Where is Thomas Hardy's Wessex?

The view across the garden to Hardy's Cottage, the birthplace in 1840 of novelist and poet Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy is famous for his novels of nineteenth century rural life. Rich in description and dialect, they are written museums of a vanished culture. Hardy set them in Wessex, an imaginary region mapped onto the geography of south and south-west England.

Locating Hardy

Hardy was born in 1840 near Dorchester. The son of a stonemason, he was schooled locally. He played the fiddle well enough to perform at church services and local celebrations, and taught at the Sunday school.

Hardy moved to London after becoming an architect but was inspired by the customs and traditions of the people and places he knew best. 

Inventing Wessex

1873 saw the publication of Far From the Madding Crowd, Hardy’s first major success and his first novel set in Wessex.

His stories now had a recognisable territory. He both borrowed and invented names for the towns, villages and countryside in which they were set.

Hardy undertook extensive research and kept a number of notebooks. Among them was the ‘Facts Notebook’, started after his return to Dorset in 1883. In this he recorded snippets from the local newspaper which he turned into plots. 

A dream-country

Readers were fascinated by Wessex and guides to its literary landmarks soon appeared. 

This led to Hardy worrying that Wessex was interpreted too literally, and in the preface to the 1895 edition of Far From the Madding Crowd, he called it ‘a merely realistic dream-country’. He was a storyteller, not a reporter or historian. 

Realism and the real

Hardy’s Wessex novels are examples of naturalism, a branch of realism influenced by scientific observation.

Wessex is like a petri dish in which Hardy explores what it is to be human. However, even realist writers exaggerate and invent in order to keep their readers reading. Novels can only ever give us an impression of reality.

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