Spotlight on Thomas Hardy
By Megan Powell, Hannah Spruce and Michael Calder
Born on 2 June 1840, in Dorset, England, Thomas Hardy was a renowned novelist and poet during the Victorian era. He published an extensive spectrum of work within both literary mediums, but primarily gained traction as a novelist during his lifetime with particular note placed upon his scathing commentary of Victorian society. Hardy was particularly struck by the decline of rural communities, as many contemporaries postulated the benefits of industrialisation, capitalism and the urban lifestyle.
Thomas Hardy spent his youth amongst rural communities, as his father was a stonemason and builder within Dorset. After receiving several years of tuition from his mother, Thomas began formal education and showed academic potential, becoming an architectural apprentice at sixteen. Eventually, Thomas moved to London, as the Victorian era expected young men would, and gained status as an architect, but never felt comfortable amongst the city's high walls and buildings. Some short years later, the countryman abandoned urban lifestyles, escaping to his home and dedicating himself to writing.
Hardy was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature and was made a member of the Order of Merit in 1910. However, his first attempt at publication was disastrous, failing to ever find a publisher. The manuscript was destroyed and never revisited, but Hardy claimed that semblances of the work could be found within his consequential publications, such as Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891).
Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Originally published in a serialised format, Tess of the d’Urbervilles trod uncertain ground upon publication, despite later success. As a novel which challenged the norms of Victorian society, particularly the sexual promiscuity and predatory nature of the patriarchy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles was controversial, if not revolutionary. However, as Thomas Hardy’s fictional triumph, Tess of the d’Urbervilles has cemented its position amongst Victorian literature’s most distinguished novels.
Set within the fictitious area of Wessex, Hardy’s novel focalises the deteriorating circumstances of his protagonist, Tess. The novel opens with an undeniable tone of tragedy, as Tess, the daughter of a drunk and peasant stock, costs her family their minimal income and inadvertently causes the death of their only horse. Wracked with guilt, Tess attempts to make amends, accepting the position of poultry keeper upon an estate. However, tragedy pursues Tess ruthlessly, and making amends can be difficult when a bleak figure stands between you and happiness.
Far From The Madding Crowd
Far From the Madding Crowd (1874) was the novel written by Hardy which fuelled his great literary success. It was his fourth published novel, which featured in the Cornhill Magazine anonymously. After receiving great positivity, Hardy revised the novel and produced what many readers today are familiar with.
The novel features themes of love and betrayal, familiarly set in Wessex. This rural countryside allows the novel to have a natural, honest setting, presenting the truth and reality of a farming community. Following Bathsheba Everdene, Hardy conveys her relationships with not just the environment but also members of the community, including her neighbour, a shepherd and a soldier.
Hardy’s poem, ‘Neutral Tones,’ is a melancholic reflection of an ending relationship. Hardy uses the imagery of the seasons changing into winter to emphasise the decay of the love once shared by the couple. Despite the theme of loss and heartbreak, the tone of the poem, as stated in the title, is ‘neutral’ as Hardy reflects on a realistic breakdown of a relationship without exaggerated emotion.
There is an absence of colour and vibrancy within the poem to represent the stagnation of the relationship, with the winter setting emphasising how it has reached its natural conclusion. The partner’s smile becomes the ‘deadest thing’ and ‘bitter’ to emphasize how the person's perception has become warped and pessimistic. The persona is drained and altered from this experience, but despite the bitterness there is a clarity gained from the circumstances. Hardy masterfully intertwines descriptions of nature with the emotions felt by the persona, whilst emphasising the couple’s insignificance within the vast landscape.
‘The Voice’ is a nostalgic and mournful poem, written following the death of Hardy’s estranged wife, Emma. There is an eerie tone to the poem as the persona seems haunted by the memory and presence of their former lover. The poem reflects on the passage of time and the differences between the expectations and reality of life. The persona is envisaging a version of their lover who they had lost long before their death and the poem serves as an attempt at reconciliation which is too late. The frequent questioning highlights the estrangement and uncertainty of the persona, as they attempt to recall and reclaim this former important figure in their lives.
The absence of the physical self and instead the lover’s ‘voice’ offers a realistic portrayal of grief, as the persona attempts to construct a version of them with their faded memories. Ultimately, Hardy portrays a melancholic depiction of loss by emphasising the lasting impact of people within our lives even after we lose touch.