It was some months now, back in late winter, I think, that a sudden burst of unseasonably spring-like weather got me out of miserable housebound winter words and across the flat fields of the Vale of the White Horse in southern Oxfordshire. I’d been meaning to pay a visit to the village of Denchworth again for some time and the coincidence of warm weather and the recollection of a recent visit to the village and church of Fawley – the early home of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure – prompted me to take a look at another village and church with Hardy connections.
I had been wary about making this walk again since the most direct path from Wantage to Denchworth bizarrely and hazardously traverses one of the busiest railway lines in England. The last time I had attempted the crossing I couldn’t open the gates and (not being as nimble as I used to be) almost impaled myself upon the fence, escaping with only minor injuries (the hazards of an old man walking). What a transient spectacle it would have been for the high-speed commuters.
This crossing will have been a relatively tolerable amble in Hardy’s day of slowish steam. Wantage Road Station opened in the 1840s and old maps show that the path will have been there when Hardy visited the area. However, in these days of 125 mph trains whizzing along and with my eyes and ears not as sharp as they used to be, I cross the lines with great trepidation.
It’s a relief to look back across the flat vale with the Ridgeway in the distance and hidden just beyond it the village of Fawley. Hardy will have surveyed this scene (at some point with Jude in his mind’s eye) from both vale and hill.
This path to Denchworth happily ends up at the exact place I want to visit – the splendid ancient parish church of St James the Great.
All these old village churches in the parishes of England have treasures in abundance for the idle visitor, but for those with an enthusiasm for Thomas Hardy, the great man of English literature, the church at Denchworth has a special bonus, for tucked away in the gap between the vestry and the chancel is an old Victorian organ at which, back in the early 1860s, sat none other than Thomas Hardy’s sister, Mary. And brother Thomas will have some time surely sat in the church and heard her play.
Most testimonies concur that Hardy was very close to his sister Mary. She was born in December 1841, only a year and a half after Thomas and they grew up together at the Hardy cottage in Higher Bockhampton, a few miles from the Dorset county town of Dorchester. Mary was – in the words of Hardy’s second wife Florence – his “earliest playmate”, the “dearest and kindest sister”. According to commentator Professor Bailey she was “his intellectual and artistic comrade in his youth”. “In childhood she was almost my only companion… and she had always been the one with the keenest literary tastes and instincts,” Hardy wrote in a letter in the days following her death in 1915, adding; “she could paint a good likeness too – particularly of women”. “She had a real skill in catching the character of her sitter,” he wrote in another letter. Robert Gittings had the view that Mary “adored her brother and would never have complained at anything he did, even if she secretly disliked it”. Biographer Michael Millgate noted the “central importance of his [Hardy’s] emotional and intellectual intimacy with Mary”.
His poems record her significance for him. She was his “country girl”, climbing apple trees with him “her foot near mine on the bending limb, / Laughing, her young brown hand awave” and in later life they shared “middle-age enthusiasms”, “jauntings” in the countryside; singing and gardening at their homes. He could only conjecture on the “strange aspect” of how life would have been without her companionship. His inscription on her tombstone “sacred to the memory” was no mere stone-carved convention, he wrote in one poem, “but stands deep lined / upon the landscape, high and low”. Her death depressed him deeply and expressly made him consider the value of his own continuing life: “Tired, tired am I / Of this earthly air”.
His closeness to Mary is evident from the important few extant letters that Hardy, in his early and mid twenties, wrote during his time living in London. A love of art, a “keen appreciation of literature” and of music is shared. They went to the theatre together. He recommends Thackeray to her. He sends her Trollope’s Barchester Towers. He gives her a copy of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. He had high regard for her talent as an artist and encouraged her (“you have no right to say you are not connected with art”). Robert Gittings talks of “this lifelong sympathy between them, perhaps deeper in its way than any other love”.
So what brought Hardy’s beloved sister Mary to the small Berkshire – now Oxfordshire – village of Denchworth? Well Mary had trod what seems to have been a common path for bright, educated, unattached young women in the mid 19th Century. She became a teacher – in the words of Robert Gittings that “symbol of class emancipation in the 1860s”. It is certainly a familiar path if one takes a cue from other women in Hardy’s life: younger sister Kate, cousin Tryphena, second wife Florence and of course from Hardy’s fictions which in turn derived impetus from the facts of his life: Fancy Day in Under the Greenwood Tree and notably Sue Bridehead in Jude, which relays brother Tom’s take on Mary’s experiences at the Salisbury teacher training college, which Mary attended in the first years of the 1860s (escorted thither by brother Tom when she started in April 1860). And it was at the National School in Denchworth that in 1863 Mary took up her first teaching post after completing her college course to become a certified teacher. This venture into work away from her Dorset home coincided with brother Thomas’s own escape to London in 1862 where he found work as a draughtsman.
