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How Hardy wrote himself into railway history

In the latest in his series on eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley considers the author and poet Thomas Hardy

11 September, 2020 — By Neil Titley

Thomas Hardy, painted in 1923 by Reginald Eves

AS the HS2 train project bulldozes its way through the Borough of Camden, it echoes a similar situation a century and a half ago. During the 1860s the Midland Railway extended its line to a new terminus at St Pancras. As a result much of the cemetery of St Pancras Old Church (now behind King’s Cross station) was removed to clear space.

(Among others, it was an area that housed the grave of the composer Jan Christian Bach and was also incidentally where the poet PB Shelley indulged in al fresco sex in the moonlight with his then girlfriend Mary, author of Frankenstein.)

The man presiding over the exhumations was the future novelist Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). He rested many of the uprooted tombstones against a tree, one that still exists and which bears his name – the “Hardy Tree.”

Born near Dorchester in Dorset, Hardy moved to London in 1862 and into lodgings at 3 Clarence Place (then near Quex Road, NW6). He became a trainee architect with a firm in Covent Garden whence came his instructions to deal with St Pancras. He was not greatly successful in this first career. When he later designed his own home, it was regarded as so ugly that nobody else ever asked him to design theirs.

Fortunately, after several frustrating years in London he decided to return to the West Country and dedicate himself to writing. In 1874 he met and married a Dorset parson’s daughter called Emma Gifford.

He became a hugely successful author, still renowned for such favourite cinematic re-makes as Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd. The characters in Hardy’s novels (often set in the semi-fictional region of “Wessex”) inhabited a static society and their actions were ruled by an often malign fate dictated by their class.

Although attacked at the time for his exposure of the seamier side of rural life, Hardy himself explained that his world was “partly real, partly dream-country” – he was more of a romantic than a realist.

The Hardy Tree at Old St Pancras Churchyard

However, this did not restrain the indignation of contemporary moralists. His final 1895 novel Jude the Obscure received brutally hostile reviews. He was so upset by the reaction that at one London luncheon, when his host showed him a travel memento, (Sitting Bull’s war club), Hardy picked up the weapon and muttered: “How much I should like to have that in my hand when I encounter the critic who called my book Jude the Obscene!”

He did not realise that the actual culprit was sitting next to him.

When Hardy heard that the Bishop of Wakefield had burnt a copy of Jude he sighed: “Probably in his despair at not being able to burn me.” He decided to cease writing novels.

A sympathetic Oscar Wilde wrote: “Thomas Hardy has just found out that women have legs underneath their dresses and this discovery has almost wrecked his life.”

Hardy always resented the attacks. He claimed that if he had told the whole truth about village life, no one would have believed him. According to Lady Dorothy Nevill, this was an accurate view of the countryside. She reported that, as late as 1892, under the old belief that food should be provided for a corpse, a Nottinghamshire labourer was buried with a tin of salmon and an opener in his coffin.

Much of Hardy’s gloom seems to have stemmed from his unfortunate marriage. Scorning his humble origin as the son of a stonemason, Emma insisted on her own superiority and referred to his family as “peasants”.

The American writer Gertrude Atherton wrote: “Hardy drifted in to the party. In his wake was an excessively plain, dowdy, high-stomached woman with her hair drawn back in a tight little knot, and a severe cast of countenance.”

“Mrs Hardy,” explained TP O’Connor, “now you may understand the pessimistic nature of the poor devil’s work.”

The French artist J-E Blanche said that Mrs Hardy told him that: “Thomas is very vain and selfish, and the smart people he meets in London encourage his bad habits. They are poison to his system, and I’m the antidote.”

One day Emma asked a friend if she had noticed how much her husband resembled Dr Crippen. “I would not be surprised to find myself murdered in the cellar one morning.”

Ironically it was his withdrawal from prose writing, and then his guilt-ridden remorse at the death of Emma in 1914 that changed Hardy from a fine novelist to an even finer poet. Even his second marriage to his secretary Florence – he was 74 and she was 35 – did not extinguish his obsessive attachment to Emma’s memory.

Age brought wealth and honours and an onset of gravitas. Bernard Shaw commented: “As we grow older, we become serious and concerned for the opinion of posterity. Thomas Hardy had a portrait destroyed because it depicted him laughing.”

After his death, posterity became involved in a squabble over his funeral when his family wished for a burial in Dorset but his executor insisted on Westminster Abbey. A compromise was reached – his heart was sent for burial at Dorchester while his ashes were interred in Poets’ Corner.

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