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Wonderful Wessex

posted on 03 Jun 2016

Wonderful Wessex

My parents have lived very near Dorchester for over thirty years and before that we spent many happy family holidays in Dorset. As to be expected, the whole of Dorset is marketed as ' Hardy Country' and the author's use of thinly disguised familiar towns and landmarks has been very helpful with this. 

I think that I first read 'The Woodlanders' by Thomas Hardy when I was sixteen because a boyfriend was studying it as an A level text and as a city boy he was somewhat besotted by the romance of living and working in a rural idyll. I can remember a long hot summer walk across the fields from Dorchester and ending up in Thorncombe Wood, the very place that inspired the novel. The walk ended at the little thatched cottage in Higher Bockhampton with a picturesque garden brimming with daisies, hollyhocks and wallflowers where Hardy was born and lived until the age of thirty four, now a National Trust property and open to the public. 

When we went on a favourite walk to Maiden Castle near Dorchester, my dad would always remark on the link to the film version of 'Far from the Madding Crowd' where Sergeant Troy played by Terence Stamp dazzled Bathsheba with his magnificent sword skills and would also remind us that a beautiful nearby beach was used as the location for Sergeant Troy swimming out to sea and faking his disappearance. A trip to busy Weymouth always reminds me of Tess and her illicit meeting with the dastardly Alec Durbeville. The market town of Dorchester itself is the setting for The Mayor of Casterbridge, scene of the sorry rise and fall of Michael Henchard. The very good Dorset County museum has a dedicated exhibition to Thomas Hardy including a faithful reconstruction of his third study from his house at Max Gate which includes many personal possessions including the pens he used to write Tess of the Durbevilles and Jude the Obscure. His influence is everywhere in the town with his statue at the centre. We regularly visit ' The Trumpet Major' pub for a meal and I sometimes wonder how many people there have read that book, or even heard of the author.

Despite so many visits to the area over the years, I have only just visited ' Max Gate' the imposing Victorian house where Hardy lived and worked between 1885 until his death in 1928. It is particularly interesting because as an architect long before he became a writer, he designed it himself The house has been occupied since his death until recently and was first donated to The National Trust by his sister in 1940. It has been partly open to the public since 1994. This has meant that others have put their mark on the place in terms of décor and most of the furnishing but otherwise there are quite a lot of the original features.

As with all National Trust properties, it is sometimes difficult to ignore the very helpful and vociferous volunteers who want to tell visitors all about the place. We opted to drift about at our leisure but kept hearing them pronounce to others which disturbed the atmosphere somewhat. They had also made the odd decision to locate the inevitable shop in the small kitchen including a large TV constantly playing a Hardy inspired film (several of which were for sale). The large living room had many original features and felt quite authentic until I spotted a selection of paperback Hardy books on a bookshelf – why? This really jarred with me, perhaps I am being fussy but surely they might have used some older hardback books which are easy to find?

We climbed the very steep stairs to the part of the house where his first wife, Emma, spent much of her time, perhaps to get away from him who knows? She died up there in a very modest little room attended by her maid. I found that room very claustrophobic with its high windows and had a sense of her isolation and unhappiness because he was evidently not an easy man to live with , but visiting these private places always feels prurient and a bit uncomfortable. The best part of the visit for me was going into Hardy’s study and seeing the magnificent view over the large, mature and still well- tended garden that he had from the window with his desk underneath. It is easy to think about how living in this idyllic place he was able to imagine and write about his largely imagined but nevertheless familiar world of Wessex and how it chimed, and continues to resonate with readers. I could almost see him sitting there gazing out of the window, knowing that his wife was safely upstairs sewing or dozing. Luckily we were out of earshot from the volunteers at this point and so able to feel the stillness and isolation that he required to write some of his most memorable novels and poetry.      

Karen Argent

1st June 2016