It is this period of the siblings’ lives that are documented in Thomas Hardy’s early letters and by February 1863 he is already expressing to Mary his “uncommon interest” in the requirement for her to play the organ in the Denchworth church. “Tell me about the organ and how the Sundays go off – I am uncommonly interested.”
Indeed in late April 1863 he paid her a visit and on Sunday April 26th drew a sketch of the school where she was working, located immediately adjacent to the church. In autumn of the next year Hardy was again in the area with his sketch book – this time also making his first important acquaintance with the village of Fawley which had been the home of his paternal grandmother and which – some 30 years later – featured so prominently in Jude the Obscure. According to a local historian, Hardy was back in Denchworth at Christmas in 1865 where he attended the Christmas service. He sent Mary music from London and gave her a large edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern. Previously Mary had played the harmonium and the piano but playing the organ was, of course, rather a challenge. It was, she is quoted as saying, “difficult to play at first, but I practised four hours a day”.
A letter from Mary to brother Tom in late November 1862 (published recently online as part of the wonderful Hardy’s Correspondents project) shows Mary’s concern at the musical aspect of her new job. “On account of this [I] wanted, of course, to give it up & Mr Rawlins, (the clergyman) was informed of it but he wrote to say he would pay a little for me to learn & also give me a little time to practice when there, before playing in Church.”
And so here I am, in the church where Mary and Thomas will have sat some 150 years ago and still there in front of me is the Victorian organ Mary played, its candle holders, its six stops and original pumping mechanism still surviving.
I sit by the organ and commune with past echoes. “Yea, old notes like those/Here are living on yet!” And I recall the scene in Two on a Tower where church organist Tabitha Lark is practising her voluntaries amid the feeble glimmer of the organ’s candle with a youthful blower at her side.
Of course music was a significant part in the life of the Hardy household and subsequently in Thomas’s writings. Their father and grandfather played in the Stinsford Church choir. Younger sister Kate also played the piano and the church organ. Thomas was a good violinist and was still able to play old English dance tunes on the fiddle in his seventies. A local musician who played with him in his later years has commented that “it should be emphasised that for a man over 80, who had not been a professional musician he gave a remarkable performance on the fiddle”. Mary, too, will have started her musical education with brother Tom as they were growing up in Bockhampton and surely will have played her mother’s old table-piano which Thomas, already an able fiddler, kept in tune.
On leaving the church, I decide, before walking back home, to take a look at the school and school-house – now a single converted residence like so many of their counterparts – where Mary will have lived and taught and where Hardy himself will surely have stayed. With a marvellous stroke of Hardyan coincidence, I fall into conversation with someone walking a dog, who not only turns out to be the current owner of the house but promptly and kindly invites me in to look around. What a marvellous stroke of serendipity! The spacious former school room contrasts with the cramped living quarters of the adjoining school house where Mary will have resided.
Mary must have been quite lonely and homesick during her few years teaching at the Denchworth school, so much so that she persuaded her mother to let her much younger – six-year-old – sister Kate to come and live with her and be schooled by her. Further evidence of the strong Hardy family ties. Their father Thomas senior visited them, Kate later recollected.
By 1867 Mary and Thomas were already both back in Dorset, Mary to continue her teaching career, first at Minterne Magna, then Piddlehinton and finally Dorchester, Kate also eventually teaching alongside her; and Thomas to continue his architectural profession while at the same time pursuing the writing to which he would (happily for us) later devote his life and which would ultimately bring him fame.
The family ties between Thomas and Mary and his other younger siblings, Henry and Kate, were undoubtedly strong. Thomas was keen to protect and nurture their interests. But these ties were also famously tested by the other main women in his life, first wife Emma and second wife Florence.
Initially Mary Hardy and Emma Gifford (whom Thomas married in 1874) seem to have got on tolerably well, some evidence for this being the visit paid by Mary and sister Kate to the recently married couple in Swanage in 1875 and the various excursions which took place during the visit. A picnic together at Corfe Castle was apparently regarded by Emma as a “splendid day” and – as Denys Kay-Robinson has noted – while “the sisters’ opinion is not on record… from the cordiality of their subsequent letters they evidently liked Emma”. Over the years, however, relations deteriorated dramatically, the culmination being perhaps best exemplified in the extraordinary letter written by Emma to Mary in 1896 in which Emma accuses Mary of spreading “evil reports” about her, of alleging that Emma was being unkind to her husband and that Emma was unhinged (having “errors” in her mind).
