Why Thomas Hardy still matters

THOMAS Hardy has always been part of my life. When I was a child, there were many still around in West Dorset, who had known him personally. Some told their stories to my uncle, the Hardy scholar and antiquarian James Stevens Cox, who recorded their memories, providing valuable information for subsequent biographers.

They included people as varied as Hardy’s chauffeur and his barber, Gertrude Bugler (the original Tess on stage) and Lady Hester Pinney, whose work as a magistrate and Guardian of the workhouse had brought her into contact with some who remembered Martha Brown, and the notorious murder at Birdsmoorgate in the Marshwood Vale. It was the execution of Martha Brown, the last woman hung in public in Dorset, that was seen by the 16 year old Thomas Hardy, haunted him throughout his life and influenced his most famous and popular novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Hardy died in 1928, and the people who told their stories in the 1960s were already very old. The last link with Hardy was Norrie Woodhall, Gertrude Bugler’s sister. Norrie, who died in 2011 aged nearly 106 years, was the last surviving member of the original Hardy Players.

I grew up in a New Forest village without mains drainage, where many people still had no electricity or running water. For many in our village everyday life was not so very different from that of many of Hardy’s childhood contemporaries.

Later I studied Hardy at school, both the poems and some of the novels, focusing on Far From The Madding Crowd, which probably remains my favourite, famously and memorably filmed with Julie Christie, Terence Stamp, Peter Finch and Alan Bates, and newly remade with Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene.

Many people say they enjoy Hardy on television or film but that the books are “too miserable” or even “too grim.” Cinema and TV audiences generally want their costume dramas pretty rather than gritty.

It is true that the last – and some believe the greatest – of the Wessex novels, Jude the Obscure, is grim and tragic. Hardy and Dickens both wrote from personal experience. Dickens’ Bleak House is at least as important for its portrait of extreme poverty in the brickfields and the London slums as it is for the frustrations of the Court of Chancery or the stultifying lives of the aristocracy. With a father who was in and out of debt – and the debtors’ prison – Dickens knew what he was talking about.

Hardy grew up in rural Dorset where the reality was poverty that was far from picturesque, at a time when you could be transported for seeking decent wages or face the horrors of the workhouse as the only alternative to starvation. He knew all too well that there was little that was charming about life in a large family in a two room cottage, with work hard to come by, education beyond eight or nine years only for the lucky and no prospect of improving your lot. Many women died in childbirth, unmarried sisters or older siblings took over the care of younger children and the husband/father too often sought relief in the local inn. That is the background that blights the lives of Jude and Tess; it is the life that Eustacia Vye wants to escape.

It is no accident that the greatest writer of Victorian urban life came from a chaotic background of poverty and a dysfunctional family, and that the finest novelist of rural life knew poverty, class discrimination and the struggle to achieve a decent education in a world where the “deserving poor” were supposed to know their place (and stay in it).

Last weekend there was a newspaper story about a Yorkshire Dales farming couple and their seven children, who all have farm and household duties, but also play and run free on the dales and along the river and look as healthy and happy as children should. The lives of the Yorkshire children are not so very different from what we may imagine for the children of Bathsheba and Gabriel, learning by their mistakes and accidents and using their imagination in play and adventures.

Too many children today are over-protected, their every minute occupied – in the process their imaginations have no time to fly free. Hardy and Dickens speak to us in the 21st century because they show life as they knew it in all its chaos and drama – they urge us to think and to make the most of what we have.

Hardy’s “darkling thrush” still sings – we need to be able to hear it.

Fanny Charles