The young Thomas Hardy was determined to make a living out of literature. But the market was crowded, and he had no influential connections. For years he struggled to find a voice that would sell. What finally brought success was the “partly real, partly-dream country” that he created from his lifelong association with rural Dorset. The imagined Wessex that emerged from his novels of the early 1870s – Under the Greenwood Tree, Far from the Madding Crowd – appealed to a nostalgic appetite for vanishing pastoral traditions among the urbanised population of Victorian Britain. He wrote about the country, but his popularity was a product of the city.
Mark Ford’s absorbing new study argues that our wish to see Hardy as a man of Dorset has distracted us from his formative life as a Londoner. In Jude the Obscure, Jude Fawley ponders the sensitive “nervous motion” of his cousin Sue Bridehead, making her quite unlike the stolidly rustic women he had known as a child. “London had done it, he supposed.” The vortex of London, with its unpredictable opportunities and competitive pressures, was also the phenomenon that made Hardy.
Architecture, not fiction, was what first took him to live in the capital. His father was a builder, and a respectable career as an architect seemed to the family a natural progression for their talented boy. Hardy had been apprenticed to a local architect in Dorchester for five years when he arrived in London in 1862, at the age of 21. It was as an assistant architect in the thriving offices of Arthur Blomfield that he found work. A dedicated self-improver, he combined his daily duties with an intensive programme of reading, visiting museums and galleries in order to study paintings, attending concerts, operas, plays and church services, playing the violin, taking lessons in French, and writing poetry. He lost the Christian faith of his youth (though not what he termed his persistently “churchy” tastes), and moved closer to a radical hostility to the settled hierarchies of class and money. His growing disaffection meant that he had no inclination to pursue fashionable social connections, and he would in any case hardly have had time for them.
Some of Hardy’s activities in these early years were, as Ford remarks, wilfully eccentric – such as his “peculiar attempt to rewrite the book of Ecclesiastes in Spenserian stanzas”. Such a project was unlikely to win fame and fortune. Attempts to publish his poetry came to nothing, and it began to look as though recognition as an architect was a more realistic prospect. He won first prize in two competitions, one for the design of a country mansion, and another for an essay on the topical subject of the “Application of Coloured Bricks and Terra Cotta to Modern Architecture”, which won the Royal Institute of British Architects’ silver medal. Hardy was clearly gratified by these accolades, but they were not what he really wanted. His unrelenting pursuit of a cultural education became an obsession that brought him to the point of collapse. Exhausted and apparently defeated, in 1867 he returned to Dorset and resumed work as an architect with his first employer.
The five years Hardy spent in London might have put paid to his chances as a writer. But he was quick to recover health and hope, and to profit from what he had learned in the city. He had come to understand that novels, not poems, offered the best chance of a literary career. The modern discontents that he had encountered in London gave him a subject. His first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, was a protest against the rigid prejudices that had frustrated his aspirations. It did not find a publisher, but readers’ reports were encouragingly respectful.
Hardy had acquired another reason for perseverance, for Emma Gifford, his future wife, was convinced that he had a prosperous future as an author. He had to prove that she was right before he could embark on marriage. With characteristic resolve, he began to turn out novels with astonishing regularity, gradually making his way towards an acknowledged position in the literary world. His first published book, Desperate Remedies, was designed to cater for the urban taste for sensation fiction. Under the Greenwood Tree, a stronger novel, came out in the following year, and began to explore the possibilities of a rural setting. A Pair of Blue Eyes appeared in 1873, when Hardy was 33, and its modest success gave him the confidence to become a full-time writer. The next novel, Far From the Madding Crowd, made his name. Hardy was able to marry, and moved with his new wife back to London.
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