“Your brother has been outrageously unkind to me – which is entirely your fault: ever since I have been his wife you have done all you can to make division between us; also you have set your family against me… I defy you ever to say… that I have done anything that can be called unreasonable, or wrong, or mad, or even unkind! And it is a wicked spiteful and most malicious habit of yours…. You have ever been my causeless enemy – causeless, except that I stand in the way of your evil ambition to be on the same level with your brother by trampling upon me… And doubtless you are elated that you have spoilt my life as you love power of any kind. But you have spoilt your brother’s and your own punishment must inevitably follow – for God’s promises are true for ever.”
Crikey! We all know that family divisions can run deep, but this one offers eternal damnation. And Emma – with her “extravagant sense of class superiority” (as noted by Michael Millgate) – doesn’t stop there but invokes the spectacle of Mary and her kin – those (in Emma’s eyes) primitive country “peasant class” women – practising their evil witchcraft on a stormy Egdon Heath.
“You are a witch-like creature and quite equal to any amount of evil-wishing and speaking – I can imagine you, and your mother and your sister on your native heath raising a storm on Walpurgis night.”
One inevitably hears echoes here of Wessex Tales and The Return of the Native.
An interesting imagined encounter between Emma (“the lady”) and the womenfolk from Hardy’s family was written and staged in the garden at Max Gate by Peter John Cooper. “Ladies? Ladies? They are not Ladies. They are women. Village women” – declares Emma. Indeed Mary herself is said to have once confided to Emma that “nobody asks me to dinner or treats me like a lady”.
How difficult it must have been for Thomas to manage these tensions, when all he wanted to do was to retreat into his study and write. Biographer Millgate puts it succinctly when he writes: “Hardy’s own life at Max Gate was intensely private centred primarily upon his work and secondarily upon the maintenance of family ties and the observance of family pieties – often at the expense of those marital obligations he had contracted in the face of family opposition.” One must, however, have a little sympathy for Emma too, stuck alone in rural Dorset and surrounded by Hardy’s hostile family whom eventually she seems to have banned completely from visiting Max Gate.
Of course, some of the tensions found release in Hardy’s writings, but it can’t have been an easy situation. Even second wife-to-be Florence was soon introduced to these tensions before first wife Emma’s death, when a huge row broke out on Christmas Day 1911 between Hardy and his wife. Hardy had wanted to take Florence to see Mary and Kate in Bockhampton but Emma declared that this would poison Florence’s mind against her. Hardy went off sullenly on his own, leaving Florence to vow that “no power on earth would ever induce me to spend another Christmas Day at Max Gate.” Little did she know…
In the 1890s Hardy, now “seriously rich”, according to Claire Tomalin, purchased a house for Mary and Kate in Wollaston Road Dorchester. Mary gave up teaching in 1897 when she was in her mid-fifties – about the same time as the serious spat with Emma. She became deaf as she aged and – in Tomalin’s words, “her world closed around her”. She was asthmatic and already in poor health. By around 1911 (one source says later) she was living in Talbothays – a substantial house built by brother Henry in the 1890s on Hardy family land.
This house was not far from the former ancestral home at Bockhampton and Thomas’s house at Max Gate and so within easy reach for Thomas to cycle over. Here (just outside West Stafford – resonant with Tess of the D’Urbevilles) Mary lived comfortably for her final few years with younger siblings, Henry and Kate. In later life, while her interest in music may have waned, her interest in art certainly continued and she regularly went up to London to visit the annual Royal Academy exhibition, even apparently into her seventies when she must already have been ailing. In late 1915 her illness became more severe. Hardy visited and talked with her on 23rd November. Mary died the next day from emphysema, a month short of her 74th birthday. Although she had been “such an invalid”, Thomas “did not think it would be so soon”.
He was grief-stricken. She was buried on 29th November in the churchyard of St. Michael’s in Stinsford where the rest of the Hardy family lay. The weather was awful – cold and wet – “drizzling rain all day”. Hardy himself was soon laid up with “violent bronchitis and a racking cough”. “I mope over the fire all day.” Moreover brother Henry was also ill. What a miserable Christmas it must have been.
Hardy’s “autobiography”, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy – published posthumously under Florence’s name, gives a rather downbeat view of this beloved sister’s life.
