In more senses than one, Hardy took the *regional novel into new territory. Other novelists had created imaginary landscapes for their novels, but Hardy, more than any novelist since Sir Walter Scott, grounded his fictional world on a living sense of the earth, of folk tradition and history. The land itself becomes a central element in the narrative, and the vibrant individuality of his characters stand in precarious relationship to the physical presences of earth and sky. Hardy is a great original, a novelist whose work both culminates and reacts against the achievement of the Victorian novel. While he shared the contemporary interest in realism and solidly realized his scenes and characters, he was hostile to materialism and his fiction is closer to poetry than to realist prose. Flouting the conventions of the well-made plot, he created some of the most compelling narratives in English fiction.
Hardy was born the son of a stonemason and jobbing builder in the little Dorset hamlet of Higher Bockhampton, an environment virtually untouched by the railway and the outside world. A sickly child, he spent his early years close to his family and neighbours, taking in a culture rich with folklore, country traditions and music. Considered too frail for his father's physical occupation, he was apprenticed as an architect. In 1862 he went to London, where he came under the influence of Darwin's Origin of Species, and began writing poetry. But city smoke affected his health, and in 1867 he returned home as an architect.
Hardy abandoned his first, fiercely socialist novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, on the advice of *George Meredith, and Desperate Remedies, written in the style of the *'sensation novel’, was published anonymously in 1871. But it was with Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) that Hardy found his true subject, the rural Dorset of his childhood. This short, unpretentious work remains one of Hardy's most perfect and unclouded fictions. In 1874 he married Emma Gifford, a solicitor's daughter, causing the strains of an unequal marriage partnership that were reflected in the plots of his novels. But Emma gave him invaluable support and stimulus as a writer. His novel A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) was moderately successful, but it was Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) that first identified the territory of ‘Wessex’ and launched Hardy to fame. Tragic elements of misguided marriage, murder and death were set against an idyllic country setting, and the final marriage of the landowning Bathsheba Everdene to the faithful Gabriel Oak ended the novel on a warm, positive note. After a minor comedic novel, The Hand of Ethelbert (1876), The Return of the Native (1878) goes back to the southern Dorset heaths. Dominating the sombre novel is the tempestuous figure of Eustacia Vye, a complex heroine, part temptress, part victim, whose passions find tragic fulfilment in drowning with Wildeve in the raging weir within the brooding presence of Egdon Heath. The returning ‘native’, the disillusioned and finally blinded Clym Yeobright, may stand for the alienated Hardy.
Domestic tensions and Hardy's worsening health adversely affected his historical novel, The Trumpet Major (1880), and The Laodicean (1881) and Two on a Tower (1882). But setting up a permanent home at Max Gate in Dorset brought new energy. There he wrote The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), whose plot of unforgiving retribution is set appropriately within a town built within the foursquare plan of the Romans who laid down Britain's system of justice. The Woodlanders (1887), set among the winding byways of Hardy's mother's forested Dorset, troubled reviewers by its lack of moral direction, ending as it did with the tragic death of the worthy Giles Winterbourne and the reconciliation in marriage of the rootless Edred Fitzpiers, with Giles’ great love, Grace Melbury.
Although he was now celebrated as an author, Hardy was increasingly out of sympathy with his age. In *Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) he directly confronted late Victorian attitudes to the ‘fallen woman’, asserting that Tess, though not a virgin, was ‘a pure woman’. Jude the Obscure (1895) caused outright scandal with the stonemason Jude, torn between his love for Arabella Donn, a sensual, extravert pig farmer's daughter, and for his highly strung and sexually inhibited cousin, Sue Brideshead. Protests caused by its overt treatment of sexual passion and its attacks on orthodox Christianity, popular education and the institution of marriage drove Hardy to abandon writing fiction for poetry.
Wessex Poems (1898) began a series of volumes of verse. The Dynasts (1904-8) was an ambitious verse drama partly based on the Napoleonic Wars. After Emma's death in 1912, Hardy married Florence Dugdale, who composed The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (1828, 1830) largely from his memoirs.
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