Skip to main content

Recollections of Thomas Hardy

ISSUE:  Summer 1939

In the spring of last year there was held an auction sale at Max Gate of all the possessions of Thomas Hardy that had not been judged of sufficient interest to be included amongst the objects bequeathed by Mrs. Hardy to the County Museum at Dorchester. A report of the sale appeared in the local paper, and to one who had for many years known Mr. Hardy the account given of the final dispersal of his goods could not fail to be moving. “The Three Marys,” a small picture that had once been in the possession of Thomas Hardy’s neighbor, William Barnes, the Dorset dialect poet, fetched no more than four and a half guineas, and this in spite of the fact that it bore this inscription in the novelist’s handwriting: “bought at the sale of Wm. Barnes, Dorset poet, by Tho. Hardy.” It was reported that a walking stick of Hardy’s was knocked down to a Dorset farmer for twelve shillings, and that the looking-glass from his bedroom was purchased by a squire for an unknown young lady for a sum no more considerable. We can scarcely doubt that the two last auction chances would have pleased the poet. Into what better hands could his staff have fallen than into those of a man all the hours of whose life would be spent in the hayfields, harvest fields, stables, cow yards, and market places of Wessex? And how could “casualty” have indulged the dead poet’s fancy more than to have got his familiar dressing-table mirror into the possession of so enterprising a bargainer of the fair sex? This was an accident surely after his own heart. On how many mornings of neutral tone had not this crystal plate reflected the countenance of “a thinker of crooked thoughts upon Life in the sere”! Now it would do so no longer. In its place the bright features of a young girl, arranging her hair with cool hands, would shine out in the early morning bedroom light.

This plain newspaper report of the sale at Max Gate set me pondering on Hardy’s long life, especially on those occasions when I myself had been privileged to be in his presence.

The house of his birth is still to be visited at the farthest end of Upper Bockhampton’s blind lane; I do not think any great man ever had a nativity home more perfectly suited to his genius. There it stands, a small unobtrusive Dorset freehold cottage with its thatched roof embowered among the apple trees of its own small garden. Over the hedge of the plot, on both sides of the lane, great forest trees tower high, huge-boughed leafy trees in which all day long rooks caw, wood pigeons murmur, and small birds twitter and sing and flutter from one cool shadow to another. Beyond the white gate which marks the end of this sequestered butterfly lane lies the great heath of “The Return of the Native,” with its acres of heather and fern.