“…she had been doomed to school-teaching, and organ-playing in this or that village church, during all her active years, and hence was unable to devote sufficient time to pictorial art till leisure was too late to be effective. Her character was a somewhat unusual one, being remarkably unassertive, even when she was in the right, and could easily have proved it”.
Is this one wonders a reference to the spat with Emma?
The Life continues with what must have been a contemporaneous note by Hardy:
“Nov. 29. Buried her under the yew-tree where the rest of us lie. As [the Stinsford church vicar] Mr Cowley read the words of the psalm ‘Dixi Custodiam’ they reminded me strongly of her nature, particularly when she was young: ‘I held my tongue and spake nothing. I kept silence; yea even from good words.’ That was my poor Mary exactly. She never defended herself, and that not from timidity, but indifference to opinion.”
There is something curiously reticent about these remarks – something sorrowful about a wasted life. “Poor Mary.” “Doomed” to teaching or playing music in “this or that village church”, “unable” to pursue her art, ineffective in her application. An “unusual character”, “unassertive”, “indifferent” to opinion. “An unusual type,” Hardy echoed in one letter.
Claire Tomalin’s biography of Hardy picks up on this reticence, referring to Mary as “hovering like a pale shadow behind him… so close to him in age and so little mentioned in his own accounts of his life”. And while “there was no doubt of his importance in her life… his affection was more occasional”. “Although devoted to his sister,” Tomalin also writes, “his devotion to her had always been in the style of accepting her love rather than demonstrating his.” “He had made very little effort to involve her in his life.” She lived “like a hermit,” Hardy had said. “In practice,” Tomalin maintains, “he shared almost nothing with Mary.”
I am struck by Hardy’s own comments and by Tomalin’s knowledgeable and quite reasoned point of view; and I wonder if Hardy’s own unsigned obituary of sister Mary published in the Dorset County Chronicle and Somersetshire Gazette on 2nd December in 1915 might shed some light – after all this would be a brother in mourning writing about a sister he loved.
I search in vain for the text among the dozens of books I have by and about Hardy. Some contain tantalising snippets from the obituary. It is listed, but not quoted, in Richard Purdy’s marvellous Thomas Hardy A Bibliographical Study. The most likely source for the text, Thomas Hardy’s Personal Writings, edited by Harold Orel, most irritatingly does not republish it, regarding this “uncollected contribution” as being one among “the many, brief, unimportant items”: “their interest is limited”. All we get is a brief sentence and a briefer summary.
And so some weeks later, as spring moves into summer, I find myself in Dorchester picking up yet more Hardy memorabilia from Duke’s auction house and taking advantage of the visit by walking up to the splendid Dorset History Centre by Top o’ Town and the old Depot Barracks. I am soon ensconced with boxes of microfilms containing copies of the Dorset County Chronicle and am reading the notice entitled Death of Miss Mary Hardy, Sister of Mr. Thomas Hardy , O.M.
The first part of the notice is factual concerning the death and the bare outline of Mary’s life – her schooling, her attendance at college, her certification as a teacher and her role for many years as Headmistress of the Dorchester Elementary Girls’ School. Hardy then continues:
“Miss Mary Hardy was endowed with a large share of the family taste and talent for art and music. While living in Wollaston Road she studied assiduously and used her pencil and brush with skill at the Dorchester School of Art, and acted as church organist. Under an often undemonstrative exterior she hid a warm and most affectionate nature.
“In addition to Miss Hardy’s long practical connections with school-teaching, there was a side to her activities of which less is known, except among her immediate acquaintances. This was her almost life-long devotion to sketching and painting, which, had it been developed and tended carefully, might have made a noteworthy artist of her. It took the direction of portraiture. Her facility in catching a likeness was remarkable and hence in respect of a family record on canvas – that which, whatever its shortcomings, is valued in proportion to its reproduction to us of the faces we wish to remember – she painted to good purpose. Her picture in oils of her mother is a visible instance of this to those who recall the latter. It may be said indeed that her whole interest in the brush lay in this direction.
“In early life she was often called upon to play the part of village organist, musicians not being so plentiful then in the country as they are now; and well the writer remembers her girlish consternation when at the age of two-and-twenty, she was suddenly called upon to take the musical service in a strange church, in a strange parish on the following Sunday, upon an organ with pedals and two manuals, her previous experience having been entirely with piano and harmonium. How she got through her duty cannot now be estimated; but she speedily settled down to the instrument and performed regularly upon it as long as she resided in the parish, becoming an efficient choir mistress amid the somewhat disconcerting vagaries of a rural choir. She was not, however, a born musician, and her familiarity with music decreased during the latter part of her life.”
