Time Travel with Thomas Hardy

Occasionally, we get the chance to travel in time. Days flip back, like the ruffled pages of a book, to a moment when the players in a scene are suspended in their own present – and we, like Dick Dewy emerging from the whispering woods in Under the Greenwood Tree, step from the shadows, and into the beginning of a story…

'Under the Greenwood Tree' by Thomas Hardy - Penguin Classics and Folio Society editions.

‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ by Thomas Hardy – Penguin Classics and Folio Society editions.

A few years ago, whilst researching my family history online, I decided on a whim to wander the census in search of records of a favourite writer.

I chose the year 1841…

Typed in the name…

The place…

Clicked the mouse, once, twice…

Came face to face with the image of an aged document…

And, following its faded words into a long past moment:

Higher Bockhampton, Parish of Stinsford (District 7)

Mary Hardy – Age 65

Thomas Hardy – Age 25 – Mason

Jemima Hardy – Age 25

Thomas Hardy – Age 1

…found myself falling into step beside Dick Dewy along Mellstock Lane.

Together, we approached Tranter’s Cottage, our footfalls hollowing to silence on the root-crumpled soil…

Apple boughs draped the cool weight of dusk around our shoulders. Honeysuckle loosed moths from around the window’s edges. We stepped closer, peered in – grasped the ghost of a long past moment:

The Self-Unseeing

Here is the ancient floor,
Footworn and hollowed and thin,
Here was the former door
Where the dead feet walked in.

She sat here in her chair,
Smiling into the fire;
He who played stood there,
Bowing it higher and higher.

Childlike, I danced in a dream;
Blessings emblazoned that day;
Everything glowed with a gleam;
Yet we were looking away!

– Thomas Hardy

…And like Hardy, time-travelling through layers of place and perspective in this poem, we feel a sharpened appreciation of the past moment we witness; a newly heightened awareness of its significance and value. But, for us, the candlelit scene in the cottage is not one of hindsight-revealed loss, but of hindsight-revealed promise.

As we focus closer, our census-night scene remains hazy – malleable according to which way the imagination wavers. Is little Thomas sitting contentedly on his grandmother’s knee, ‘smiling into the fire?’ Or is Thomas Senior shaking free from his long day’s tracery of stone-dust, boots keeping time to a tune from his fiddle, ‘bowing it higher and higher’? Or is little Thomas asleep in his cradle? Or does he distract his mother from her work with his cries? If so, as Jemima lifts him to her shoulder, does she catch even a glimmer of what her son will become? Or what he will mean to people like me, over a hundred and seventy years into the future – and beyond?

Tranter’s is the fictional echo of the small thatched cottage built by Hardy’s grandfather in 1800; the real-world birthplace of Thomas, and the home of the Dewy family in Under the Greenwood Tree – which, in true Chinese box style, was written within its walls.

I have visited the cottage in my mind many a time, but in reality only once, in 2004:

Thomas Hardy's birthplace (June 2004)

Thomas Hardy’s birthplace (June 2004)

Even then, I didn’t go inside. We had sought out Thorncombe Woods for a homeward picnic after a holiday near Charmouth – and, with two small children in tow, it felt like a better bet to just enjoy the adventure of a ramble amongst the trees (those whispering woods Dick Dewy walked through) to find the magical, hidden cottage and watch butterflies in the garden.

I spent some sobering moments gazing out across what was left of Hardy’s Egdon Heath behind his birthplace, trying to superimpose his descriptions on what now filled my vision (dark, dense conifer plantation cloaked large areas of the land). Thankfully, a heathland restoration project was underway to bring back more of the wildlife-rich landscape he would have known and loved. When we visited back in 2004, information boards dotted Thorncombe Woods to announce the launch of an attempt to unlock time and a lost landscape; to turn back the page, and once more suspend the land in that long moment of halted natural succession Hardy would have experienced in his own lifetime – and which had existed in the collective memory of many previous generations.

As Richard Mabey points out in his 1993 essay Landscape: The Real Stuff (from Selected Writings 1974 – 1999) – heathland is:

‘…a kind of community that the strict hierarchies of landscape mythology don’t care to admit – a symbiosis, a partnership between humans and nature…created by the clearance of woodland on poor soils…it can only be maintained as heath if the cutting, burning or grazing, be it natural or deliberate, is continued. Otherwise it will eventually revert to woodland, as is happening at the moment to many of the unmanaged heaths of southern England.’

Mabey elaborates how the mythology of heathlands:

‘…is of a primeval, naturally formed wilderness, which because it hasn’t apparently been ‘reclaimed’ by human work is ‘wasteland’. Even Thomas Hardy, whose landscape history was usually impeccable, took this view. His description of Egdon Heath in the opening chapter of The Return of the Native – ‘A Face on Which Time Makes But Little Impression’- is one of the most evocative passages of landscape writing in the language, yet it still paints Egdon as literally, as well as emotionally, primordial.’

