Hardy was first and foremost a landscape novelist, a landscape poet, who painted enduring pictures of a natural world – a real outdoor world – which forms the stage upon which his characters live out their tragic lives. To clearly designate and define this ‘partly real partly dream’ landscape, Hardy re-created the ancient Kingdom of Wessex, producing a detailed map of his territory with his fictional place names supplanting the real ones. So successful did that process become, that Hardy noted in 1895, a mere twenty-one years after he had first used the word Wessex in his writings, that his ‘dream-country’ had ‘by degrees solidified into a utilitarian region which people can go to, take a house in, and write to the papers from …’. Hardy’s greatest impact on the world has been this, almost accidental, creation of a Twenty-First Century Wessex, headed by a Royal Earl and Countess, where you drink Wessex Water, eat organic Wessex produce, send your children to the Wessex Academy, travel in Wessex Taxis and are eventually laid to rest by the Wessex Funeral Service – pushing ‘Dorset’ into outmoded insignificance.
Throughout his works, the landscape offers a tacit Darwinian commentary on the mutability and brevity of existence - not just for his human protagonists but for all living creatures from the maggoty ephemera ‘heaving and wallowing with enjoyment’ in the Egdon mud to the combatant trees locked in a perpetual struggle for survival in the poem ‘In a Wood’. The cottage at Higher Bockhampton and the surrounding heathland formed the centre of Hardy’s poetic universe. Although the Wessex delineated on the map which accompanied all later editions of his novels covered half of southern England from Tintagel (and the Isles of Scilly) in the south-west to Oxford in the north, the essence of Hardy’s Wessex lay within a few square miles surrounding his ‘Domicilium’. The archetypal Hardyan protagonist is to be found alone on a hilltop, a detached solitary spectator rather than an active participant in the world beneath him. All of the action of The Return of the Native can be observed from Rainbarrow – as can The Woodlanders from Bubb Down and Tower on a Tower from Rings-hill Speer. These Wessex Heights facilitate Hardy’s cinematic technique – descriptions which start with a birds-eye view panning out over the landscape to then focus sharply in upon a particular scene and a particular character within that scene, a method which he employs repeatedly throughout his fiction.
+ Egdon Heath
Hardy was a child of the Heath, who as a middle-aged refugee from the metropolis, made Egdon the centre of his creative universe. Not only wasThe Return of the Native to become the core text of his fiction but Egdon became the central locus of an expanding Wessex - to which he was to return time and again in his writings. Hardy’s early enthusiastic reading of Darwin lead him to reject the Wordsworthian ideal of a beneficent nature and thus the heath becomes a metaphor for nature’s indifference to human suffering and despair: a place, he considered to be ‘absolutely in keeping with the more thinking among mankind’.‘Haggard Egdon’ is best explored at twilight in an atmosphere which evokes the opening pages of The Return of the Native – Rainbarrow, Mistover and Blooms-end are readily accessible on foot.
+ Beyond Egdon
Hardy’s fictional territory is the outward extension of a very narrow landscape centred on his birthplace at Higher Bockhampton. Beyond Egdon lays a fertile landscape nourished by the waters of the Frome (The Valley of the Great Dairies) and the Piddle (Weatherbury, Longpuddle, Kingsbere and Millpond St Jude). This is Hardy’s childhood stamping ground and the countryside of his core fiction - Tess, Far from the Madding Crowd, Under the Greenwood Tree and Two on a Tower as well as the short stories ‘The Waiting Supper’, ‘The Three Strangers’ and ‘A Few Crusted Characters’.
Hardy’s Mellstock (Stinsford Parish) has changed very little in the 170 years since he was born – the human population has dwindled although the number of dwellings has more than doubled. Mellstock is best explored on foot starting in the territory of his first novel, Desperate Remedies where Knapwater House and the Old Manor still match Hardy’s descriptions; from follow his childhood route from Dorchester to the farmyard of ‘The Oxen’ – built by Hardy’s father and up Veteran’s Alley through the landscape of Under the Greenwood Tree to Hardy’s Cottage, Tranter Dewy’s home. Return across the heath to Rushy Pond and Lower Mellstock, following the footsteps of the Quire to reach Mellstockchurch and graveyard in an explosive medley of characters and scenes from Hardy’s early fiction, his poetry and his life – for here his heart lies buried between the bodies of his two wives and beside his siblings and generations of his ancestors, close by the earthly remains of many of the ‘original characters’ from this ‘partly real partly dream country’.
From the age of 10 until just before his twenty-first birthday, Hardy walked daily from the rural isolation of his parents’ Egdon cottage to the centre of Dorchester, a County Town of ‘assizes, railways, telegraphs and daily London papers’, despite which it remained somewhat a municipality in miniature, still confined within old Roman boundaries. The sharp contrast between two such diverse environments lent a cutting-edge to his subsequent creativity, which was further enhanced by an intense awareness of local history – recent in the form of hang-fairs, the cholera epidemic and papal riots; more distant in memories of the Monmouth rebellion, the Great Fire, Roman skeletons and evidence of human occupation stretching back five thousand years.
