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Thomas Hardy | Biography

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Early Life

Thomas Hardy was born in Higher 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 stonemason, were working-class country people. However, Hardy's intelligent and ambitious mother wanted a better life for her son, so she sent him to the best school available, in the nearby town of Dorchester. Hardy's family could not afford a university education, but after he graduated at 16, his mother arranged for him to be apprenticed to an architect so he could transition into the professional class. Hardy's working-class origins caused him anxiety, but his early immersion into 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 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 spent his spare time teaching himself about poetry, experimenting with verse forms, and studying Greek. For a time, he had ambitions of obtaining a university education and becoming an Anglican priest, but he realized in 1866 the notion was "farfetched," 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 considered himself primarily a poet, not a novelist, throughout his career. He wrote poetry in the 1860s but could not get any of his work published, so he turned to novel writing in 1867. The Poor Man and the Lady, his first attempt in the medium, was rejected because it was too critical of the status quo—Hardy called it a "striking socialistic novel." His second attempt, Desperate Remedies, was meant to be commercial and sensationalistic; it was published in 1871. 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. Emma was the daughter of a lawyer, which put her socially above Hardy, an architectural skilled laborer. He had to wait four years to marry her because her family did not approve of her marriage to someone of a lower class. They married in September 1874. Initially a happy couple, they remained childless and eventually became estranged. Toward the end of her life, Emma became a devout Evangelical, a troublesome issue in the marriage as Hardy moved toward skepticism and atheism.

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 Wessex, the semifictional region based on the medieval Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex—full of real cities and places—where his mature novels would be set. 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 to avoid offending readers with his frank depictions of sexual relationships and criticism of Victorian hypocrisy. 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. Although Tess of the d'Urbervilles did receive some good reviews, it was widely criticized for its perceived sexual immorality. But if some critics were repelled by Tess of the d'Urbervilles with its pessimistic determinism (belief in the absence of free will) and overtly sexual subject matter, most critics were outraged by Jude the Obscure. The latter novel was darker, more shocking, and overtly condemnatory of both class structure and conventional morality.

Later Years

Beginning in 1885 Hardy lived in Max Gate, a house he designed and 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, to the mortification of his second wife, Florence Dugdale. After the reception of Jude the Obscure, which was materially successful but much maligned by the critics, Hardy abandoned fiction and wrote only poetry.

Hardy married Dugdale, his secretary—nearly 40 years his junior—14 months after his first wife's death. She had worked for Hardy for nearly 10 years and was his nominal biographer—although Hardy in reality wrote most of his biography. In all, 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. In a macabre turn of events worthy of Hardy's fiction, his heart was buried with his first wife, Emma, among the family graves. The rest of his remains were cremated and interred next to English novelist Charles Dickens in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey—an appropriate resting place for one of the most widely read Victorian writers.

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