Although Thomas Hardy is better remembered for his novels, above all he considered himself to be a poet. In his estimation, novels were simply a means to earn a living. He was born into a working-class family on June 2, 1840, in Upper Brockhampton, a hamlet in the county of Dorset, in southwestern England, the region that was to serve him well as the model of Wessex, the location of many of his rich and fertile literary landscapes. Hardy’s father was a stonemason; his mother was scholarly and encouraged his education. At the age of sixteen, he was apprenticed to Dorchester architect John Hicks. Dorchester was to serve as Hardy’s fictional Casterbridge in his novels, primarily in his 1895 Jude the Obscure but also in Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891). It is to Casterbridge that Tess attempts to take the beehives before the disastrous accident with the family horse.
Although Hardy enrolled at King’s College, London, and for a time considered taking orders in the church, he failed to raise the necessary funds and so returned home to Dorset. In addition, his waning faith caused him to choose writing as a career. At one point, Hardy doubted the very existence of God, an idea his character Tess voices in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and pondered that although gods of a sort might control the universe, they are completely indifferent to the lives of mortal man. These doubts resulted in the overarching sense of pessimism for which the author is well known and which is deeply apparent throughout Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
Although it took him over a dozen years to achieve success as a writer, in 1874 his novel, Far From the Madding Crowd thrust him into the literary limelight and provided the funds he needed to ask Emma Lavinia Gifford to marry him. Sadly, the marriage was not the happiest and the couple spent years apart. However, Emma’s sudden death in 1912 affected the author to such a degree that even his second marriage to his secretary Florence Dugdale in 1914 failed to alleviate his sorrow. This grief at his wife’s death resulted in Poems 1912-1913.
The controversy resulting from the publication of his novels, which some saw as an attack on Christian morality, caused Hardy such great distress that it forced him to focus on poetry exclusively later in life. And while his last novel, Jude the Obscure (1895), considered to be his most contentious, raised a riot of controversy, the earlier publication of Tess of the d’Urbervilles was also met with great bitterness because of his championing of a lower-class rural woman victimized by hypocritical English morality. Other well-known Hardy novels include Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) and The Return of the Native (1878).
As a writer Hardy can be categorized as both a nineteenth-century Victorian novelist who focused on the problems inherent in traditional agricultural communities and also as a twentieth-century writer with Modernist leanings who attempted to capture the spirit of an ever-increasing industrialized Britain in the midst of great social change. In 1910, Hardy was honored with the Order of Merit.
After suffering from severe pleurisy, Thomas Hardy died in 1928 and is buried in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey. His heart is buried with his first wife Emma in Stinsford.