Thomas Hardy: a love/hate relationship no more

Today we visited two more National Trust sites: Hardy’s Cottage, where Thomas Hardy, the author, was born; and Max Gate, the home he designed and lived in later in life. Had it not been for my sister’s interest in seeing the sites, I might not have visited the locations due to my love/hate relationship with Thomas Hardy’s literature, and I would have missed out on reading the interesting and at times witty correspondence from some of Max Gate’s most notable visitors.

Love/hate is probably too strong of a term; love/dread is a more accurate description of my relationship with Thomas Hardy’s literature. One of the requirements when studying for my Masters in English was to pass an oral exam conducted by a panel of university professors covering over fifty-five pieces of literature and seventy-five poems. Included in the list of literature was Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, one the most depressing stories I have ever read. I have horrible memories of trudging through page after page of bleak circumstances that plagued the doomed protagonists, Jude and his wife (and cousin) Sue—society’s ostracism; their abject poverty; and the death/suicide of their children. Finishing the novel was a relief. Then the next semester in my British Literature class two of Hardy’s novels, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbirdge, were required reading. They also were not a light read. I therefore was not a Thomas Hardy fan.

However, I love my sister and therefore happily drove us to Thomas Hardy’s cottage, which is located in Thorncombe Wood, about four miles outside of the city of Dorchester. Once again Spiteful Nelly of Goggle Maps routed us onto narrow country roads through farmland and rolling hills, as opposed to the wider A35 highway. But to her credit we had lovely views and arrived at the small car park without incident. The cottage can be accessed on a path through the woods, which we used on our way back. On our way there we stuck to the road, and found the cottage nestled in a wooded area at the back of a small neighborhood of custom homes. The gardens are not extensive, but the overgrown vegetation and trees surrounding the cottage make it seem like it is all on its own—and how it might have been in 1840 when Thomas Hardy was born. Unfortunately I could not go inside of the quaint cob and thatch cottage as there was a smokey fire in the parlour and after my breathing problems I wasn’t going to take a chance of getting sick again. Instead I kept to the small garden and took a peak in the tool shed, stopping to photograph the moss.

What can I say; I live in Southern California where we do not have bright green, textured tufts of moss growing on porous surfaces, turning an old gray wood water barrel into a continuously changing piece of nature’s art.

Our stay was brief and we then headed for Max Gate, which is located a short distance from the town center of Dorchester. Thomas Hardy, who was an architect before becoming a successful writer, designed the “austere but sophisticated town house” in 1885. Although the original furnishings were dispersed before the house became a National Trust property, the home still offers some unique architectural features, in particular the interior glass enclosure in the center of the house that provides natural light in the stairway to the second floor. I also enjoyed the decorative tiles on the fireplace in one of Hardy’s three studies; and despite my personal feelings about his literature, the collection of correspondence written by notable persons and authors, who had visited the Max Gate, are a testament to Hardy’s significant contribution to the British literary cannon.

What I most enjoyed were reading the numerous letters and articles that were displayed in a binder sitting on the dinning room table. All of them gave insight into Thomas Hardy, the man, the writer, and the host; as well as his wife, and the author who penned the correspondence or article. However, I only photographed one letter from the novelist E. M. Forster to his mother, as I found the writing to be most entertaining; and an article written by Marie Stopes, author, sex-educationist and pioneer of birth-control, because the article changed my mind about Thomas Hardy, who impressively supported sex education in schools way back in 1894 (see photographs below). For that alone I forgive him the pained hours of reading his disheartening literature!

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