Growing pains
Living with Thomas Hardy and Dorset
by Sarah Burnett

Published: Monday, March 15th, 2010

North Dorset in the 1970s felt like the end of the earth. There were farmers who tied up their coats with string and had never left the county. Car journeys often included a lengthy wait as a herd of cows was driven along the road. While the rest of Britain was riding around on Choppers and playing Scalextric, those of us growing up in Dorset were doing things like throwing stones at farm rats. In the entire decade, the only thing that happened was a rumour that Princess Anne might buy a house in a nearby village. She didn’t.

When you live in a county where even the people in neighbouring counties are vague about its whereabouts, evidence of external recognition becomes important. So when I read Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd at the age of fourteen, it seemed momentous: I felt validated, as if I had grown in stature because my surroundings were worth writing about. Best of all was the page at the beginning of the book: ‘Key to Place Names’. It was like the topography of my life: Shottsford Forum was Blandford Forum, the town where I went to school; Stourcastle was Sturminster Newton, where we went to the weekly livestock market; Marlott was Marnhull, the village where we were dragged to church. Some of these places hardly earned an appearance in a guidebook to Dorset, but here they were in Literature, with a capital L. It did not matter that they were barely mentioned in the novel, it was enough that they appeared in print at all.

After the initial excitement, I found large parts of Far From the Madding Crowd tedious – the dialect dialogues of the rustics, the agricultural detail, the moralising. The shepherd Gabriel Oak, with his felt hat and ruddy cheeks, is hardly Mr Darcy. And though we were pleased that someone was writing about Dorset, we were unmoved by Hardy’s ability to evoke the landscape itself: we didn’t want to read long descriptions of the countryside, we shrugged, because it’s already right there in front of us. But the deficiencies were balanced by some amazingly vivid scenes, like Gabriel Oak’s young sheepdog chasing hundreds of sheep over the edge of a cliff in a storm, and Sergeant Troy demonstrating his swordsmanship to Bathsheba. These scenes helped close my eyes to the hints of what lay in store with Hardy. I glossed over the humiliation of Bathsheba, and the fact that she is reduced to a shadow of the bold, scarlet-jacketed woman she was at the beginning. I thought the novel’s heavy-handed signposting of the disasters and gloom to come might be unique to this book.

It was a year or two later, the first year of English A-level, that I realised the full implications of living in Hardy country. First, we read The Mayor of Casterbridge, then we went straight into Tess of the D’Urbervilles, supplemented by spending free afternoons on field trips to places like Hardy’s Cottage and Casterbridge (Dorchester). There we would find coach-loads of literary tourists (mostly American), novels in hand, en route to a Dorset cream tea and inevitably marvelling at the quaintness of it all. Teachers and tourists alike were constantly reminding us how lucky we were to be almost inside the pages of his books.

Back in the classroom, we were feeling the full weight of Hardy’s view of the world: the precariousness of agricultural life; the doomed love triangles; the slow descents into poverty; the fatalism about people, society, the world in general. In French A-level classes we’d talk about existentialism, freedom and God’s irrelevance to man; back in Hardy country, God was alive, intolerant and opposed to change.

Our resentment of Hardy was heightened by the fact that his tragedies were so dreary. We’d studied our Shakespeare and our Greek tragedy, and we expected crash and burn, catharsis. Hardy gave us none of that, just the slow process of people being ground down by society, financial hardship and the accumulated misfortunes of everyday life. What we wanted to read were dramas like those we’d already studied in Macbeth and King Lear –storms, madness, blindness; what Tess of the D’Urbervilles gave us was the bathos of the Durbeyfields’ horse dying, or Tess losing her boots in a hedge, all accompanied by Hardy’s irritating commentary of ‘If only Tess hadn’t done that’ and ‘If only Tess had known this …’

It was those aspects of Tess of the D’Urbervilles that helped to change my exasperation with Hardy into loathing. I read much of the book with fists clenched, furious that the character of Tess seemed so accepting of the way men and society mistreated her. I was impatient with her ‘purity’ and unimpressed by her ‘tender’ eyes and ‘mobile, peony’ mouth. Angel Clare inspired me with even greater contempt, with his self-indulgence and his prudish, inadequate response to the truth about Tess’s background. The book’s filmic climax – with Tess asleep on the sacrificial slabs of rock at Stonehenge as the sun rises and the law closes in on her – seemed melodramatic. Its ending – with Angel Clare and Tess’s sister Liza-Lu (‘half girl, half woman’) standing hand-in-hand, looking down at Wintonchester (Winchester) cathedral and the uplands of Wiltshire, and the scene of Tess’s execution – is simply distasteful (though beautifully described).

Looking back, it seems odd that my relationship with Thomas Hardy became so personal. There were other books I disliked – Wuthering Heights, The Mill on the Floss – but I never felt the same anger against their long-dead authors. It must have been the proximity – particularly with Tess, which is set in exactly the part of Dorset where I lived. I looked at the same landscapes, listened to the same dialects, and compared my own life with those of Hardy’s characters. When Tess walked through the ‘long and broken village’ of Marlott to fetch her father from the inn, I knew the road she walked along. When she leaves the village and stops on the curve of the hill to look back at her parents’ home and the ‘Vale of the Little Dairies’, I knew the view she was looking at. I was so immersed in these places that when Hardy thwarted his characters’ lives, it felt like he was telling me that my own life and aspirations would be thwarted. In the red corner, there was I, sixteen or seventeen years old, fully confident that I would escape Dorset, and be free to love or live exactly as I wanted to. In the blue corner was Hardy, a morose old man lecturing that I didn’t understand, that I wasn’t free, that we’re all doomed. It somehow seems symptomatic of the isolation of Dorset in the late 1970s that, while the youth of the Home Counties were busy turning to punk, I was fighting the world-view of Thomas Hardy.