Then follows the details of the interment, of the family mourners, of the friends (including Mr and Mrs T. C. Duke) who attended despite the “inclement weather” and the floral tributes.
A number of things strike me. First I am taken by this obituary back to Denchworth, to the young nervous schoolteacher and the church organ of St James the Great. This memory of the Denchworth church organ had lived remarkably long in Hardy’s mind. So much so that some fifty years later he was dwelling on it again in this remembrance of Mary. It clearly laid quite a mark on his memory. And the depiction is affectionate, even if it is – specifically so here – “occasional”. Second I am struck again by the curious, almost curmudgeonly, tone that big brother Tom has taken. Had she developed her devotion to painting and sketching she might have made a noteworthy artist – but she didn’t. Her facility to catch a likeness was remarkable – but let’s not forget the “shortcomings”. She performed regularly on the organ and was an efficient choir mistress – but let’s not forget to mention that “she was not, however, a born musician”.
Goodness. She was his sister. She is just in the grave. And I am thinking of what I always tell myself as another funeral approaches – nihil nisi bonum de mortuis… And I too reflect on Psalm 39 – Dixi: custodiam vias meas ut non delinquam in lingua mea. (I will keep a watch on my ways so that I do not offend with my tongue).
We do, though, have to remember that here Hardy was writing formally and anonymously in the press and so surely had to distance any familial fraternal emotion. But how this obituary contrasts with his vivid and luminous portrait of William Barnes’ daughter, Lucy, when he penned his recollections following her death some years earlier.
Hardy himself, of course, famously did develop his talent and tend it carefully. He was not going to hide his light under a bushel like his “unassertive” sister; and he was certainly, demonstrably, not indifferent to opinion.
I am loath to tread more on the difficult path of musing about “poor Mary”. And I can sense the ghost of Hardy bristling with rancour. But there will still be some interesting pickings for anyone with the temerity and inclination to delve into archives.
And there is one more thing. In 1925 on the anniversary of Mary’s birth and 10 years after her death – as conveyed to us in The Life – Hardy wrote:
“Mary’s birthday. She came into the world… and went out… and the world is just the same… not a ripple on the surface left.”
What a profoundly sad reflection this is on his sister’s life, again hauntingly reminiscent of Psalm 39:
“like a moth you eat away all that is dear to us; truly, everyone is but a puff of wind“.
And what of Thomas and the ripples that he has made on the surface of the world?
Seamus Heaney – a great admirer of Hardy’s verse – at one point wrote expressly of this:
Once, as a child, out in a field of sheep,
Thomas Hardy pretended to be dead
And lay down flat among their dainty shins.
In that sniffed-at, bleated-into, grassy space
He experimented with infinity.
His small cool brow was like an anvil waiting
For sky to make it sing the perfect pitch
Of his dumb being, and that stir he caused
In the fleece-hustle was the original
Of a ripple that would travel eighty years
Outward from there, to be the same ripple
Inside him at its last circumference.
For examples of Mary Hardy’s art see here
For more information about the splendid Hardy’s Correspondents project – led by Professor Angelique Richardson from the University of Exeter and in collaboration with the Dorset Museum see here
The books that piled up around me as I penned this blog were (in no particular order):
Thomas Hardy – A Biography Revisited by Michael Millgate, Young Thomas Hardy by Robert Gittings, Thomas Hardy – The Time-Torn Man by Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy’s Personal Writings edited by Harold Orel, Thomas Hardy – A Bibliographical Study by Richard L. Purdy, A Hardy Companion by F. B. Pinion, The Poetry of Thomas Hardy by J. O. Bailey, Thomas Hardy at Max Gate – The Latter Years by Dr Andrew Norman, Thomas Hardy as a Musician by J. Vera Mardon, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy by Thomas Hardy edited by Michael Millgate, The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy edited by Richard Little Purdy and Michael Millgate, Hardy by Martin Seymour-Smith, Thomas Hardy – the Complete Poems, The First Mrs Thomas Hardy by Denys Kay-Robinson, Letters of Emma & Florence Hardy by Michael Millgate, A Commentary on the Poems of Thomas Hardy by F. B. Pinion, She Opened the Door – The Wife and Women Who Haunted Thomas Hardy by Peter John Cooper, The Dorset County Chronicle and Somersetshire Gazette, The Parish Church of St James The Great Denchworth