Title page, 'The Return of the Native' Folio Society edition. Wood engraving illustration by Peter Reddick

Title page, ‘The Return of the Native’ Folio Society edition. Wood engraving illustration by Peter Reddick

But, the illusion of the literally primordial aside, the foremost impression made upon me by those amazing opening chapters of The Return of the Native (and the point they most strongly convey) is of the continuity shared by successive generations in their relationship to that particular landscape. Centre stage are the signs and shaping of lives lived on that ‘vast tract of unenclosed wild’; the prehistoric burial barrows, the inherited customs, the livelihoods – and the basic concerns of life and death that connect the ages past and present. It is like Lear’s heath – where we are stripped of all trappings, to be in direct contact with the elemental of the land, the universe, the human:

‘It seemed as if the bonfire-makers were standing in some radiant upper storey of the world, detached from and independent of the dark stretches below…

…It was as if these men and boys had suddenly dived into past ages, and fetched therefrom an hour and deed which had before been familiar with this spot. The ashes of the original British pyre which blazed from that summit lay fresh and undisturbed in the barrow beneath their tread. The flames from funeral piles long ago kindled there had shone down upon the lowlands as these were shining now. Festival fires to Thor and Woden had followed on the same ground and duly had their day. Indeed, it is pretty well known that such blazes as this the heathmen were now enjoying are rather the lineal descendants from jumbled Druidical rites and Saxon ceremonies than the invention of popular feeling about Gunpowder plot.

Moreover to light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against the fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, Let there be light.’

– From The Return of the Native, Chapter 3 – ‘The Custom of the Country.’

All around that unbiddable “wasteland” is Change, a world ‘harassed by the irrepressible New’. We feel the Modern Age very much at work as a character – a state of mind, a reflective observer – through the narrative voice of the novel. But, Egdon remains the unchanging, the intractable core.

Wood engraving illustration of 'Egdon Heath' by Peter Reddick - from the Folio Society edition of 'The Return of the Native'

Wood engraving illustration of ‘Egdon Heath’ by Peter Reddick – from the Folio Society edition of ‘The Return of the Native’

Sadly, Egdon’s apparent immutability belied its actual fragility. As Mabey goes on to say:

The south Dorset heaths that Hardy immortalised as Egdon have been largely destroyed by enclosure and ploughing.’

Hopes for some of that heathland now pin on a time-travelling landscape, brought into being by a return to human customs which link us, past to past to future…

Change, and its consequences, was gathering pace during Hardy’s lifetime, and for him, Under the Greenwood Tree was a form of time travel in itself. He set the novel in the past, around the year of his birth: ‘to preserve for my own satisfaction a fairly true record of a vanishing life.’

On that census night in 1841, the quirks and concerns of that ‘vanishing life’ were yet to time travel on the turn of a young man’s thoughts and memories. Amongst the Hardy family and their neighbours, who could have foreseen that, out from the melting pot of their influence and the imagination of that one-year-old baby, would spring Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge – a whole cast of unforgettable characters – and the glorious descriptions of a Wessex that, because Hardy loved it, has been preserved spellbindingly on the page?

To overlap time, and to “witness” the very young Thomas’s as yet un-guessed potential was a powerful moment; like stumbling across a page torn from a story – a chapter left snagged on a branch and sought by the wind. There he was; a vulnerable child, poised to meet the vagaries of Fate – that fickle force he would go on to explore, with intensifying bitter-tenderness, in his writing. So many possibilities were held within that life just beginning – the paths he might have taken; the opportunities waiting upon Chance; the novels and poems he might never have written had other choices been made…

What a poorer world it would have been without them.

I, for one, am so grateful for the literary fruits of that life’s journey. I know that, for some, Hardy is a problematic figure (all the better to meet us halfway with our own problematical traits maybe?) And, for others, he is nothing less than Pessimism Personified, to be avoided at all costs. But I don’t hear in Hardy’s voice a simple one-note beat of misery – but complexity, complexity – all complexity. Hardy’s unique vision is sewn tight into that varied and precious pattern of our literature – and I wouldn’t want the weave of his contribution to be one stitch different. Hardy’s tragedies contain necessary – even beautiful – space in which to stretch realities, and to confront an uncomfortable, and yet liberating, recognition of difficult truths. He is a very human writer – a catcher of the flipsides, and an explorer and enquirer into the vivid clatter of life’s dropped plates, spillages and wastes.

Ironically, maybe it’s the upbeat tendency of my nature that focusses on the positives of Hardy’s pessimism. It is all so much a part of that trajectory that took him to further heights of creativity; all so much a part of that voyage on which great literature takes us.

Under the Greenwood Tree is amongst his earliest and happiest novels – it is like a ballad to a fondly remembered time (and its title, of course, is taken from the pastoral song in Shakespeare’s As You Like It).

Wood engraving by Peter Reddick (illustration from Folio Society edition of 'Under the Greenwood Tree')

Wood engraving by Peter Reddick (illustration from Folio Society edition of ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’)

I love the novel and its tone and its characters and its green world of hedgerow and forest; the sleepy drone of the village band from the church balcony (counterbalanced by the altogether more enthusiastic musical glee at the boozy Christmas party at Tranter’s!) And I’m moved in my affection for the players, as they reach a befuddling divide of Time, confronted by the advent of a new age.

