I recently spent a couple of days driving back and forth to Dorset. Two hours there, two hours back, and doing it twice, on consecutive days – that’s eight hours’ driving. I would have stayed over and indeed I did book a room in a guest house in Dorchester via one of the many online websites only to get a phone call late in the evening prior to departure saying “sorry” the room had already been taken. So, in my stubborn stupid way, and initially not really sure whether I would need to stay over, I ended up driving there and back – twice, in two days.
My wife – whose opinion I value dearly – made the obvious point: “You realise you are completely crazy,” she said. My granddaughter will say the same when she hears about it. And whom should I blame for this onset of madness? Well, it’s Thomas Hardy. At least (for those few who read my last blog) Emily Dickinson can take a rest. And it’s not really blame, of course. I need to thank the great man, not curse him.
My current preoccupation with Hardy occasionally leads to feverish hours of expectation as I sit at my computer waiting for a distant online auction to begin and then attending impatiently, blocking out all shouts and commands, as an auctioneer finally gets to lot 632 or whatever and announces: “And now we have blah blah blah Thomas Hardy”. Then in a thirty second rush it’s all over, my blood pressure is 180/85 and I am either greatly disappointed or greatly impoverished; and I scuttle downstairs to express relief that we still have money in the bank or confess to our sudden poverty and my sins. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Hardy would think me most profligate.
But the Dorchester auction last week was not online. There was a book that interested me. So, I thought, what the heck! I’ll go and have a look. And I did. I suspected the book on offer was a first edition but couldn’t quite figure out why it was bundled with a load of other stuff; and if there is one thing I have learnt in book buying, it is that if you have a hunch, keep shtum and follow it.
So… first edition it was: sadly, a few pages missing, a couple of illustrations gone, one even rejigged and taped into the wrong place (crikey! what was that about?), backstrip flapping, bits falling off… and battered. Definitely battered. But for me sometimes the more battered the better. (I am not keen on those pristine rebound jobs all gilt and glitter in a special box.) For 150 years folk had given this book a good going over. Nevertheless it still cost me a fair few quid and I was at my point of quitting when I won the bidding. But this book now sits on a shelf in my little library (half a converted garage) along with other books on the floor and in piles all over the house. And my dear wife goes through her usual routine: “I don’t understand. What are you going to do? Take it down from the shelf every day and look at it? And when you are dead, it’ll get thrown into a skip with all the others, despite the stupid little notes you put in them.” “Heck,” I say. “I’ll be dead. Why should I care?” But of course, at the moment still in the land of the living, care I do. Perhaps my granddaughter will step in at the right point in the future and make folk see sense.
So I am in Dorchester. It is hot and sunny. I have my walking boots in the car and a bottle of my favourite water (yes… favourite… sad, isn’t it). What else would I do but trek off to the great man’s cottage and walk over the fields from Higher Bockhampton to Kingston Maurwood House and on to Stinsford Church to pay my respects, returning by Lower Bockhampton where Hardy started school as a young boy. As I walk I turn over in my mind not only his early school day trek, but also his first and second published novels, Desperate Remedies and Under the Greenwood Tree where the locations often are… well… precisely those that I am passing as I walk.
The imposing grand house itself, in Desperate Remedies the home of Miss Aldclyffe; in Hardy’s boyhood the residence of Julia Augusta Martin who was “passionately fond of Tommy almost from his infancy”. The Tudor manor nearby, in Desperate Remedies the ramshackle dwelling of Aeneas Manston, illegitimate son of Aldclyffe.
The village school – now a private house – in Lower Bockhampton, where Hardy was first educated and where Fancy Day taught in Under the Greenwood Tree. Stinsford Church itself, which Hardy attended as boy, where his father played the fiddle and which features so prominently as Mellstock Church in Under the Greenwood Tree. And, of course, the churchyard there which is home to the Hardy family graves and where Thomas Hardy’s heart lies buried. This burial in itself a desperate remedy attempting and failing to resolve the conundrum of how he might be buried in two places at the same time.
How desperate at times, I recall, was the plot of Desperate Remedies! After being told by publishers that what he really wanted to write about needed to be toned down in case posh folk took umbrage, (biographer Millgate deemed it “pervasive class hostility”), his remedies were indeed desperate as he veered off in the direction of Wilkie Collins with a dead body being hauled across a wood with a detective in pursuit. And then in Under the Greenwood Tree he lurched off desperately in a different direction with the portrayal of rustic life – this being prompted by comments made by reviewers who, Hardy thought, had made “very much” of the rustic characters in Desperate Remedies. So we move from a desperation of plots into a tale where plot is not so much slight as almost entirely absent. Fearing to “dabble” again in plot, he surmised that a “pastoral story would be the safest venture”.
But how could he combine the two and let his own voice speak out at the same time? Well a few years later, he managed just that.
At the cottage, just like the great man and his second wife did a hundred years ago in the summer of 1918, I looked up at the bedroom window with its little table where Hardy finally penned the book that made his reputation and set him thankfully and rightfully on the path to… well stardom, I suppose. And what was the book? Well I now have a battered, incomplete, copy in my bag. Two volumes. 1874. Only a thousand published first time round. It was Far from the Madding Crowd.
So as the sun is setting on a glorious summer day, I sit on the bench in the country churchyard at Stinsford and think, for once, not only of Thomas Hardy, but also of another Thomas – Thomas Gray, of his elegy written in country churchyard in a county distant from Dorset but really as close to Hardy’s heart as the bench I am sitting on.
22nd June 2018