The Mayor of Casterbridgeis Hardy’s major work set in Dorchester. Exploring the town in the footsteps of Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane, it rapidly becomes apparent that this is a landscape more real than imagined for Hardy has placed his personal stamp on so many of the places visited. The first impression of Casterbridge from Stinsford Hill is the view of Dorchester obtained by the young Hardy on his daily walk to school; at The White Hart he used to stop for a drink; he paid for the sign at The Bow; from these Froomside meadows he watched an execution; here is his statue; here he was living whilst he wrote The Mayor of Casterbridge; he was a founder member of this County Museum, which now contains so many of his artefacts; in this cemetery the population of his Victorian Dorchester are buried. As you walk around Dorchester, these memories run in parallel with the experiences of his fictional and poetic characters – here Henchard nearly drowned, here Maumbury preached, here Bathsheba was Queen, here Lucetta gazed out upon the carrefour – and in many such places fiction and the recoverable past meld in his poems about real people in real places: ‘The Chapel Organist’ at Dorford, ‘The Casterbridge Captains’ at All Saints, ‘The Mock Wife’ at Maumbury Rings; a process which intensifies further at Max Gate where Hardy lived for the last forty years of his life.
In Hardyan terms the ‘wild weird western shore’ – around St Juliot in north-west Cornwall – is a very special landscape, not only because it was here that he fell in love with the most influential woman in his life; and that after she had died he returned and fell in love with her and the landscape all over again, in the process generating his Veteris vestigia flammae – the most profound sequence of poems charting love and loss in the English language: but also that here more than anywhere – away from his true Wessex – fiction and fantasy, story-telling and autobiography, poetry and the landscape merge in a single visionary continuum.The supernatural scenery of Lyonnesse, a landscape virtually unchanged since he first set foot there, acts as an image-intensifier, magnifying emotions – a vast untamed open-air arena which dramatises love, loss and betrayal – the magic landscape enhancing emotion as music does in opera. Today, the walker can follow the footsteps of the courting couple – as described in detail in A Pair of Blue Eyes and revisited in the ‘Poems of 1912/13’ – from the Rectory to the magic churchyard, the picnic site under the waterfall, Castle Boterel, Pentargon and the Cliff without a name.
+ The Channel Coast
Hardy’s southern coastal landscape, encompassing some of the most spectacular and beautiful scenery in England, extends for a distance of 105 miles from Bridport in the west to Worthing in the east, involving in the process the text of eleven out of his fourteen novels (all except Two on a Tower, The Woodlanders and Jude), eight short stories, The Dynasts and many poems. Along this coast, Hardy’s cinematic technique is frequently in evidence – his descriptions start with a bird’s-eye view of hills, coast and homesteads and then focus sharply in on a particular scene and a particular character within that scene – the observer often remaining detached, watching from a window, over a hedge or through a gap in a fence. This wild beautiful and ever-changing landscape is the magnetic force which draws the summer citizen southward to Wessex. This stretch of coastline coincides in part with that ‘jewel in the crown of textbook geology’, the Jurassic Coast – the only natural landscape in Great Britain to be designated a World Heritage Site.
+ Moving North
For the three principal novels of his mature fiction, Hardy moved north to the Vale of Blackmoor – and thence with the increasing use of the railway, Wessex rapidly expanded across Wiltshire and Hants into Berkshire and Oxford. The umbilical cord, however, still stretched back to Egdon for Tess spent her happiest time on the edge of the heath at Talbothays and even Jude was a native of Lower Mellstock, transported to an alien northern landscape. The territory of The Woodlanders alone remains isolated and compact, distant from Egdon, the action occurring within the visual field of an observer on Bubb Down, thus paralleling the role of Rainbarrow with woodland substituted for heath. The confused and mobile geography of progressive editions of The Woodlanders is the direct result of Hardy’s attempts to placate the wrath of the Earl of Ilchester, within whose ancestral home the fictional Felice Charmond had taken up residence. Most of the action of Tess of the d’Urbervilles takes place at the opposite (eastern) end of Blackmore Vale in the villages of Marnhull, Cranborne, Plush and the hamlet of Boveridge. Jude the Obscure, Hardy’s final novel- a restless peripatetic story of the modern age – opens in the village of Marygreen on the Berkshire Downs and rapidly spreads north to Wantage and Oxford (Christminster). Beyond Christminster, the train leads Jude to ‘Melchester, Shaston, Albrickham and elsewhere’: the railway becoming not only the strongest metaphor for the restless displaced mobility of the modern age but the railway map and timetable become the very framework around which the novel is constructed.
+ Beyond Wessex
The horizons and landscapes’ of Hardy’s ‘partly real, partly dream country’ extend far beyond his neatly delineated Wessex. In four out of his fourteen novels, considerable parts of the story are set in London, two involve quite lengthy expeditions to the continent and in a further five novels significant plot events occur in different parts of the globe. London was Hardy’s home from February 1862 to August 1867 and intermittently thereafter. His travels with Emma to France, Italy, Germany, to Switzerland - where he made a pilgrimage in the footsteps of Byron and Shelly - and particularly to Belgium, where he tramped long and hard over the battlefield of Waterloo, find their way recurrently into his fiction and poetry.