Wood engraving by Peter Reddick from 'Under the Greenwood Tree' Folio Society edition

Wood engraving by Peter Reddick from ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ Folio Society edition

But I love Hardy’s later work even more. As he grew further into his own creative skills, Hardy’s life experience and his anger at injustice (societal and the natural cruelties of chance) tinged the edges of his vision with darker and darker hues. Harsh realities bit hard into his consciousness, and he responded truthfully according to his own thought processes and reactions. Readers may or may not find their own personal perspective reflected in that vision, the assertions in his work may or may not be to their taste. And that’s fine. But too often, I see this kind of personal reaction presented as an objective benchmark; a final word on the worth of a writer and his/her work.

Beyond the genuinely searching questions about his writing and the carefully considered analysis, Hardy seems to attract a lot of unthinking ire and unfair accusation. Maybe I should stay away from the more foggy edges of the internet, but my heart plummets faster than Gabriel Oak’s sheep when I see a fine literary work pushed over a cliff of swift, single-focus contempt. So much of worth spirals away from the grasp in that act of dismissal, not least the chance to get to know what makes that literary work so interesting, both as an individual piece of writing – and as a part of literature’s vital, gloriously diverse exploration of what it is to be human.

I’m slipping into a rant here – and I’m sure that, on this blog, I’m preaching to the converted. But, I just love this stuff so much… I want to tear down those blocks that prevent people experiencing the fullest possible engagement with a text. Because, when that deep-down communion happens, it’s just so mind-blowingly AMAZING; so massively life-enhancing – I just want to SHOUT IT from the very zenith of the Wessex Heights!

These great, sometimes messy, always complex, frayed-at-the-edges masterpieces are not written by machines. No writer, artist, human being is without flaws – and flaws Hardy may have had – but they are a part of the fabric – and humanity – of art. Maybe I’m peculiar, but I want to celebrate what that displays. “Flaws” can be a valuable ingredient in a wonderful, unpredictable concoction; bound up in the complex gift of personal vision and individuality of expression – and in a writer’s reaching to develop as they learn their craft. Can we imagine the work of Dickens or D. H. Lawrence without the complete package of their unique voice and traits and journeys of development? It would be like a tiger with its teeth removed. Jagged lightning channelled through a taming conductor. Colour drained to inoffensive beige.

Often, the “flaws” are the inextricable other side of the strengths; traits without which those strengths – and a whole recipe of qualities – would never exist. And of course, sometimes, what is condemned as a flaw by one person is heralded as an asset by another.

Either way, caught air bubbles in a glass can make the light refract in interesting ways, render that glass unique – give it realness and recognisability, and another facet of perspective. If we were to hold that glass to the light, to look at the world through those quirks in its surface, maybe we would discover something new – and learn more, always more, outside the limits of our own way of seeing.

But wider than this, there is in Hardy’s work a breathing in of some essential scent of life; a whiff of something hardwired, universal and utterly human. It is like that line from Donne when we hear the knell of the bell – and know that it tolls for us too – and that it is time to stretch our sympathy across the whole of humanity, because we are each a part of it; none of us exempt from Wordsworth’s ‘sad perplexity.’

I love Hardy’s early-rooted ambition to chase Shakespeare’s faceted shades, and to build grand, Bardic tragedy in novel form; to explore the high drama of ordinary folk, aided by a Greek Chorus of rustics, whose voices underline the comic and tragic spins of life’s coin. There, in entwined, elemental relationship with the land, his characters wear the two sided mask of the actor on an ancient stage…

And I love his poet’s deep vision, his awareness of the layering of time, and the interplay of ghosts of past and present. I love his naturalist’s knowledge, and the vitality and earthy reality of nature at the heart of his life, his imagination – and the lyricism of his language…

A humane writer with a philosopher’s heart, his work is, for me, infinitely rewarding to discover and revisit. His words invoke challenge, reflection, inspiration, confrontation. Beautiful and transporting, his prose and poetry resonate over and again – cast anew in different ways throughout a reading life.

And besides all that, he could tell a story that could rivet you to a moment, knock your socks off – and keep you turning the pages quicker than you could inadvisably order up another bowl of furmity…

That is a skill too often underestimated in its importance. When a great storyteller is born, something very special begins to prise open the petals of every experience that meets that growing mind, releasing fragrances which, through eventual skill, will reach us – like prayer in George Herbert’s poem – as a grasped pact; ‘a bird of paradise… something understood.’

Hardy’s novels are, for us all, a form of time travel. They take us to a different and lost world of the past. And yet, at the same time, their world is an ever unchanging one. Hardy’s writing pulses with the eternal rhythms to which we all move; whichever era our names are entered on the census…

I wonder what future great writers lay asleep in their cots right now, cooking their talents amid infant dreams – preparing to amaze/ surprise/ overturn or more than fulfil parental or societal expectations – and to enthral and influence the minds and lives of generations yet to come…

Who can tell from what corners of society these voices will emerge; from what hidden, or seemingly unlikely places they will gather their material, their strengths, their edges and, yes – their flaws. Perhaps a teenage single-parent, an immigrant care-home assistant, a call-centre worker – somewhere in a dark and unsure night – is holding such a baby right now. If we give each child the chance, who knows what she or he might be or do…

Time passes. Moments overlap. And perhaps we are always ‘looking away’.