I well remember as a small boy my brother’s return from his first visit to Max Gate. It was during the summer holidays and the rest of us children were crowded together in a wooden hut which my youngest brother had built for himself in one of the shrubberies. This brother had invited us all to tea and his saucepan was just beginning to boil under the laurel bushes when John appeared, full of exciting talk about his expedition. I recollect how he drew for us a caricature of Hardy on one of the white deal boards that formed the walls of the dwelling, a striking picture of the novelist that the passagings of snail, ant, and wood louse were never able quite to obliterate. Especially did the sketch emphasize the writer’s hooked nose and goblin eyebrows. It was, I believe, in these same holidays that Hardy and his first wife paid us a visit. They walked up from the station at Montacute, arriving at the Vicarage in time for luncheon. Hardy, I remember, wore a pair of tight snuffcolored trousers which oddly contrasted with the more sober color of the upper part of his dress. My father had not read a word he had ever written, but he had heard rumors enough of the freedom of his thought to qualify his enthusiasm for this new hero that his eldest son had discovered. My mother’s attitude was different. Her literary interests had always been so strong that any writer would have been honored by her, and, as Mr. Hardy’s place was at her right hand, all went well. Hardy at the time must have been about fifty years old. His lips were pale and his face did not give the impression of good health; I remember my mother rashly predicted that he would not live to a great age. The first Mrs, Hardy was a kindly woman whose forehead was adorned by two curls, which appeared to my irreverent little boy’s fancy like the feathers at the end of a drake’s tail. In the afternoon my brother took Mr. Hardy over Montacute House and through the village, finally returning in time for him to write in the visitor’s book of the Mabelulu, another garden playhouse my brother Bertie and my sister May and I had built, the words: “Thomas Hardy. A Wayfarer.” After the old-fashioned family tea was at an end, John and my sister Gertrude and I accompanied our guests to the station. It was a lovely summer’s evening and presently I found myself sitting alone with Hardy on the well varnished yellow bench outside the station. With legs crossed, he remained silent, as though absorbed in contemplation of the quiet Somerset landscape. Suddenly it came into my head to begin to describe to him the dancing that each summer took place on the Club Day and at the School Treat under the village apple trees. I told him how these dances would continue late into the night, which was, to say the least of it, a gross exaggeration, for my father would soon grow uneasy if ever the Kingsbury band continued to play by the lee light of the moon, and in my eager eloquence I referred to the number of old-world dances that were still known in the district. I had intended that this second prevarication should arouse the poet’s attention, but I was not at all prepared for the extreme interest that he now showed, as, concentrating his whole mind upon me, he began asking me to tell him the names of those same dances and prosecuted his inquiries with an animation not easily evaded, even when my brother came to join us. The mortification I felt as I sat on that bench in my white flannel trousers, green at the knees from where I had fallen, has remained with me to this day, together with a clear memory of those suspended moments before the train’s arrival, with voices of harvesters coming from a distant field and the look of the softness of the summer grass’ opposite, where cows moved at peace under a mackerel sky.

The next time I saw Hardy was after I had come down from Cambridge. I had been staying with my brother Theodore at Chaldon. This little village is situated some ten miles from Max Gate, and I ventured on my way home, as I had two hours to wait in Dorchester, to call. I was extremely nervous as I approached the front door by the short curving drive. The servant showed me into the drawing-room. There was a bust of Sir Walter Scott at the top of a tall book case and, on each side of the fireplace, pictures of Shelley and of John Keats. I also noticed a small water color of Westminster Abbey, painted by Hardy himself when he was a young man. Mrs. Hardy presently entered the room. She informed me that she had sent a servant up to Mr. Hardy’s study, but she did not believe that he would come down and see me. She was mistaken, however, for almost immediately the door opened and Mr. Hardy, looking unchanged from what he had been on the occasion of his visit to Montacute, entered. He asked me questions about Chaldon and also talked to me about my future plans. I remember he advised me to join the Dorset Society in London. My romantic hero worship could scarcely be concealed. He must have seen it shining out of my eyes. I did not dare to stay long and, when I rose to leave, he conducted me to the garden gate, which was truly a signal courtesy to offer so excitable and immature a youth. Before taking my leave, I ventured to ask him what he was then writing and well do I remember his answering with a kindly, self-depreciatory, quizzical glance that he was occupied with “The Dynasts.”


In the year 1919, after an exile in Africa of five years, I returned to England. My father had resigned the living of Montacute and had retired to Weymouth, so that once more I found myself in easy reach of Mr. Hardy. My sister Gertrude arranged that I should go to tea at Max Gate one afternoon. I reached Dorchester in plenty of time and, crossing the railway bridge, slowly approached the house. The young chestnuts that bordered the road were in fresh leaf and, although I was now thirty-five years old, my heart seemed no less responsive, no less romantic, than on the occasion of my former visit. And yet I was discouraged also. My African sojourn had interrupted my writing career and I could not catch the attention of a single editor. At the back of my mind I held to the hope that Hardy would be able to give me just the advice I wanted. When I was first shown into the drawing-room I had found myself in the company of a young woman occupied in playing with a white terrier. This terrier was the dog named Wessex, who held an important place in the last years of Hardy’s life. The young lady diverted herself with the animal in a way that showed her as being a familiar and favored visitor and I received the same impression when her husband arrived, a self-possessed young man who wrote reviews, so I was afterwards told, for The Times Literary Supplement. My hair was beginning to turn grey and I had written only for the New Age and the New Statesman; yet this young scholar from Oxford, living at a nearby mill, had already, at twenty-five, firmly established himself in contemporary literary circles. The two young people left after tea, and while Mr. Hardy was conducting them to the garden gate I stood with Mrs.

