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Short Biography

Portrait of Thomas Hardy : etching by William Strang

Portrait of Thomas Hardy from an etching by William Strang (1859-1921)

Thomas Hardy was born in Higher Brockhampton, Dorset, near the town of Dorchester. His father was a builder, and played violin in the local church and for local dances. His mother, though she had been brought up in poverty and had only a basic education, read widely, and encouraged Hardy to do the same. 

He attended the village school in Stinsford for a year (1848, 8), then the British School in Dorchester, run by a Nonconformist society. After one year there he moved to a commercial academy run by Isaac Last, where he was able to study Latin. He left school in 1856 (16), and was articled to the architect John Hicks in Dorchester. Here he began to teach himself Greek, with encouragement from the dialect poet and philologist William Barnes, who had a house next door to Hicks’ office. 

Horace Moule
At the same time, he met and was befriended by Horace Moule, the son of the Vicar of Fordington in Dorchester, who had been educated at Cambridge, and who now helped him with his studies, and encouraged him to write poetry. 

Witnesses a public execution
Public executions were still carried out in Dorchester, and he witnessed there the hanging of a woman, an event which haunted him for the rest of his life, and which he re-enacted in his novel Tess of the d’Urbevilles forty years later. 

In 1862 (22) he moved to London, where he found employment in the office of the architect Arthur Blomfield. He attended the opera, joined a choir and put himself through a course on the English poets. He also visited exhibitions of painting in South Kensington and at the National Gallery, starting a notebook in which he systematically distinguished the Schools of Painting. 

First writings
He wrote, mainly poetry, but failed to get anything published apart from a small satirical sketch, How I Built Myself a House, which was published by Chambers’ Journal, and for which he received £3 15s. 

First romance
A romance with Eliza Nicholls, a lady’s maid, inspired the sonnet sequence She to Him, but his involvement with her ended in 1867 (27). 

Dorchester : meets Emma Gifford
He returned to Dorchester in ill health, and began work once again for Hicks. He switched to writing novels, but his first work, The Poor Man and the Lady, was rejected by various publishers. On the death of Hicks in 1869 (29) the business was taken over by G.R.Crickmay, specialists in church restoration, and it was on one of his assignments for this firm that he met his future wife Emma Gifford in St Juliot’s, Cornwall. 

First novel published
His novel Desperate Remedies was published anonymously by William Tinsley in 1871 (31) in three volumes, the expense of printing guaranteed by Hardy. It was favourably reviewed in both the Athenaeum and the Morning Post. Encouraged, he offered Tinsley Under the Greenwood Tree (1872, 32), which also received enthusiastic reviews, and Tinsley asked him to write a serial for Tinsley’s Magazine. Later the same year Leslie Stephen, editor of the influential Cornhill Magazine, requested a serial. 

Moule committs suicide
Hardy’s friend Horace Moule committed suicide in 1873 (33). 

Marriage and further novels
Other novels followed, and in 1874 (34) he married Emma Gifford and had his first real commercial success with Far From the Madding Crowd

Max Gate
The Hardys moved often, living at various times in London, Swanage, Yeovil, Sturminster Newton, Tooting, Wimbourne Minster, Dorchester and finally, in 1886 (56), Max Gate, a house near Dorchester designed by Hardy himself and built by his brother, which remained his home until his death. 

Hardy study

Hardy's study at Max Gate

Further novels and tour of Italy
He continued to write novels, and in 1887 (47) made a tour of Italy, visiting the graves of Shelley and Keats. Conflicts with his editors in 1889 (49) forced him to make changes to Tess of the d’Urbevilles, which was not published until 1891 (51), when it was well received but also heavily criticised. 

Jude the Obscure
In 1895 (55), when he published Jude the Obscure, the level of criticism was so severe that it contributed to his decision to stop writing novels altogether. The book also brought into the open a serious rift in his marriage, as Emma Hardy considered it to be an attack on the sanctity of marriage. 

He turned to poetry once again, and his first collection, Wessex Poems and Other Verses, was published in 1898 (58). Poems of the Past and the Present followed in 1901 (61), The Dynasts, a three volume epic poem, in 1904 (64), 1906 (66) and 1908 (68), and Time’s Laughingstocks and Other Verses in 1909 (69). 

Freedom of the Borough of Dorchester
In 1910 (70) he was awarded the Order of Merit, having previously refused a knighthood, and he received the freedom of the borough of Dorchester. 

Emma Hardy dies and he remarries
Emma Hardy died in 1912 (72), and in 1914 (74) he married Florence Dugdale, who had been his secretary since 1912 (72) and was just 34 years old. 

Hardy and Florence Dugdale

Further poetry
He published further volumes of poetry, including Satires of Circumstance (1914, 74), Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (1917, 77), Late Lyrics and Earlier (1922, 82), Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles (1925, 85) and Winter Words, in Various Moods and Metres (1928, 88). 

He died in 1928 (88). His heart was removed and buried in Emma Hardy’s grave in Stinsford Churchyard. His body was cremated and the ashes buried in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey.

Thomas Hardy : Links to poetry

Ah! Are You Digging on my Grave?


Snow in the Suburbs

The Darkling Thrush

I Look into My Glass

The Man He Killed


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