18 thoughts on “Time Travel with Thomas Hardy

  1. “Maybe I should stay away from the more foggy edges of the internet, but my heart plummets faster than Gabriel Oak’s sheep when I see a fine literary work pushed over a cliff of swift, single-focus contempt.”

    Indeed, and it’s by no means the foggier edges of the internet where one finds such easy dismissals of what is valuable. And Hardy is by no means the only writer at the receiving end of unthinking criticism.

    It is true that sometimes, certain books can fail us. But equally, we may fail certain books. Experience with reading can often teach us how to distinguish: I have frequently come across books where I have felt that I have been missing something – where there is something vaguely glimpsed in the corner of the retina, but which eludes full vision. The works of D. H. Lawrence frequently make me feel this way. There are other writers whose sensibility is so far removed from my own, that I feel their works will forever elude me: Virginia Woolf, for instance. But one cannot respond to everything. When we look back through the vast treasure-house of literature, we have there works written by people across the entire spectrum of varying temperaments, each with an individual, distinctive vision of life: it is simply not possible for a single reader to respond to them all. But to dismiss what one cannot personally respond to, for no better reason than that one cannot respond to it, is mere solipsism. To insist that books fail us, but that we can never fail a book, is blind egotism.

    People travel to see other worlds. But even more interesting, and enriching, is to see our own world filtered through the perceptions of others. And this is what we get in art – in literature: we see our own world, but from the perspectives of men and women of genius. Without these works, we would only be able to see the world through our own eyes only; but when we immerse ourselves in literature, we see the world from an extraordinary variety of perspectives. Some of these perspectives will be too far from our own for us to absorb adequately; but if and when we can – and frequently this requires effort on our own part – how can it be fail to be anything other than enriching?

    We have a habit of cutting the great authors down to our own size – and then we attack them for being small. We see Austen merely as chick-lit in fancy dress (she isn’t); we insist that Dickens is but melodrama and sentimentality for the masses (he isn’t); or that the Brontës are mere purveyors of schoolgirl fantasies (they aren’t). Hardy is frequently regarded as a mere doom & gloom merchant. Well, if he is to be dismissed on that score, we will have to dismiss also The Book of Job, The Oresteia, Oedipus, The Bacchae, Othello, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, the plays of Ibsen … indeed, about half the world’s literary heritage. I do not see the point of such criticism. The tragic is an inescapable aspect of our lives: is anyone seriously proposing that writers, composers and artists should avoid it?

    And so what if a writer is “flawed”? Only writers who don’t aim high are flawless.

    I greatly enjoyed reading your essay on Hardy. There was a passion in the writing. I haven’t yet read “Under the Greenwood Tree”. The Hardy novels I have read are “The Return of the Native”, “Far From the Madding Crowd”, “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”, “The Mayor of Casterbridge” and “Jude the Obscure”. And I very much admire Hardy the poet (although I didn’t know the poem you cite). Hardy did, as you say, see simultaneously the past as a visible presence (if that’s not an oxymoron): he saw it particularly in the landscape. But it’s interesting that his final novel is mostly set not in the countryside, but in towns and cities – Reading, Salisbury, Shaftesbury, Oxford (although Hardy called them different names). Going through his novels, it’s almost as if the countryside itself seems to be disappearing.

    “Jude the Obscure” is what is generally described as a “flawed” novel. Yes, it is certainly flawed: the lad called Old Father Time bears too heavy a symbolic weight; Jude and Sue’s domestic contentment with the children (before the terrible events near the end) is not depicted, presumably because Hardy realised it was impossible for him to do so. BUT … those who cannot look beyond this are failing the novel. I don’t think I’ll ever get out of my mind that passage where Jude, already raging with fever, trudges through the rain to see Sue once again, even though he knows she will not be able to respond to him; and as he does so, he hopes that this exertion will kill him. The sheer weight of human despair takes one back to Job, to Lear, to Vronsky on the railway platform near the end of “Anna Karenina” staring in horror at the wheels of a passing train… There are those who will say all this is depressing. Yes, it is. But it is visionary, and, by some mysterious process, even these depictions of utter despair are enriching.

    Your observations on the heathland are particularly interesting. There is precious little heathland left in Dorset now – as far as I could see, at any rate. But there are still blasted heaths in Scotland, where the witches met with Macbeth. And there are still the Yorkshire moors. I remember driving back across Haworth Moor once (my mother lives just on the Lancashire side of the border) when a terrific thunderstorm blew up. Visibility was poor, and we found a place to stop the car. The storm raged for about an hour or so before we could drive on again, and it was nothing short of elemental. And it wasn’t just “Wuthering Heights” that came to mind: “King Lear” came to mind also – “for many miles about there’s scarce a bush”. For that hour or so, all traces of humanity seemed so distant, that it seemed unreal to be driving into Colne so shortly afterwards. I think I had a glimpse there of that sense of timelessness that Hardy captured so unforgettably in the opening pages of “The Return of the Native”.