*******

For the next twenty or so years, Hardy and I had nothing to do with each other. I left school, left Dorset, and the only time I came into contact with any of his work was packing and unpacking my books when moving from London to Brussels to Scotland. But then it happened by chance that I needed to re-read Far From the Madding Crowd for a work project. The approach of my fortieth birthday meant I was already thinking about the past, and where I had come to, and it seemed that re-reading Hardy fitted in with that. To my own surprise, I decided that I wanted to go back to Hardy, to read the novels again, and to revisit Hardy country from the safety of 500 miles and 20 years away.

The beginning was painful. Not because of nostalgia or memory, but because it was just so laborious. Two pages of Hardy’s moralising and circumlocutions were enough to send me to sleep regardless of the time of day. No longer excited by the ‘Key to Place Names’, it was even harder to engage with Dorset agricultural life than it had been years previously.

To the immense irritation of those around me, who had to listen day after day to my complaining, I read five Hardy novels over the course of a month. And slowly, surreptitiously, I began to enjoy them. Someone once said about Hardy that he is terrible at writing sentences and paragraphs but great at writing books, and certainly I found myself being drawn in. Far from falling asleep after a page, I was reading chapter after chapter late into the night. And, of course, I responded differently from the first time around.

I still loathe Hardy’s moroseness and moralising, I’m still exasperated by the ‘If only’ sentences and I still want to punch Angel Clare, but I no longer dismiss the books or their characters on the grounds of their fatalism. As a teenager, I thought that Tess accepted her fate too willingly: she is ruined by Alex D’Urberville, and then lets herself be ruined again – though in a different way – by Angel Clare. Instead of fighting against his treatment of her, she waits patiently for him to come to terms with her past, while sinking further into poverty and desperation. But what I never appreciated as a teenager is that Tess manages to achieve her period of greatest happiness and vitality after her ‘ruin’ and after the death of her child. Far from giving up, she continues to hope that society and fate might permit her happiness and a future. Unlike some of her peers in the novel, she does not attempt suicide, turn to drink, or lapse into self-pity.

My teenage self thought that Hardy’s characters were passive because they did not protest loudly enough against their misfortunes. I expected them to go mad on a heath or to do the nineteenth-century equivalent of forming a punk band. What I failed to understand is that by carrying on their daily lives and struggles, they are fighting back and even showing a type of heroism. It’s merely the type of heroism and resilience that is appreciated more by the middle-aged than the young.

*****

The other change I notice is that reading Hardy twenty years on has renewed my relationship with Dorset and my youth. There is a scene in Tess where she returns to the Blackmore Vale, the ‘Vale of the Little Dairies’, after her disastrous few months on The Chase (Cranborne Chase) with the D’Urbervilles. She reaches the edge of the chalk escarpment that bounds the vale and looks down at the ‘familiar green world beyond, now half-veiled in mist’. It’s a vivid and pivotal moment in the book, very typically Hardyesque as he combines a description of place with something more portentous: ‘It was always beautiful from here; it was terribly beautiful to Tess today for since her eyes last fell upon it she had learnt that the serpent hisses where the sweet birds sing, and her views of life had been totally changed for her by the lesson.’ (1)

As I reread the description, I feel like Tess standing on the chalk ridge (though happier), looking down at the vale and my own childhood. It’s more than twenty years since I have lived there, but the view suddenly seems intensely real. As I read further into the book, more and more images from my childhood resurface. In his evocation of Dorset, Hardy also evokes for me my own childhood. I can picture the muddy banks of the river Stour where we played or swam; the lushness of the grass and weeds in the early morning, damp with dew and cuckoo-spit; the smell and sound of cows in the stagnant heat of August ‘following the shadow of the smallest tree’; the slight sense of dislocation when I visited parts of Dorset where the landscape was bigger or bleaker than my own.

As I think about the woods, fields and riverbanks where I grew up, I realise that I will never again be connected so strongly to any landscape. However long I live in Scotland, and however wonderful I find the landscape here, I will never have the same relationship with it. Though I do not find the landscape in Dorset particularly beautiful, I’m beginning to see that it matters to me – and it probably influences many of my reactions to other landscapes. I am also reminded that the childhood experiences that contribute to your adult personality are not just events and people, but place and landscape as well.

Where that leaves me or what it adds to my life now, I am not quite sure. I’ve certainly no desire to re-engage with Shottsford Forum, Stourcastle or the Vale of the Little Dairies – indeed, many of the places I remember are probably buried beneath new housing developments. I feel no nostalgia for lost youth, and have no Hardyesque inclinations to look back at what might have been. But I do have a new sense that I did not leave Dorset behind as completely as I thought I had.

And I also know that I’ve started a dangerous journey: twenty-five years hence, newly retired, I’ll be on a literary coach-tour of Wessex, standing on the chalk ridge that skirts the Blackmore Vale, novels in hand, telling an angry teenager how lucky they are to live in Hardy country.

Notes

(1) From the opening page of the second section of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, ‘Maiden No More’.


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