd that he definitely arrived on the scene. This novel was a tremendous success, both in serialisation as well as in book form. Later on he achieved renown with the publication of The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Woodlanders, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

However, his last major novel Jude the Obscure was very badly received by the public as well as the reviewers. It was thought to be too grim, dark, and unsuited to the English way of life. Hardy was labelled as too pessimistic and degenerate. All this criticism, misinformed or otherwise, hurt Hardy who thereafter resolved to write poetry only.

Max Gate, Hardy’s residence
Max Gate, Hardy’s residence

In any way, Hardy’s position as a great novelist was secure. The passage of time has not diminished it. He is as much in demand today as he was in his time. His imaginary creation of Wessex, original as it was, became a permanent part of English novel and literature. Curious minds go to Hardy’s country to find it. They try to locate real as well imaginary Wessex.

Ever since Hardy wrote his Wessex novels, millions of English-knowing readers fell into love with Hardy, his characters and his country. As one enters Wessex the memory of Hardy’s heroes, heroines and other characters assail him from all sides and in one’s mind’s eye one sees Tess, Henchard, Jude, Sue, Bathsheba, Sergeant Troy, Clym Yeobright, Eustacia and others roaming in this beautiful countryside.

The Wessex in which Hardy sets his tales and weaves their plots is essentially of his early childhood and of his immediate forebears. At that time this area of England had exceptional natural beauty aand was still remote and largely rural. Its inhabitants were barely touched by either industrial or agrarian revolutions. But during Hardy’s lifetime that Wessex was fast disappearing and even as he began his first Wessex novels under the heavy thatched eves of his Bockhampton cottage much of his countryside had vanished already.

Hardy found great solace in nature
Hardy found great solace in nature

But Hardy’s mind refused to be swayed by this change. He clung so intensely to the old Wessex that for him it could not be lost — it would be real and present for him forever. For him sleepy villages and towns respectively drowsed and bustled as they had for long centuries past. He could still hear the plodding of footsteps, the clopping of horse’s hooves and the rumbling of cart wheels. Seasons bringing with them their own particular festivals and rites; the ploughing, harvesting; the feasts and dancing and the inhabitants rooted in ancient myths and superstitions enjoying old-time celebrations at the ushering in of a new season fascinated him and became subject of his novels.

For Hardy Wessex was a living entity. He dwelt on the Wessex of the profound past, with its historic and prehistoric past and earth works, its burial mounds and long barrows. "Its giants and horses carved white as ivory in the chalk of timeless hillsides,"were real and immediate to him.

Hardy uses two groups of names of places in his works: some actual and some fictitious. Among the real names are the Vale of Blackmoor or Blackmore, Hambledon Hill, Bulbarrow, Nettlecombe Tout, Dogburry Hill, High-story, Bubb-down Hill, the Devil’s kitchen, Cross in the Hand, Long-Ash Lane, Giants Hill, Crimmercrock Lane and Stonehenge. Real name of rivers like Froom or Frome and Stour along with large towns like Bath, Plymouth, The Start, Portland Bill, Southampton, were retained to mark the geographical boundary of the Wessex. Some real names of the towns were changed to fictitious names, as Dorchester became ‘Casterbridge’, Salisbury Plain became ‘The Great Plain’, Shaftesbury changed to ‘Shaston’, Winchester to "Wintoncestor’, Oxford to ‘Christminster’ and so on.

Wessex presents an enticing diversity. There are rolling chalk downs of Wiltshire and the high moors. Undulating topography of this region is breathtaking. There is the lush green river valley dotted with clumps of trees and small woods in between the villages. In Somerset’s Doone country the valleys are hidden by shrubs and through them shining streams appear and disappear in the undergrowth. In the lush dairy lands of Gloucestershire the scene is idyllic where one finds shepherds, milkmaids and farmers busy in their daily chores. Gloucester glows with the honey-coloured stone quarried from the Cotswolds.

It was and is used for churches and mansions and humble village homes.

The age-old tranquillity in Cotswold villages is in complete contrast to the rugged rural fastness of the heart of Hardy’s Dorset country. Here thatching of cottages is done with specially selected wheat straw — Dorset Reed — which gives a smoother finish than ordinary straw thatch. The limestone cliffs of portland bill and the pebble sweep of Chesil Beach on the Southern shore contrast with the wide golden sands of the Bristol Channel. Dorset is famous for its blue vinny cheese and Somerset for its cheddar caves.

Everywhere there is mystery and legend — mystery in the stone circles of Averbury and Stonehenge, burial mounds, intricated hill forts and giant figures cut by prehistoric men on turf-clad chalk hills, legends that are almost tangible in places like Glastonbury and the fabled Avalon of King Arthur, whose Camelot is believed to be Cadbury Castle, near Sutton Montis.

Through his imaginative works Hardy’s Wessex is as much alive today as it was in the time of his forebears.


This feature was published on June 2, 2002