    • Himadri – thank you so much for this wonderful comment! Your analysis of how we can sometimes fail a book; of that ‘habit of cutting the great authors down to our own size;’ of reader egotism; of how art’s “flaws” ride on the wings of those who aim high is, I think, spot on…

      I’m glad my passion for Thomas Hardy’s work, and for great literature in general, came through in this piece. And it was so uplifting to catch, in return, the passion in your own words. Reading your response has been like journeying through a vivid sequence of thought-scenes – through moments in literature and moments in place, via all the connections of those gathered experiences.

      I love the examples you give from Anna Karenina, King Lear, Job and so on… and the examples from Thomas Hardy (Jude etc) – all that visceral, visionary stuff – you’re so right – the heart beats faster because of it. Do you remember the D.H. Lawrence group read we did years ago? What his writing did to us all – both to the people who loved it – and to the people who were left perplexed by DHL’s mindset. Wow! That stuff – whatever the individual’s reaction – it always causes a stir! It made us all reach out towards the centre of Life, and really think – and feel – and examine.

      To see chances for that reaching out denied in any way, so saddens me. It feels, to me, like watching a glorious essential in life under threat, and in danger of withering away. The glorious essential is both the future of great literature itself (its need of readers who value it in order for it to stay central to our culture) – and the future of something inside ourselves – as individuals and as a society. A keeping open of a door through which to step into something larger – and which is there for us all, if only we are given every chance to find it.

      I feel sadness because the ‘cutting down to size’ response is sometimes a failure of how literature has been presented to people. So often, people have told me that the way they were taught literature at school put them off reading the classics for life.

      And then, there are cases like the medical student I knew at university who couldn’t understand why I’d chosen to study English literature because, she said, “Sooner or later, you’re going to have to study Dickens…” She shuddered at the thought and stated how much she hated his novels. They had been forced upon her by her parents when she was very young – too young to get to grips with them – and she had never been able to go near them again. She had been overwhelmed by them before she was ready.

      So sometimes, the defenses are up because of bad past experiences – and then the cutting down to size thing seems the easier option when faced with something that seems like a brick wall.

      When I hear of experiences like these, my heart always feels so heavy because, to me, the nurturing of a love of great literature is a cycle of win-win; the perpetuation of literature itself, and the nourishment of both the individual – and the collective – soul (for want of a better word). I want to know what went wrong. And to put it right – and I think the only way I know of doing that is to keep on lighting up that passion for literature – and to hope that the love for these things is infectious. Like a flame igniting a spreading fire.

      It seems to me that the way to opening that door for more people, is finding the direct relationship with the text – illuminating its riches – revealing the sheer love and passion we have for it – and how these texts invite us to find enrichment – very often beyond what we can foresee when we first step through the threshold.

      Take a chance, I want to say – step through. Be surprised. Be challenged. Find something that stirs you to your very core – don’t be afraid… This isn’t just for a certain group of people. It makes me want to weep when I hear anyone say, “Shakespeare isn’t for the likes of me…” He’s for everyone; for all time.

      But I don’t know what to do about the cases of pure egotism, except to debate and to stand up for the text/ author (and I’ve grown to wonder over the years if it’s always worth it – and have largely taken the lighting-the-fire-with-love-of-literature approach instead). But I do feel wearied and angry and saddened by the weightless and arrogant declarations that pepper the internet. All those statements which seem only to seek a confirmation of bias (though we can all be guilty of that one, from time to time, I suppose!) But particularly irritating are the ill-founded claims to have seen “the emperor’s new clothes,” and to have discerned such things as “Shakespeare is over-rated” for example. Where is the humility??? Where is the justification???

      Too often, there is that tendency for an individual to want the whole world to work on their terms alone – according to their own narrow interpretation and goals… refusing to suspend that tendency even for a moment to investigate a text on its own terms, and to learn within new parameters. And that habit of not stopping to wonder if it is we, the reader, who is failing the text – rather than the other way round – is all so bound up in that.

      What worries me too is that the whole branding of authors in such a reductive way (e.g. Hardy as miserable old git, Jane Austen as welded to the parlour, Dickens as sentimental old windbag, George Eliot as dull and worthy) – is not only hugely unjust – but also feeds into the myth that classic literature is all out of joint with the times, is deadly boring and not worth bothering with. It helps to slam the door shut.

      Anyway – I’ve rambled on for long enough! Glad you liked the observations on heathland/ landscape etc. Lowland heath, such as that found in Dorset, is so rare and special – with its own varying soil types and associated ecology and fauna and flora… I recommend a visit to the RSPB Arne reserve which overlooks Poole Harbour (stunning views) if you’re ever in the area – it’s a beautiful place, and wonderful for getting a real feel for that timeless, Hardyesque landscape… Oh, and I loved your point about the growing sense of disappearing countryside threading through Hardy’s novels…

      Talking of Macbeth’s heath – I saw it on a gardening programme just the other night! A student had used the play – and its landscape – as inspiration for a garden design. I loved your description of your drive over Haworth Moor. Very much reminds me of some of my experiences of moorland when I was living near the Peak District…

      Oh – and I highly recommend Under the Greenwood Tree. It’s an especially good choice during the lead up to Christmas – the opening scenes are so warmly festive…

    • Thank you! 🙂 Oooh – I love rhubarb crumble! (I’ve been making the most of the season and baking a lot of them recently – I always use the same old “heirloom” dish that I use for the bread puddings!)

