Bronze statue of a seated man holding a hat
England,  History,  People

Looking for Thomas Hardy in Dorset

It would be hard to visit Dorset without at some point coming across the name of novelist and poet Thomas Hardy. He is inextricably linked to the county, so many places in which featured in his novels.

The county town of Dorchester became Casterbridge and featured in several of his novels, most notably of course The Mayor of Casterbridge. Beaminster became Emminster, home to Angel Clare in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Marnhull became Marlott, Tess’s home village. And many many more …

​On a recent visit to the county I found links to Hardy everywhere. Here are just three of them.

Max Gate

Hardy was born in 1840 in a small cottage not far from Dorchester, the son of a stonemason. Although he trained as an architect writing was his real passion; and he wrote his earliest novels while still living there, including Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd. After the latter proved successful he was able to give up architecture and devote himself to writing full-time. By 1885 he was making enough money to design this attractive Victorian villa on the outskirts of Dorchester, which his brother (a builder) built for him.

Large brick house
Max Gate

He lived here with his first wife Emma, even when they became somewhat estranged; she retreated to the attic rooms for much of the last years of her life. She died in 1912; despite their estrangement Hardy was distraught, but in 1914 he married his secretary Florence. Our guide at Max Gate hinted that there may have been a relationship between Hardy and Florence prior to Emma’s death.

Hardy wrote all his later novels at Max Gate including Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure and most of his poetry. He lived here, first with Emma and later with Florence, until his own death in 1928. I am always fascinated to visit the homes of writers and see where their works were created. It is maybe unfortunate that there are very few original items here from Hardy’s time; only a table and dresser in the sitting room remain as most pieces of furniture and his possessions were sold after his death.

But the house has been carefully fitted out by the National Trust who now own it. They have tried to ensure it looks as close to what it would have done in his time as is possible, based on old photos. And it was interesting for us, who live in a rather more modest house from the same era, to see the furniture and décor here.

I had read that you could only visit as part of a guided tour. However, after a talk from one guide out in the garden (mainly because we had arrived too early for our pre-booked slot) and a further talk from another guide in the drawing room, we were free to look around on our own. There are quite a few rooms to explore: the drawing room and dining room on the ground floor and various bedrooms and studies on the two floors above. Hardy used three different rooms as a study during his time living here; he extended the house some time after it was first built to give himself more room and somewhere quieter to work.

Dorset Museum

I mentioned that most of Hardy’s furniture and possessions had been sold prior to the National Trust acquiring Max Gate. The contents of his study ended up at the Dorset Museum in Dorchester; here they are displayed in an exact replica of the third and final room he used to write in. So this, rather than the desk displayed at Max Gate, is the one that Tess of the d’Urbervilles and many other novels were written on. You can’t go into the room, by the way; these photos were taken through the glass that protects them.

Replica of Hardy’s third and last study with original contents

There are also lots of other Hardy-related items on display at the museum. They include some sketches he did of the Dorset countryside as it appeared in his writing, like the one below. There are original manuscripts, first editions, his pens and a mug he drank from as a boy.

Pencil drawing of men ploughing a field with horses
Sketch by Hardy

Interestingly, the line of poetry quoted on this sketch isn’t from one of his own works but from Thomas Gray’s Elegy written in a Country Churchyard:

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,

Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke.

I found the whole museum to be excellently set out and full of interest; but the other parts of its collection can wait for a future post. Today is all about Hardy.

Evershot

We stayed in a lovely hotel, Summer Lodge, in the small village of Evershot to the north of Dorchester. Like many other Dorset villages, this one features in a Hardy novel; it is the Evershead of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Its pub, the Acorn Inn, is said to have been the inspiration for the Sow and Acorn. And a cottage next to the church, now known as Tess Cottage, is where she is said to have rested on her way to Emminster. It is probably little changed since Hardy’s time, apart from the coming of modern conveniences of course. The cottage now sports a TV aerial, there are telephone wires overhead and white lines painted on the road; but I am sure Hardy would still recognise it.

For a while Hardy had continued with some architectural work alongside his writing. In 1893 he was commissioned by his friend, the 6th Earl of Ilchester, to draw up the plans for extending the Dower House in Evershot which had been built in 1789. Today that house is Summer Lodge, the hotel where we stayed. I have no idea however which part was designed by Hardy and whether that included our bedroom there. I suspect not; it seemed to be part of the core of the house. But maybe the lovely dining room, where we ate breakfast and one memorable dinner (on my birthday) could have been part of the Hardy extension? I like to think so!

Large white house and lawns
Summer Lodge with the dining room on the left

I visited Dorset in 2021

22 Comments

  • wetanddustyroads

    I’m afraid, I don’t know Mr Hardy very well. But I do like to see how the rooms look where writers spent most of their time!
    And how beautiful is Evershot … beautiful church and the Summer Lodge looks like a great place to celebrate a birthday!!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you 🙂 I find there’s something fascinating about seeing where great literature was conceived and written! And yes, Summer Lodge was a lovely place for a special weekend away 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      We thought about going there but with relatively little time in the area and my husband NOT a Hardy fan it made sense to choose just one of his homes s I opted for the one where Tess and Jude had been written 🙂

  • giacomoasinello

    I know I’m going to be accused of blasphemy here, but I have always preferred Hardy to Dickens. Just so many great characters. Jude the Obscure, The Mayor of Casterbridge, not to mention Tess … Pure genius.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Well it’s not blasphemy to me – in fact, I completely agree with you 😀 I’ve never warmed to Dickens, I find many of his characters rather caricatured tbh. Hardy’s are much more rounded imho!

  • maristravels

    Should I ever visit Dorset again I shall go armed with a printed-off copy of this post. Very thorough, and your images, as usual, back it up so well. Tess Cottage looks spooky. I don’t think I’d like to wander around there at night. The bookshelves displayed as exactly like the ones I had to sell when I downsized. Looking at them again makes me long for the old home, the warmth of dark wood, nice desks and chairs, and my books nicely displayed. I should be grateful that I found a modern apartment that has its own garden – and nice neighbours – and I am, so I cling to that as I wipe down my white and glass furniture and pile the books on the floor again as the current bookshelves are full-up!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      That’s such a nice thing to say – thank you Mari 🙂 It’s a shame you had to leave a home you obviously loved but it sounds like you’ve found a comfortable place and it’s lovely to have your own garden.

  • margaret21

    This is a county I’ve only visited once, and would love to know better, especially after this seductive post. By the way, I love your inexplicable typo in the first line. So uncharacteristic!

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