Thomas Hardy: The World of His Novels, by J. B. Bullen

Jane Thomas takes the Wessex trail

August 29, 2013

Thomas Hardy has been powerfully and inextricably identified with the region in which his work is mostly set. A blue plaque – one of the few to commemorate a fictional character – marks the “home” of Michael Henchard, thus forming a material link between an actual 18th-century brick house in South Street, Dorchester (now a branch of Barclays Bank) and the home of an imaginary citizen of Casterbridge.

In this beautifully illustrated and immensely readable book, J. B. Bullen sets out to identify the actual places and settings that inspired Hardy, and explores the “expressive relationship” between the villages, buildings and landscapes of the “partly real, partly dream” country of Wessex and the characters that populate it. Beginning with the “articulate architecture” of Far From the Madding Crowd, Bullen’s odyssey takes us across the expressively “haggard” Darwinian landscape of The Return of the Native’s Egdon Heath (Puddletown) to the tightly realised topography of The Mayor of Casterbridge (“more Dorchester than Dorchester itself”). On we go, northwards, to The Woodlanders and Melbury Osmond – the land of Hardy’s mother – before descending into the painterly landscape of Tess’ Blackmoor Vale, shaped in Hardy’s imagination by Turner, Frazer, Ruskin, Wagner and solar fertility myths, and finally into the “Brown Melancholy”, dead medievalism and “freezing negative” of Christminster (Oxford). The seventh and final chapter explores the “Poems of 1912-13” in the magisterial landscape of North Cornwall, where Hardy becomes a character in his own narrative in a location whose every element is a graphic expression of loss, guilt and remorse.

Hardy becomes a character in his own narrative in a location whose every element is a graphic expression of loss, guilt and remorse

Bullen’s mission is to recuperate the “sense of pleasure” and the “enormous positive vitality” in Hardy’s work that has been lost in the prevailing critical and popular concentration on gloom and despair. This he locates firmly in Wessex: a visionary place “charged with stories, legends and myths, enhanced with light, colour, sounds, texture and smells”, which plays an active role in the plot and the dispositions of Hardy’s “psychologically plausible” characters. He foregrounds the significance of the built as well as the natural environment in Hardy’s work and explores what the experience of “being there” might bring to our understanding of it.

Travelling to the locations, Bullen insists, is to participate in the transformative experience of art, whereby the real becomes the visionary through the medium of Hardy’s language. The poetics of loss works only because what it mourns is so intensely realised on the page, thereby, perhaps, inducing in the reader an intense desire to capture the intangible spirit of Hardy’s art – art’s “unique mode of reaching”, as Walter Pater put it – by hunting out its points of origin. However, to do so is to be unsatisfied and this is perhaps most clearly demonstrated in the intensely biographical final chapter on the “Poems of 1912-13”. Little is gained, when reading the superbly expressive line, “while I/Saw morning harden upon the wall” (The Going), to be told that “the soft ‘call’ resonating against the hard ‘wall’ precisely identifies the location [as] the wall of Hardy’s bedroom in Max Gate”. Does it? And does it really matter? Hardy’s art may indeed be “just one step away from autobiography”, but that transformative step is what makes the difference.

Hardy became increasingly aware of the book-selling potential of literary tourism, collaborating with Hermann Lea on the first illustrated guidebook to Wessex in 1913. Almost exactly 100 years later, the Dorset tourist board and the Hardy Country initiative could do worse than promote Bullen’s book, which is an excellent guide to the man and to the places in which his unique authorial voice may be fleetingly located.

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