There is nothing quite like bringing a story to life by walking in the footsteps of its characters, taking in the sights that they too would recognize. I had the fortunate opportunity to do just that not too long ago, touring Hardy Country, the area surrounding Dorchester that English author Thomas Hardy called home. Better known as “Wessex” in his writings, the area provided the back-drop to many of his stories.
The literary tour of Dorchester proper highlighted various landmarks used by Hardy. At the site of the old prison, I learned of how a young Hardy witnessed the hanging of a woman. Later, this woman would serve as inspiration for Hardy’s character, Tess, from Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Many other references to Hardy’s works could be seen throughout Dorchester, including the Hangman’s Cottage which appeared in “The Withered Arm.” Viewing these sites was more than a backdrop to the works of Hardy; it gave perspective. In such a bucolic setting, it was hard to imagine the traumatic events often written about by Hardy. This is in part his genius, I suppose, underscoring that beneath the surface there is always a dark side waiting to be exposed.
Nestled in a small valley outside Dorchester, I happened upon the Hardy family cottage where the author spent his youth. The location was remote even by modern standards; in Hardy’s childhood it must have felt as if it were one thousand miles from anywhere. The simple thatched roof structure, with its low ceilings, clung to the valley as a morning fog, melting in with the surroundings. More than just a great example of Hardy’s humble beginnings, it also delineated the progress of technology in his lifetime. From a simple cottage in 1840 to his home at Max Gate, the effects of technological change were very clear. In essence, the trips between Hardy’s childhood cottage and his home at Max Gate showed the dramatic changes in society witnessed by Victorian England.
My final stop was at St. Michael’s Church in Stinford, where Hardy’s heart (sans body) is interred. The parish graveyard was small; enclosed by a stone wall it was quiet and demanded respect. This old cemetery felt hallowed by the age of the tombs and those buried there, and in some respects has its own Poet’s Corner of sorts – buried within feet of Hardy is Cecil Day Lewis, former Poet Laureate of England and father of Academy Award winning actor Daniel Day Lewis. Hardy chose to be in the same grave as his first wife, and his second wife was later buried atop both of them, an eerie ménage-a-trois for the afterlife.
Dorchester and its surroundings are alive with the life and foils experienced by Hardy and his characters. As I turned my back to the town, I felt a bit of passing nostalgia knowing that I may never return, much as the Mayor of Casterbridge must have felt as he enacted his exile from the town that came to disregard his existence. But a visit there is no further away from the bookshelf. When I read Hardy, I’m taken back to Dorchester, the imagery of his words bringing the town and its people to life again, my memories resuscitated with each turn of the page.