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Thomas Hardy | Biography

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Early Life

Thomas Hardy was born in Bockhampton, Dorset, in southwestern England, on June 2, 1840. He was the first child of Jemima and Thomas Sr., arriving five months after his parents' marriage. His mother, a domestic servant, and his father, a master mason, were working-class country people. Nonetheless, Hardy's smart and ambitious mother sent him to the best school available in the nearby town of Dorchester. After he graduated at 16, his mother arranged an apprenticeship so her son could move from the craft class of masons to the professional class of architects. Hardy's early life, spent immersed in the rhythms of nature, oral culture, and folk traditions, had a profound effect on his second and third careers as novelist and poet.

Early Career

After leaving school, Hardy became an apprentice to local architect John Hicks in 1856. In 1862 he moved to London, where he was employed as a draftsman in the office of a leading ecclesiastical architect, working on Gothic churches and rectory houses and participating in the culture of the great metropolis of London. Hardy was briefly engaged to Eliza Nicholls, a lady's maid from Dorset, and tried his hand at journalism. He was also teaching himself about poetry, experimenting with verse forms, and studying ancient Greek. For a time, Hardy had ambitions of obtaining a university education and becoming an Anglican priest, but like Jude of Jude the Obscure (1895), he realized in 1866 the notion was "far fetched," as he told his sister Mary. Ill health drove him back to the country in 1867, and he was rehired by Hicks. He then fell in love with his 16-year-old cousin, Tryphena Sparks, an apprentice teacher who later became headmistress at a girls' school in Plymouth. The relationship eventually faded as they spent less time together.

Early Prose Works and Marriage

Hardy had been writing poetry in the 1860s but could not get anything published, so he turned to novel writing in 1867. The Poor Man and the Lady, his first attempt in the genre, was rejected because it was too critical of the status quo—Hardy called it a "striking socialistic novel." His second attempt, Desperate Remedies, was published in 1871 and was meant to be commercial and sensationalistic. Hardy slowly began to build his reputation, publishing Under the Greenwood Tree in 1872. He was still working as an architect in 1870 when he met his wife, Emma Lavinia Gifford, but he had to wait four years to marry her because her family did not approve of her marriage to someone of a lower class. Emma was the daughter of a lawyer, which put her socially above Hardy, an architectural skilled laborer. They married in September 1874. Initially a happy couple, they remained childless and eventually became extremely unhappy with each other. Emma started out as an agnostic but toward the end of her life became a devout Evangelical, a troublesome issue in the marriage as Hardy moved toward skepticism and atheism, a pattern found in Jude the Obscure (1895).

Literary Success

Hardy became a full-time writer in 1872 when he serialized his next novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes. The next work, Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), introduced fictional Wessex country with its humor, melodrama, and tragedy. From then on, Hardy became more and more successful as a fiction writer, publishing 10 novels and 50 short stories from 1876 to 1895. His later and most famous novels come from this period: The Return of the Native (1878), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), The Woodlanders (1887), Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891), and Jude the Obscure (1895). As a novelist, Hardy was forced to tone down his work so as not to offend readers with his frank depictions of sexual relationships and criticism of Victorian hypocrisy. However, his serialized novels were less explicit than the published volumes, and he allowed his editors, in some instances, to pare away what the public might find objectionable in the published volumes.

Hardy was highly criticized for his stance on fallen women in Tess of the d'Urbervilles, but when he published Jude the Obscure, he went even further and gave way to the full range of his sensibility, which was a dark and pessimistic vision of life in a world that was not supervised by a benevolent deity. In a recent review of a Hardy biography, critic Adam Kirsch described Jude the Obscure as the metaphorical equivalent of taking a sledgehammer to Victorian repression and evasion. Most critics were shocked and outraged by Jude the Obscure, which gave Hardy, now quite prosperous, a good excuse to return to his first love: poetry.

Later Years

Since 1885 Hardy had been living in Max Gate, a house he designed and which was built by his father and brother. His wife Emma died in November 1912 after a long period of estrangement between the couple. Hardy was much affected and tended to idealize their early relationship in subsequent poetry. After the reception of Jude the Obscure, which was materially successful but much maligned by the critics, Hardy had written only poems.

Fourteen months after his wife's death, he married his secretary, Florence Dugdale, nearly 40 years his junior. She had worked for Hardy for about 10 years and eventually penned his first biography, which was, in reality, his autobiography nominally written by Dugdale. Hardy produced eight volumes of poetry and some 900 poems over more than 30 years. He was fortunate to gain recognition as a great writer and early modernist in his lifetime and was courted by the next generation of writers—including English poet Robert Graves and English novelist Virginia Woolf. He received honorary doctorates from Cambridge and Oxford as well as other literary honors. He died on January 11, 1928. His heart was buried with his first wife, Emma, among the family graves, while the rest of his remains were cremated and then interred in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey, next to Charles Dickens.

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