Near the Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy

‘What contrasting planes of existence he moved in – vibrating at a swing between the artificial gaieties of a London season and the quaintnesses of a primitive rustic life.’ So, late in his long life, Thomas Hardy described the self-division that provides the title of Mark Ford’s book – the first full-length account of Hardy as ‘a London man’, exploring the importance of that city to his literary career and the evolution of his imagined region, Wessex. All of Hardy’s London homes are discussed, together with the places he visited. His social presence is vividly evoked (‘a little, quiet, grey old man wearing a red tie’), as are the Londoners he encountered, from his arrival as a shy unknown in the 1860s to the soirees and dinners of the 1890s, by which time he had become a famous and controversial writer. Underpinning the whole book is Ford’s quest to understand Hardy’s ‘obsessive need to make sense of the relationship between London and the provinces’ at a time when railways, newspapers and the penny post had brought connections between country and city yet had also accentuated disparities between them.

Hardy is best known now as the inventor of Wessex, the area of southwest England – half real, half dream – where many of his novels and poems are set. Centred on Dorset, Wessex extends westward from Jude’s Christminster to Castle Boterel, from Michael Henchard’s Casterbridge to ‘the Great Forest, Blackmoor wide’ of ‘A Trampwoman’s Tragedy’. ‘Older than the centuries’, Wessex was in reality a working landscape when Hardy was born on 2 June 1840 at Higher Bockhampton, in the parish of Stinsford, ‘between woodland and heathland’. At this time Dorset was more than a day’s journey from London by the fastest mail coach, yet within seven years of his birth its remoteness was diminished. Dorchester railway station opened on 1 June 1847, from where a morning express could reach the metropolis before two in the afternoon. The old mail coaches were turned off the road and milk could now be sent up to the city by night train. ‘Londoners will drink it at their breakfasts tomorrow’, Tess says to Angel Clare in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. ‘Strange people … we have never seen.’ Tess’s sense of distance from London measures Hardy’s own, and yet, as Ford convincingly shows, that city of strangers unsettled Hardy into writing, initially enabling his self-discovery as a poet and then propelling him onward to become a novelist of rural and urban change, loss and uncertainty. Throughout, Ford detects the influence of London, as Hardy’s imaginative encounters with the provincial and the metropolitan reflect his experience of being torn between two worlds that were ‘mutually dependent but often mutually uncomprehending’.

Hardy first visited London, aged nine, with his mother. When he returned in 1862 he stayed for a full five years, during which he was employed as an architect by the genial Arthur Blomfield. Elected to the Architectural Association, with a prize medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects, he could have made a career in architecture but for the distractions of literature and the city. A contemporary in Blomfield’s office recalled Hardy as ‘a quiet sort of fellow, gentle in his way of speaking and moving about, rather dreamy in manner’; with the other young architects he talked of ‘literature and the writers of that time’. Lodging in Clarence Place and at 16 Westbourne Park Villas, Hardy soon ‘knew every street and alley west of St Paul’s like a born Londoner’. He enjoyed the theatres, galleries, music halls and pleasure gardens; he went to the International Exhibition and Kensington Museum; he rode the smoky new Metropolitan Line; and he had his bumps read by a phrenologist, who concluded that he ‘would lead … to no good’. Instructed by Blomfield to supervise the clearance of St Pancras cemetery for the Midland Railway, Hardy watched with macabre fascination when a coffin disgorged a skeleton with two skulls. Back in his lodging at Westbourne Park he studied Shakespeare, logic and economics, learned French and art history, and read ‘large tracts’ of poetry. Many of his own most original and inventive poems – his bleak masterpiece ‘Neutral Tones’, for instance – date from this time. Although published three decades later in his collection Wessex Poems, many of them had actually been composed a stone’s throw from Paddington Station.

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