Article abstract: One of the great English novelists and poets of the late nineteenth century, Hardy is representative of the Victorian trauma of the loss of God and the search for a new order.
Thomas Hardy was born in the hamlet of Higher Bockhampton on June 2, 1840. His father was a master mason, satisfied with his low social status and his rural surroundings. His mother, however, whom Hardy once called “a born bookworm,” encouraged Hardy’s education and urged him to raise his social standing. John Hicks, a Dorchester architect, took the boy on as a pupil at the age of sixteen. While in Hicks’s office, Hardy met the well-known poet William Barnes, who became an important influence on his career. Another early influence was the classical scholar Horace Moule, an essayist and reviewer. Moule encouraged Hardy to read John Stuart Mill and the iconoclastic Essays and Reviews (1860) by Frederick Temple and others, both of which contributed to the undermining of Hardy’s simple religious faith.
At age twenty-two, Hardy went to London to pursue his architectural training; by this time, however, he had also begun to write poetry and to entertain hopes of a literary career. In 1866, after reading Algernon Charles Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads: First Series (1866), he began an intensive two-year period of writing poetry. He submitted many poems for publication during this time, but none was published, although many of these were published later, when he began writing poetry only.
After returning to Bockhampton in 1867, Hardy decided to try his hand at writing fiction. His first effort in this genre, “The Poor Man and the Lady,” based on his perception of the difference between city and country life, received some favorable attention from publishers. After a discussion with novelist George Meredith, however, Hardy decided not to publish the work but, on Meredith’s advice, to strike out in a new direction. In imitation of the detective fiction of Wilkie Collins, he thus wrote Desperate Remedies (1871). In spite of his success Hardy did not stay with the melodramatic novel but instead took the advice of a reader who liked the rural scenes in his first work and wrote a pastoral idyll entitled Under the Greenwood Tree (1872). Although the book was well received by critics, its sales were poor. Yet Hardy had found his true subject—the rural English life of an imaginary area he called Wessex—and he was on his way to becoming a full-time writer. He began writing serials for periodicals, abandoned architecture, and launched himself on a career that was to last well into the twentieth century.
In 1874, Hardy married Emma Lavinia Gifford, a socially ambitious young woman who shared his interest in books. At about the same time, his first great novel, Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), appeared and received many favorable reviews. As a result, editors began asking for the works of Thomas Hardy. While living with his wife at Sturminister Newton in a small cottage, Hardy composed his next great novel, The Return of the Native (1878), and enjoyed what he later called the happiest years of his life. After a brief social life in London, Hardy returned to Dorset, had his home “Max Gate” built, and published the third of his five masterpieces, The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886). For the next several years, Hardy continued his writing, traveled with his wife, and read German philosophy.
By this time, Hardy himself was being seen as a philosophical novelist. What has been called his “philosophy,” however, can be summed up in an early (1865) entry in his notebooks: “The world does not despise us; it only neglects us.” The difference between Hardy and many nineteenth century artists who experienced a similar loss of faith is that while others such as William Wordsworth and Thomas Carlyle were able to achieve some measure of religious affirmation, Hardy never embraced a transcendent...
(The entire section is 4,294 words.)