In 1859 Samuel Smiles published his best selling book Self Help, about men born to a low station in life working their way up to greatness. This vision did not coincide with nineteenth century reality, where it was in fact very difficult to to rise through society without money or connections. However, Thomas Hardy, son of a mason who ran a small building business, was setting out on just such a road to improvement. Born 2nd June 1840 in Higher Bockhampton, Dorset, Thomas was educated at home until age 8 by his mother, quickly showing academic ability, which circumstances seemed likely to frustrate. For a few years a small school in Dorchester, called Mr Last's Academy for Young Gentlemen, provided an education, but whatever Mr Last could offer came to an end at age 16. With no money to further his education Thomas became an apprentice to an architect named James Hicks.
By the time he turned 19 Thomas Hardy was a frustrated young man wondering which way to go. This was the crucial year when he read Darwin's The Origin of Species, which had just been published, a book that made a deep impression on Hardy and the world in general. Rather than Samuel Smiles pointing the way to a fairer society, for Hardy it was Darwin who did so. Darwin is sometimes seen as formulating a philosophy of ruthlessness where only the strong survive. By contrast, for Hardy the Darwinian idea that all life has a common origin was a source of compassion. Now that the idea of divinely created individual species had gone it was no longer possible to judge certain forms of life as having more or less worth than others. If all life had a common origin then it all deserved the same respect. For this reason Hardy was an early opponent of cruelty to animals. In a similar way Hardy did not dismiss certain sections of human society as having less worth than others, a widespread attitude in stratified Victorian society. Hardy would not accept that he as a son of a stone mason could not aspire to do great things. In 1860 Hardy moved from his childhood home at Higher Bockhampton near Dorchester in Dorset, to London. Here he took a job in an architect's office, enrolled as a student at King's College London, and wrote in his spare time. With his novel Desperate Remedies he began to create Wessex, an imaginary world based on Dorset and its surrounding counties, with Casterbridge, based on Dorchester, as its capital. Returning to Dorset Hardy continued his relentless programme of self improvement. His 1872 novel Under the Greenwood Tree was a success, and Hardy's writing career gathered pace. By the time he was publishing episodes of Far From The Madding Crowd in 1874 he was wealthy enough to marry his girlfriend Emma.
In Far From The Madding Crowd Hardy named Wessex for the first time, and ever since people have visited Dorchester and explored locations he used in creating Casterbridge. After living in Norfolk, and then again in London, Hardy moved back to Dorset in 1881, and in March 1885 he finished building his own house in Dorchester. It was at this time that he wrote The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Woodlanders, and his greatest book Tess of the D'Urbervilles. The whole of Tess of the D'Urbervilles - the story of a milk maid whose humble family was once one of the country's greatest dynasties - harks back to that early and formative reading of Darwin. This famous story is concerned with the theme of false gradations in human society. When aristocratic Angel Clare falls in love with Tess, it strikes him that: "the impressionable peasant leads a larger, fuller, more dramatic life than the pachydermatous king" (P198).
From 1888 Hardy was attempting to write more realistically. This led to problems with editors who feared public reaction to such frankness. Tess of the D'Urbervilles had to suffer numerous cuts before it was accepted for publication. Hardy's problems came to a head in 1894 when he published Jude the Obscure. This was the story of a bright young man, who is denied an education and commits suicide as a result. The novel caused outrage, mainly because of its portrayal of marriage. A theatre production based on Tess of the D'Urbervilles was cancelled. Even Hardy's wife Emma was cross with him. The hostile reviews upset Hardy so much that he never wrote another novel. For the rest of his life he concentrated on poetry, his best known collection being Wessex Poems.
Hardy was writing at the threshold of the modern age. The old certainties were passing. Hardy wasn't simply a writer who looked back to a better age which had passed, or forward to a better, more enlightened age to come. Hardy had a wonderful eye for the strange circularity of history. In Tess of the D'Urbervilles "Nature's holy plan" may not be as clear as it once was, and yet as Tess sets out to try and find her drunk parents, the past is presented not as a vision of planned clarity, but as a place of winding confusion:
"Tess... started on her way up the dark and crooked lane or street not made for hasty progress; a street laid out before inches of land had value, and when one-handed clocks sufficiently subdivided the day." (P25)
Rather than the past representing certainties which had been lost, the past is portrayed as a crooked street: it is the future which is ordered and clear. In the end past and future seem to meet each other, in the timeless, imaginary yet real world of Wessex.
Dorset from the monument to Vice Admiral Hardy of HMS Victory, a distant relative of Thomas Hardy
And where is Wessex? While it is a place based on the southern counties of England, Wessex cannot be limited by such a definition. At the end of Tess the country people are moving between places of work, some travelling hopefully to places that other people are leaving in search of hope:
"Marian and Izz Huett had journeyed onward with the chattels of the ploughman in the direction of their land of Canaan - the Egypt of some other family which had left it only that morning." (P465)
You can't get places much more different than Egypt and Canaan, and yet in Wessex they seem to be the same place. And while Wessex people are finding Canaan and Egypt existing together, the despairing Tess is outside the vault of her old and extinct family asking herself: "why am I on the wrong side of this door?" Most would feel she is already on the right side of the door. Perhaps the end of Tess isn't as bleak as it appears. Perhaps her place on the dark side of the door is already a better place, since in Wessex we find that Canaan and Egypt are interchangeable.
Emma died in 1912 and was buried in Stinsford Churchyard. Hardy then married his secretary Florence Dugdale, with whom he lived for the rest of his life. Hardy died in 1928 at his house of Max Gate in Dorchester. His body was buried in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, while his heart is supposed to be buried beside Emma in Stinsford - although there is a possibility that a cat ate his heart before it was incarcerated, and was replaced with a pig's heart by the housekeeper!