  2. We went to Hardy’s Cottage last year – at last – and this post gets me bouncing around in Tiggerish recognition…

    Himadri has said so much (wonderful stuff, esp. the spot-on rebuttal of the Bronte/Austen/Dickens pigeonholes). ‘Heart plummeting like Gabriel Oak’s sheep’ – just fantastic! It’s great to hear someone sing back at that closed-in, dried-out type of dismissal that Hardy and so many similarly vital artists sometimes attract. So much to think about here, will ruminate and ramble in due course (literally saved for a rainy day…)

    • Lovely to hear that this post has produced Tiggerish bounces of recognition! And I really appreciate you dedicating any time at all to ruminate over my ramblings! This time of the year doesn’t lend itself well to blogging, I think – (or that’s been my experience, anyway…) Holidays beckon, and it’s more of an out-and-about doing time – and an opportunity to build up the introspective, rather than a time for mining it out. So, whenever the ruminations feel like a ramble, that will be great – and very welcome… These things need to wait for the right time! This post was on the back burner for a long, long time – held up by events. I actually wrote it before Christmas – and, after I managed to get back to it, I was just never happy with it. In the end, I got so sick of seeing it hanging around my files, I decided to publish it – otherwise I was in danger of re-tweaking it forever! So, it’s so great to hear that you enjoyed it!

  3. I was enjoying a relaxing, mesmerising, water-trickling wander through your words… When suddenly the fire leapt up and breathed energetic flames out at the world… I loved your rant… Was completely transfixed… Could barely pause for breath myself… Wonderful!

    • Amanda – thank you so much, as ever, for your lovely words… I love Hardy’s novels and poetry so much, it’s hard to stem the flow when I start writing about them! I’m so pleased you enjoyed my thought-wanderings… My apologies for the long delay in replying – I’ve been away for a while. It was lovely to return to your kind messages. Very much looking forward to catching up with the latest on your blog when I get more of a chance to sit down, relax and enjoy… x

  4. Could you tell me the name of the painting that features as the cover illustration of the Penguin Classics edition of Under the Greenwood Tree?

  5. I’m just transfixed with joy and pleasure after reading your wonderful piece on Hardy. I not only love reading books, but I love reading about them, and your glorious exploration of Hardy was so exciting. I once read that you can tell a great piece of writing if it inspires you to get up and start writing or creating yourself…
    Is Hardy still in English syllabuses? My grandchildren who went to good schools here, where they learnt Latin amongst other subjects had such a poverty-stricken literary education, that when I was talking to them about Hamlet, and asking what Shakepseare they had explored, said yes, they’d done Hamlet, only it was the modern take Guildenstern and Rosencrantz.- in the interests of my relationships with them I kept my comments to myself…
    I grew up on Hardy… my parents spent their honeymoon at Woolbridge Manor where Tess and Clare spent theirs… since we didn’t have a lot of communication I never learned from them if the portraits that frightened Tess so much were still there on the stair case…
    LIving at Lulworth, and travelling to Swanage to school everyday was journeying through Hardy country, and looking back to those days in the early fifties I find it amazing that his name came into our conversation on the school bus as often as it did, as we debated where the ruined abbey where Clare carried Tess was – in Wool – Durdle Dor, where we wondered if Troy had swum from there… Dorchester, versus Melchester… Hardy sank deep into my consciousness..
    Yes, I feel the same about the modern put-downs of him… to me it is his elegaic voice I find so moving, and his deep appreciation of all those toothless village worthies and magnificent Gabriel Oaks and Giles Winterbornes….
    Different books have been favorites at different times of my life, but I go back constantly to the description of farm life and the natural world in most them… Gabriel knowing the storm was coming because the spiders were seeking shelter in the barn, searching the meadow for the mint plant that had taken root somewhere within it, and tainted the cow’s milk at Talbothays farm…the sheep with bloat, the early morning mist in the meadows….
    I can still remember the heavy hay wains creaking past our cottage outside Wool in 1942, leaving stray wisps of hay horizontally on the high hedges… the vestiges of the country past that Hardy wrote of… i’ve indulged myself writing this long nostalgic comment…forgive me

    • Valerie – there is nothing to forgive… This is such a wonderful comment! It is an absolute delight to read your memories and thoughts about Hardy – and to take a little journey through the ways in which his work and your experiences living in Dorset have intertwined so deeply. It’s magical to me to hear your first-hand accounts of life in Hardy’s Wessex in the ’50s – to imagine your conversations on the school bus, inspired by all those landmarks and places that were so familiar to you, both in your daily life and via the pages of Hardy’s novels.

      It is so wonderful to walk a landscape we know from both page and direct experience. I’m currently reading Sissinghurst: an Unfinished History by Adam Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West’s grandson. He is a wonderful writer with such a gift for transporting you to a place, and for capturing a rich, immediate, sensory experience of its character and beauty. In the case of Dorset, I knew the landscape first through Hardy’s novels – and later in life visited there (a magical experience to match place and page…) In the case of Sissinghurst and its Kentish landscape, things were in reverse. I grew up in Kent – and was steeped in the area. Now I no longer live there, reading Adam Nicolson’s book has been like going home. He evokes the place and how it feels to be there so exactly. A wonderful, nostalgic experience for me. Reading your response to Hardy’s amazing evocations of the Dorset countryside reminds me so much of how I feel when I can wander again in books, the old familiar places of my childhood.

      The beautiful word-picture you paint of the hay wain passing by your cottage and the hedgerows is now so vivid in my mind’s eye! Such scenes connect the unfolding times and remind us how echoes of Hardy’s world linger so close within our own time. Going further back to echoes from much earlier in the 20th century, I remember seeing an interview, recorded just a few years ago, with a wonderful lady from Dorset who had met Hardy when she was a young girl. Her sister had played Tess in a Dorchester theatre production in which Hardy was involved. He had spoken to the lady a few times when they had both been watching her sister rehearse. She remembered him as such a kindly man. The interviewer (Griff Rhys Jones) was so struck by the idea that he had shaken the hand of someone who had shaken the hand of Thomas Hardy!

      My daughter has just begun studying for her A Level in English literature – and she tells me that they will be studying Jude the Obscure next year (and are encouraged to read more of Hardy’s novels). So there’s hope for the literary future yet! Outside her studies, she has already read Far from the Madding Crowd and is reading The Mayor of Casterbridge. She is captivated by his work – which is such a pleasure for me to see…

      I so love all the moments from Hardy’s novels you have revived in my mind’s eye. For some reason, one image that always lingers so vividly for me is of the thyme growing in the nooks and crannies of the path outside Bathsheba’s house, so that when anyone walked there, its scent was released by their passing tread. When I mentioned that to my daughter – her eyes shone and she said “Oh yes – that really stuck in my mind too!”

      Oh dear! I’ve rambled on! It’s so lovely to talk about Hardy! Many, many thanks for your truly wonderful comment, Valerie. I’m over the moon that this piece gave you such joy!


      • Melanie,
        what a treat your reply was – meat and drink to one starved of this sort of conversation….
        I re-read your wonderful piece of writing and then read it aloud to my husband… the artistry with which you connected census night and his poem was exquisite…

        Howe satisfying that your daughter should love Hardy… neither of my two children are interested in literature in spite of me reading aloud to them every night until the youngest was seventeen, when we finished with Doris Lessing’s Shikasta… we had great fun together, but they never acquired a taste for literature..so much for what the baby-books say !

        Your mention of the thyme on the path releasing it’s scent when it was crushed by footsteps reminded me of Francis Bacon’s essay on gardens and his advice to plant a lawn of camomile and thyme and other creeping herbs for their fragrance when walked upon..

        And talking of Bathsheba – did you enjoy the film – I loved it – one of the few films that actually seemed to capture the feeling of the book… as also The Go-between – with the same cast of Alan Bates and Julie Christie… and the incomparable Margaret Leighton, who with one lift of her eyebrow exposed the whole excruciating situation..one of the truly exquisite films…

        And yes, yes, I too loved Adam Nicolsons. Sissinghurst… the description of how the landscape evolved after the ice age I found rather moving and loved the account of how those rose-red bricks were made over several years…I find it has actually made me look at plants and trees differently now after reading how they evolved to protect themselves from predators and animals grazing, and climate and so on…
        And now I’m about to explore your blog on Adam Bede – Gerge Eliot is another of my specials !
        I hope I’m not moved to write you another tome or I shall become a bloggers nuisance.

        A PS… I wrote a little more fully about Dorset in my last but one blog, A is for Dictionary… and you might enjoy the one about Essex… Places in the heart, the previous month…presumptuous of me….but you seem such a kindred spirit…

        • Valerie – Thank you so much for another wonderful read. I love messages like these (meat and drink to me too) – so please don’t hold back! Apologies for taking a while to reply – weekends are usually especially busy, and don’t leave much space for blogging… First of all, thank you so much for your further lovely, kind words about this post. I put my writing out there with quite a feeling of trepidation – so it’s hugely uplifting to receive such an amazing and encouraging response.

          So interesting about the Francis Bacon essay. I’ve read in gardening books about planting thyme and camomile on lawns and paths – and, especially in light of that connection to Far from the Madding Crowd, I thought it was a lovely idea. So, I was delighted when the thyme we planted in a pot spread between the paving stones of our patio. It didn’t really take off there – but, who knows, I may still have my own Bathsheba-path yet!

