Thomas Hardy was born on June 2 1840, at Higher Bockhampton in Dorset. His father was a master mason and builder. When he was 16 years old, Hardy helped his father with some architectural drawings for the restoration of Woodsford Castle. The owner, an architect himself, was so impressed by the Thomas's work that he took him on as an apprentice.
Hardy later moved to London to work for a prominent architect. This was when he began writing poetry, but his work was rejected by publishers. Due to poor health, Hardy was soon forced to return to Dorset.
In 1870 Hardy was sent to draw plans for a church restoration at St. Juliot, near Boscastle, in Cornwall. This was where he met Emma Gifford, the sister-in-law of the local vicar. They were married in 1874 and she encouraged him to continue writing.
Success ultimately came with “Far From the Madding Crowd”, a novel set in Puddletown, which he renamed Weatherby, close to where he had grown up. This novel provided the financial success that enabled Hardy to give up his architectural practice and to write full-time.
Success continued but, in 1896, his dark novel, “Jude the Obscure” led to a storm of controversy. It was seen as an attack on the institution of marriage: so much so that the Bishop of Wakefield burned his copy. The book also caused a rift between the author and his wife. This was not fully resolved before her death.
Hardy died on January 11 1928 at Max Gate, his house in Dorchester. Even though he had remarried after her death, he had expressed a wish to be buried next to Emma. However his body was finally buried in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey, after his heart had been removed to lie in Emma's grave at Stinsford.
Hardy had to create a kind of trade mark for his fiction that made his works distinguishable from the writings of other professional novelists. This trade mark came to be Wessex.
When Hardy's first published novel, “Desperate Remedies”, appeared in 1869, the author had not yet created the fictional region of Wessex. The region was born of a process of evolution taking several decades. He first used Wessex, by name, in “Far from the Madding Crowd” where he wrote that Greenhill Fair was the Nijnii Novgorod of Wessex. In his construction of the region, Hardy used a mixture of real and fictional names for landscape features, towns and villages
The real county of Dorset, the centre of Hardy's Wessex, was an ideal place for this sort of treatment. Until the middle of the 20th century, Dorset was one of the poorest and most sparsely populated counties of England. The first railway station in Dorset was built around the middle of the 19th century, and until then Dorset was undiscovered by the world outside. The consequent atmosphere of insularity can be seen clearly in many of Hardy's novels, most notably “Under the Greenwood Tree”.
In “A Pair of Blue Eyes”, Hardy relies heavily on his own life story. He sets it in the village of Endelstow (St Juliot) in Lyonesse (Cornwall). Two men are in competition for the hand of Elfride Swancourt (Emma). One is an architect, as was Hardy at that time and the other is a writer, the profession to which Hardy aspired. Of course, there are many other strands of similarity between the novel and Hardy's own courtship.
The fictional Mellstock in “Under the Greenwood Tree” is based closely upon the real Stinsford and Bockhampton, the area where Hardy was born and brought up. In fact the house of the Deweys is obviously Hardy's own birthplace. As the number of Wessex novels grew, some characters made reappearances. One of these was Mr Shiner in “Under the Greenwood Tree”, who was to appear later in “The Mayor of Casterbridge”.
In “Desperate Remedies”, many places can be easily identified. Mellstock is a combination of Bockhampton and Stinsford, whilst Anglebury is the real Wareham. Weatherbury is Puddletown, whilst Casterbridge is Dorchester. The tranter's cottage is believed to Hardy's Cottage in Higher Bockhampton. Yalbury Wood is really Yellowham Wood, whilst Gray's Bridge is a real bridge close to Dorchester.
Farmer Boldwood, one of Bathsheba's suitors in “Far from the Madding Crowd” later appears in “The Mayor of Casterbridge”. Weatherbury Upper Farm can be identified as the real Waterston House in Puddletown and Casterbridge Union House is Damers Hospital in Dorchester. But the great barn is a composite, based on a number of old tithe barns such as the one at Abbotsbury. The site of Greenhill Fair is believed to be at Woodbury Hill, near Bere Regis.
Unusually for Hardy, most of his novel, “The Hand of Ethelberta”, is set in London. However, Swanage appears as Knollsea, Bournemouth as Sandbourne, Anglebury as Wareham and Corfe Castle becomes Corvesgate Castle.
In “The Return of the Native”, Black Heath, which used to stretch all the way from Hardy's house to the edge of Bournemouth, becomes Egdon Heath, whilst East Egdon is really Affpuddle. The description of Lower Bhompston Farm resembles that of Hardy's cottage in Bockhampton, although the location may have been slightly altered.
The King comes to Budmouth Regis for his holidays in “The Trumpet Major”, a novel set during the Napoleanic Wars. At that time, the King certainly holidayed in the real town of Weymouth. The short stories in “Wessex Tales” are all set in Hardy's familiar homeland, with many now familiar locations. For example Owermoigne is Nether Moynton, Stickleford is Tincleton, Ringsworth is Ringstead, Port Bredy is Bridport, Evershead is Evershot, Chalk Newton is Maiden Newton and Shottsford is Blandford Forum.
Some places are composites, such as Holmestoke which is a combination of East and West Holme and East Stoke. And there are places which are real, such as Rushy Pond, which was near Hardy's birthplace. The Cove is Lulworth Cove, and Higher Crowstairs can be found on Waterston Ridge, to the north of Dorchester.
“A Laodicean” is set on the Somerset coast; Hardy described Somerset as Outer Wessex. Thus Dunster becomes Markham and Stancy Castle is based on Dunster Castle. “Jude the Obscure” takes place in North Wessex, which is Berkshire and Oxfordshire, where Wantage becomes Alfredston, Letcombe Basset is Hardy's Cresscombe, Fawley is his Marygreen, Newbury becomes Kennetbridge and Oxford is thinly disguised as Christminster.
Barclay's Bank in Dorchester was the Mayor's house in Casterbridge in “The Mayor of Casterbridge”. “The Woodlanders” is set amid the forests of Little Hintock near Sherborne, in a hamlet which Hardy names Sherton-Abbas. In “The Well-Beloved” Jocelyn Pierston is the sculptor son of an Isle of Portland stone quarry owner, but Hardy refers to the island as the Isle of Slingers – a reference to an old story that the inhabitants used to throw stones to discourage strangers.
Other locations in Dorset, which became South Wessex to hardy, are Beaminster and Bere Regis, which became respectively Enminster and Kingsbere. But Wessex extended into other counties. Wiltshire was Mid Wessex, where Stonehenge was situated and Salisbury became Melchester. Hampshire was Upper Wessex, with Basingstoke as Stoke Barehills and Weyhill as Weedon-Priors. Devon was West Wessex and Cornwall was Outer Wessex.
In one of Hardy's best-loved novels, “Tess of the d'Urbervilles”, many places in and around the village of Wool can be easily identified. The magnificent 17th century gabled Manor House becomes the home of the D'Urbevilles. There is an ancient family plot in the local graveyard, where the Turbevilles are buried – an unmistakeable similarity of name. The empty, open coffin of Abbot Richard de Maners among the ruins of Bindon Abbey is where the fictional, sleepwalking Angel Clare carries Tess. And there are many, many more interesting references.
Of course, there are so many references by Thomas Hardy to various places in Dorset, both under their real names or under thinly disguised fictional names, that it would take a book to write about them all. These are just a few titillating details for modern explorers of Hardy's Wessex.
For more information on the life and works of Thomas Hardy visit the Hardy Society website