Hardy at the window. We looked out at the spring twilight in silence. It was the first time that I had met Mr. Hardy’s second wife. She was a dark, nervous woman, of an awkward carriage, who possessed an odd distinction of her own. As I stood by her side in that room emptied of its company I received a draught of romantic melancholy the strength of which I have never forgotten.

Six years passed before I saw Mr. Hardy again. I had been living during this time in New York City. These were happy years. Though I found it difficult to earn my living by writing, under the wise and understanding guidance of Mr. Alfred Harcourt I gradually began to receive in America the recognition that I had failed to win in England. The necessity of paying the monthly rent of my hall bedroom in Waverley Place (into which the sun shone only by reflection from the factory opposite) often put me to my shifts and, on the occasion of one of these crises, the idea came to me of writing a short article about Hardy for The Dial. In this article I was indiscreet enough to allude to a conversation I had had with him, which seemed to me to be of general literary interest. He had confided to me after tea during my last visit to Max Gate that he remembered as a boy a family of saddlers living in the nearby village of Broadmayne whose name was Keats, and he told me, as John Keats’s forebears had been saddlers, he had often wondered whether this Dorset family could not have been relations of the poet—a surmise that appeared to receive support from the fact that the features of some of the members of the Broadmayne saddlering family had, he had often thought, a remarkable racial resemblance to those of the author of “Endymion.” Indeed, he told me that he had sometimes indulged the fancy that Keats might have actually walked over the downs to visit these west-country cousins during those days when, on his voyage to Rome his ship, because of bad weather, was driven to take shelter in Lulworth Cove, where was composed the famous last sonnet with thoughts of the hills, stars, and sea so characteristic of this particular Dorset locality.

As ill luck would have it, my essay fell under the all-seeing eye of Amy Lowell, who was just then collecting material for her biography of Keats. And what must she do but bustle off to Max Gate to harass Mr. Hardy with cross-questioning after the manner of one who wants facts rather than fiction and has a mind to sift all evidence to the bottom! It was not until I had returned once more to Dorset with my American wife, Miss Alyse Gregory, that the full effect of this awkward solecism was felt by me. My brother John, as was his custom, had written to ask whether he could pay his summer visit to Max Gate and on this occasion bring with him my brother Theodore. Just before the two of them left East Chaldon a letter arrived from Mrs. Hardy complaining of my ill conduct in having published in The Dial an intimate communication that had never been intended for literary use. My brother Theodore, though he had already put on his Sunday jacket, forthwith abandoned out of hand all idea of visiting Max Gate, and, as those who know him will guess, much Frome water had to flow under Grey’s Bridge before ever he crossed the great man’s threshold. I felt humiliated on my own account and indignant with Miss Lowell, recalling with renewed irritation the bluntness of her speech when, on our first being introduced, she had remarked in her autocratic manner: “In any case, I am glad you are not your brother.”

The vexing business was not quickly forgotten. I was truly concerned that I had given Mr. Hardy this trouble and I wrote the most propitiatory letters to Mrs. Hardy. Eventually the notion came into my head to send Mr. Hardy a snake’s skin for a bookmark. The skin I had taken from an adder I myself had killed in the long cliff grass. I think it was this homely tribute from the White Nose that finally helped him to forget his annoyance. He even made an attempt to call on us in our coast-guard cottage, but found the exertion of walking so far over the open downs too much for his old bones. I received that year a letter from Clarence Darrow, who was on a visit to England, asking whether I could arrange a meeting for him with Thomas Hardy. Under the circumstances it was not an easy piece of diplomacy, but when it had been brought about and the two men did meet all went well.