          Oh yes – I did enjoy the film! It’s a long, long while since I last saw it – but I carry with me that special atmosphere it created. And who could forget that almost surreal sword scene, with Terence Stamp as Sergeant Troy! The Go-Between film had a deeply abiding effect too – such strong impressions. Alan Bates was great too as Michael Henchard in the TV series of The Mayor of Casterbridge (lots of memories of watching that in my A Level English Lit classes!) That time was my first introduction to the novel – and indeed to Hardy – so Alan Bates kind of became Michael Henchard for me! When we first visited Dorchester during the holiday mentioned in the post, it was wonderful to feel some of the novel’s scenes echoing through the streets.

          Wonderful that you’ve read Adam Nicolson’s Sissinghurst book too! That chapter about the evolution of the Kentish Weald landscape – all the tree species arriving, spreading, each finding and fighting for their niche – gripped and enthralled me too. One of the most fascinating and memorable parts of the book for me. I know the Kentish woodlands well; my husband and I spent many a day coppicing in various nature reserves, and learning the history – of both the natural landscape and the local community – that the trees hold. Adam Nicolson’s writing added a whole bring-to-life, new perspective of discovery. I also loved the way in which he investigated how the roads in the area developed first through wild animal, and then people, migration. Many of my ancestors go way, way back as Kentish farm workers – fascinating to think of some of them being amongst those patterns of movement dictated by the natural push and pull of the land.

          I so look forward to re-visiting your blog and reading your posts, Valerie – they do indeed reach out to me with that kindred-spirit appeal!


          • I feel as if I’ve discovered two soul-mates but like a doomed Hardy character I’ve come along too late… you had this conversation two years ago. Even so, I want to chip in and say: 1. I used to visit a friend in Chaldon Herring regularly and we always looked for Hardy vestiges in the surrounding villages, including the Manor House where Tess and Angel spent their honeymoon, which seemed suitably ill starred and sombre. 2. I didn’t remember Bathsheba’s thyme path but I once mentioned the butterflies in Casterbridge who flew straight down High Street and was delighted that my daughter picked up the reference and loved that oo. and 3. Two of my daughters are great fans of Hardy and particularly love Far from the Madding Crowd. I took three teenagers to see the new film just the other day and they spent the long journey home discussing all the bits of the book the film had missed out, and how different the actors were from the characters they had imagined.

            • Hi Sarah – so glad you found our conversation! For me, it’s been so lovely to revisit it, and to read the great thoughts and experiences you’ve added… I’d forgotten the Casterbridge High Street butterflies – must look it up! Great that your daughter picked up the reference too. I will have to ask my daughter if she picked up on it when she read it! It was a great moment when, recently, she got to a certain mega-revelation in The Mayor of Casterbridge (I won’t mention any spoilers, just in case anyone reading this hasn’t read the novel yet..) and she rushed downstairs, gasping with huge surprise. She just had to share her astonishment! Lovely to hear your daughters are also Thomas Hardy fans. My daughter particularly loves Far from the Madding Crowd too! We’re both hoping to find a chance to catch the new film soon… Sounds like it inspired a wonderful conversation about the book on your homeward journey – so heartening to read that there are more teenagers totally inspired by Hardy’s work – sometimes my daughter feels quite glum about being the only one in her English Lit class who really loves his writing!

              Lovely to “meet” another kindred spirit – if you’ve not already done so, do visit Valerie’s beautiful blog – her posts are an absolute feast of wonderful writing, thoughts, memories and insight…

  6. What a beautiful post. I think it is the best thing I’ve ever read on Hardy. I came across your blog recently when looking for the Ted Hughes poem about the arrival of swifts (because the swifts haven’t arrived here this year – so the globe is not still working) and since then I’ve been reading and savouring your thoughtful posts. I share your love for books and nature and think you write very well about both. I am sad sad to have discovered your blog only once you have stopped writing it. I hope things are going well for you.

    • Sarah, thank you so much for this – I can’t tell you how much of a lift your kind words have given me!

      You’ve actually stumbled across the blog at a very timely moment as, just a few hours before you posted your comments, I had managed – (at long, long last!) – to write a draft for a new post, which should be going up on the blog very, very soon. I had hoped to get back here at the end of last week, to resurrect the blog and to answer your lovely comments – but, typical to how things always seem to go, circumstances had other plans! My son has severe learning difficulties, and during half term, I tend to be “on call” every minute of the day, with very little chance to find moments where I can concentrate fully on other things. He’s back at school today, so just grabbing this opportunity before home time!

      Thanks so much for you kind messages, and for the very timely boost they’ve given me in helping back over the threshold into blogging again (feeling very rusty!) Welcome to Bookish Nature! Very much looking forward to further chats in the future. After a tough year for our family, it’s so great to be thinking ahead with new plans for Bookish Nature. Lots of new ideas floating around in my head – and more than a few old, half written posts from long ago waiting to be finished!

      I hope your swifts have arrived. So worrying when there’s no sign of them, and time is ticking. I saw one, quite by chance, dash over our garden, travelling northwards, at the end of April – but it wasn’t hanging around. “Ours” were back a little later than usual (and so were beginning to worry me too) – we first saw them in the second week of May.

      Happy reading/ nature watching!

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