Not long after this Mrs. Hardy invited Miss Gregory and me to tea at Max Gate. The visit remains one of my happiest memories. Hardy appeared to have forgiven and forgotten our estrangement. We talked together freely on many matters. He insisted that the correct name for the cliff on which we lived was White Nose and not White Nore or White Nothe, all of which names are to be read upon maps. “The name of the cliff is White Nose and if you stand and look at it from Weymouth Esplanade the reason for its being so named becomes clear. It is like a human nose, like Wellington’s nose.” He was particularly anxious to learn, and it was so characteristic of his mind, deep sinking always to the simplest facts of life, how we managed to get on for water in so remote a place. I explained that the government had built large cisterns for the storing of the rain water from the roofs. The idea pleased him and he declared that the rain water was more wholesome for drinking purposes than spring water. Horses, he said, will always choose the water of the foulest pond that has had sun and air upon it rather than that of the purest fountains that jet up from the earth. “Water that has stood a while is good for the bots,” the old man concluded. We mentioned, I remember, Frank Harris. I told him I had been reading “The Man Shakespeare” and found the book penetrating in certain ways, though I was repelled by the style. How could he, for example, use the objectionable word “smutty” in connection with Ophelia? Hardy sympathized with this resentment. He concluded the subject by remarking that Frank Harris had the gruffest voice of any man he had ever heard speak, an observation to which I could acquiesce, well remembering how Harris, after having driven me back to my Waverley Place lodging, had boomed out at the top of his voice, so that all the street had heard him: “It will all come out in the wash”—a remark that referred to the approaching publication of his “Life and Loves.” Hardy spoke also of the degrading influence of blood sports and told me that he believed that the feeling of the general public towards animals was far more sensitive than it had been in his childhood. Even on the farms the laborers were now not so brutal. He recalled, as a young man, remonstrating with a carter for flogging his mare and receiving the answer: “But she bain’t no Christian.” I remember telling Hardy that a pair of ravens was still to be seen frequenting the precipitous walls of our great sea promontory. In his boyhood he said these birds were much more common and he had often observed cottage people bless themselves as the dolorous fowls flew over their chimneys in the village of Bockhampton.

When we rose to leave, he walked with us to the white gate and it was here that I said good-by to him for the last time. News of his death reached me when I was in New York as visiting literary critic for the Herald Tribune in the winter of 1927-1928.

When I returned to England Mrs. Hardy invited us to stay at Max Gate and I slept in Mr. Hardy’s dressing room. There hung over my bed an old oil painting of a shepherd. I could scarcely imagine a portrait more in harmony with Hardy’s own much-enduring genius than was this weathered countenance of the herdsman under its felt hat. Here was a man who must have hurdled many a flock of ewes, a man whose thumbs must often have been greasy from the handling of fells. The picture pleased me extremely and Mrs. Hardy told me that it was one of which Mr. Hardy himself was particularly fond. He had bought it in Salisbury. It was necessary for me to leave England for Switzerland soon afterwards and I never saw Mrs. Hardy again.

Homer is fond of using the words “Shepherd of the people” for the heroes he sings of. Such a shepherd Hardy surely was. No one since Shakespeare has understood so well the hearts of human beings and especially the hearts of women. But his comprehensive compassion reached also to the dumb beasts—to the cattle penned for butchering, to the pheasants preserved for slaughtering, even to the humble hedgehogs that crossed the dewy lawns of Max Gate on summer nights. How fitting, how full of his own simple inspiration is the poem he wrote anticipating his own death:

When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,

And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings, Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say, “He was a man who used to notice such things”?

If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,

When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,

One may say, “He strove that such innocent creatures should

come to no harm. But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.”

« *

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,

Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees, Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,

“He was one who had an eye for such mysteries”?


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading