Travels with a Donkey, Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson’s well-loved travel tale is threaded with longing for the love of a woman he was not sure he would ever meet again.
In this poignant poem Thomas Hardy recalls a memory of his childhood home in Higher Bockhampton, Dorset.
Here is the ancient floor,
Footworn and hollowed and thin,
Here was the former door
Where the dead feet walked in.
She sat here in her chair,
Smiling into the fire;
He who played stood there,
Bowing it higher and higher.
Childlike, I danced in a dream;
Blessings emblazoned that day;
Everything glowed with a gleam;
Yet we were looking away!
Following a desperately difficult delivery, baby Thomas Hardy was cast into a basket and left for dead in the middle bedroom of his parents’ cottage. Minutes later the midwife looked again and said, ‘Stop a minute, he’s alive, sure enough!’
Thomas was physically so frail that at first his parents feared he would not survive. As he grew older, they recognised that he was an unusually gifted child and they took care to introduce him to a rich cultural heritage and provided the best education they could manage. At the family home in Higher Bockhampton, a number of elements came together to create the man who became one of England’s finest writers and poets.
Jemima Hardy (1813-1904), independent, spirited and proud, was one of the greatest influences on Thomas Hardy’s life. She had experienced extreme poverty as her own mother had been widowed early and left to raise seven young children alone. Jemima’s seventeen years in service to affluent households all over Dorset and London made her more confident and ‘travelled’ than most others of her class. By her mid-twenties she had set her heart on becoming a cook in London. But those aspirations ended abruptly with an unplanned pregnancy. She had met the baby’s father, Thomas Hardy Senior, when he was playing violin in Stinsford Church in Dorset on Sundays with his father and brother. Becoming pregnant before marriage was common enough and no cause for shame in rural England at that time, provided the father came good, and come good Tom did, marrying Jemima in December 1839.
So Jemima came to live, not in London as planned, but in a remote corner of Dorset. Her husband’s great grandfather had built their cottage from the materials to hand: cob, stone, chestnut timber and wheat thatch. Hardy put much of his childhood experiences into his earlier novels, The Return of the Native (1878) and Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), in which he describes his childhood house:
It was a long low cottage with a hipped roof of thatch, having dormer windows breaking up into the eaves, a chimney standing in the middle of the ridge, and another at the further end.
At that time the isolated hamlet of Higher Bockhampton was just a cluster of buildings, with a woodland to the east and a heath to the north. There were no shops, school or proper road. There was some sense of community, with the odd dance party held on special occasions, but Jemima regarded the locals as ‘rustic and quaint’ and kept a genteel distance. This was far from the life she had set her heart on. Her marriage seemed harmonious enough and she was a loyal wife, but she became set against matrimony, later urging her children not to repeat her mistake. Three of the four were to heed her advice, but Thomas would later marry, with ultimately disastrous consequences (there is a story about this here).
Hardy’s biographer Claire Tomalin suggests that a contributing factor to the bouts of depression he suffered as an adult was his sense of guilt that his birth had inadvertently thwarted his mother’s desire for a different life. By the time he reached old age, Hardy had come to agree with his mother’s views on marriage. He wrote: ‘If I were a woman I should think twice before entering into matrimony in these days of emancipation, when everything is open to the sex.’
Hardy later confessed to basing Mrs Yeobright in The Return of the Native on Jemima: a woman with bigger dreams than the situation in which she found herself.
Persons with any weight of character carry, like planets, their atmospheres alone with them in their orbits; and the matron who entered now upon the scene could, and usually did, bring her own tone into a company. Her normal manner among the heathfolk had that reticence which results from the consciousness of superior communicative power.
Tomalin described her as ‘powerful, rather than tender’ with a ‘dark streak of gloom and anger.’ Mother and son shared a pessimistic cast of mind. Although Jemima was a church-goer she was fatalistic and wary of providence. Thirty-year-old Hardy observed in his notebook:
Mother’s notion, and also mine: that a figure stands in our van with arm uplifted, to knock us back from any pleasant prospect we indulge in as possible.
Such notions of a severe or indifferent deity would recur in Hardy’s novels, along with the idea that life was ‘a thing to be put up with’.
Jemima’s death at the age of ninety-one left Hardy utterly grief stricken. He kept this house on in his lifetime and often visited it alone.
Thomas’s father and grandfather, both named Thomas Hardy, were by trade small time builders and stonemasons. His father was kind and handsome as well as musical. He enjoyed long walks on the heath and his favourite pastime was to lie in the sun ‘on a bank of thyme or camomile’, covering his face with his straw hat. Unlike Jemima, he was content to remain in the same place all his life and to know no more than half a dozen people. He stubbornly resisted her proposals to move to a larger house in Dorchester in order to expand his business. Deploring his lack of ambition, Jemima was dismayed when their oldest son expressed similar sentiments, declaring he would prefer to live without things, remain on the spot and know just the few people he already knew. Jemima’s experience of desperate poverty as a child had made her ambitious for her children’s success and she had high hopes for her first son.
Despite certain tensions the Hardys were a close-knit family. They lived harmoniously in the seven little rooms of the cottage with its floor of chestnut, its bumpy whitewashed ceiling and the wooden doors bearing the marks of adzes. The rooms were soon filled with other young Hardys: Mary, Henry and Katharine. Thomas drew closest to the second eldest, Mary, who was quiet and bright. ‘In childhood she was almost my only companion… and she had always been the one with the keenest literary tastes and instincts.’ His poems mark her significance for him. She was his ‘country girl’, the one who climbed apple trees with him, as he recalled in ‘A Memory of a Sister’:
…her foot near mine on the bending limb,
Laughing, her young brown hand awave
Mary became a teacher, then a school principal, and as they grew older, was Thomas’s intellectual comrade.
Although he was surrounded by siblings, cousins and local children, most of his writings about his childhood reveal his preference for ‘meditative solitude’. As the days drew to a close, young Hardy would sit inside the cottage and wait for the setting sun to cast its light on the Venetian-red wall of the staircase. Then in a blaze of light he would sing Watt’s psalm ‘And now another day is done’, not for any religious reason, but because it seemed apt for the mood and occasion.
Music was was undoubtedly the greatest gift from father to son. Hardy’s grandfather, father and uncle James all had played in the Stinsford Church Band in the gallery above the nave. Had it not been for their replacement by the barrel-organ, as recounted in Under the Greenwood Tree, young Thomas might well have continued the tradition.
From a very young age he learned the accordion and later the fiddle, playing in the evenings with his father while his mother sang traditional songs. He enjoyed the music of the people best, particularly the traditional songs of Dorset, and later documented this early sensitivity in his biography The Life and Works of Thomas Hardy (1920) which was written in the third person:
‘He was of ecstatic temperament, extraordinarily sensitive to music, and among the endless jigs, hornpipes, reels, waltzes, and country-dances that his father played of an evening in his early married years, and to which the boy danced a pas seul in the middle of the room, there were three or four that always moved the child to tears, though he strenuously tried to hide them…He was not over four years of age at this date.’
Music aroused and intensely interested Hardy all his life. He would dash out of his writing room to chase the quadrille of a street organ-grinder, or relentlessly pursue the wisp of a whistled melody that ‘spread such a bewitching halo more than twenty years earlier.’ And he was musically skilled enough to take down the song of a nightingale in musical notation.
The songs, military marches, hymns, dances, and the sounds of nature Hardy knew and loved are all featured in his novels and poems. And there is little doubt that his father’s musical influence shaped the lyrical impulse and inventiveness in Hardy’s writing. His biographer Keith Wilson cites the many ways he incorporated music into his work. He used musical terminology to describe some of his characters. There is The Return of a Native’s Grandfer Cantle’s ‘light step, and a gay tune in high key’, or the nervous, neurotic disposition of Jude the Obscure’s Sue Brideshead: ‘the fibres of her nature seemed strained like harp-string’.
Music often serves to increase emotional intensity in his work. In A Pair of Blue Eyes, Elfride Swancourt’s singing utterly enchants Stephen Smith, whose heart fires up like ‘a small Troy’ as he gazes at her face with such earnestness, as if in prayer. In a scene from The Return of the Native the five central characters wander Egdon heath (modelled on the heath near the family cottage). In darkness and pouring rain they are drawn together by a musical overture of nature that builds the accumulating tension:
The wind rasped and scraped at the corners of the house, and filliped the eaves-droppings like peas against the panes. … Rain was still falling heavily, the whole expanse of heath before him emitting a subdued hiss under the downpour … the drumming of the storm without … snapped at the window-panes and breathed into the chimney strange low utterances that seemed to be the prologue to some tragedy.
Schooling her frail firstborn son at home until the age of eight, Jemima passed on to him the great gift of literature. She had acquired a love of reading from her own mother and her tastes were eclectic, from English translations of French romances, to Latin poetry and Dante’s Divine Comedy.
By the age of nine, Thomas had read John Dryden’s translation of Virgil, Dr Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas and a translation of St Pierre’s Paul and Virginia (a book beloved by Flaubert). A friend had given him the New Guide to the English Tongue by Thomas Dilworth and he owned A Concise History of Birds. He also took great pleasure in a magazine he found in the closet: A History of the (Napoleonic) Wars.
When he turned eight, Thomas briefly attended a new Church of England school in Lower Bockhampton where, in the novel Under the Greenwood Tree, Fancy Day taught. Here, young Thomas developed a romantic passion for the school’s benefactress Julia Martin, the local lady of the manor in Stinsford. In one of the earliest reminiscences in his biography he describes his relationship with this woman of nearly forty, who had ‘grown passionately fond of Tommy almost from his infancy…whom she had been accustomed to take into her lap and kiss until he was quite a big child. He quite reciprocated her fondness.’ Hardy later describes how he had given her a ‘lover-like’ promise of fidelity.
Jemima, possibly sensing the unhealthiness of this relationship, whisked him away to visit her sister Martha in Hertfordshire in the autumn of 1849 and Tom attended a day school in Hatfield until their return several months later. But this earliest passion had begun a life-long preoccupation with women, sex and sexuality. And despite his shyness, he would remain deeply romantic and impressionable.
It was common for children to receive only a few years of schooling and to start work in the fields as early as nine years of age, but Jemima was determined her son should continue his education at a school in Dorchester, some three miles away. His father agreed, despite the expense and even though his business was not faring well at the time. Conscious of his good fortune in comparison with many of the local children who were living and sometimes dying in grinding poverty, Thomas studied diligently.
Hardy delighted in his mother’s story that, coming in from the garden one day, she had discovered a snake, peacefully coiled on his chest while he lay sleeping in his cradle. He felt this was a portent of his strong affinity with nature. From a young age, this solitary child, tender hearted and responsive, delighted in the outdoors. Incapable of much physical labour, he was put in charge of the family’s pig, hens and bees. He also tended a wide variety of vegetables and herbs in the garden, and the apple trees from which cider would be made.
The daily walk to and from school made him stronger and built his love of the Dorset countryside, inspirimg his fictional territory of Wessex, a name he coined in the small room under the eaves which he shared with his brother Henry. A keen observer of his surroundings, his descriptions of nature are masterful. In the opening scene of Under the Greenwood Tree, Hardy describes Thorncombe Wood, that lay adjacent to his family’s cottage:
To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall. And winter, which modifies the note of such trees as shed their leaves, does not destroy its individuality.
As a teen, he celebrated the unity of his birthplace with an early poem, ‘Domicilium’. It is not the cottage he describes so much as its setting and it is clear he envisages his home as a landscape:
In days bygone –
Long gone – my father’s mother, who is now
Blest with the blest, would take me out to walk.
At such a time I once inquired of her
How looked the spot when first she settled here.
The answer I remember. ‘Fifty years
Have passed since then, my child, and change has marked
The face of all things. Yonder garden-plots
And orchards were uncultivated slopes
O’ergrown with bramble bushes, furze and thorn:
That road a narrow path shut in by ferns,
Which, almost trees, obscured the passer-by.
‘Our house stood quite alone, and those tall firs
And beeches were not planted. Snakes and efts
Swarmed in the summer days, and nightly bats
Would fly about our bedrooms. Heathcroppers
Lived on the hills, and were our only friends;
So wild it was when first we settled here.’
Hardy’s fiction and poetry relied on acutely visualised situations, often drawn from childhood memory, and he sought to bring out the emotion contained within them. In his memoir he recalled a summer morning in his youth when, as he was about to sit down to breakfast, he remembered a man was due to be hanged at eight o’clock outside Dorchester Gaol, some three miles away. He took a big brass telescope that was a family heirloom and hurried to a spot on high ground on the heath. Just as he looked through the telescope, he saw a figure in white fustian on the gallows drop downward and heard the faint sound of the town clock striking the hour. The sight so startled him that he nearly dropped the glass in his hands. He felt as if he were alone on the heath with the hanged man, and crept home wishing he had not been so curious.
It was the second and last execution he would see. The first, two or three years earlier, had been the hanging of a woman, Martha Browne, found guilty of murder. He witnessed this while standing close to the gallows and never forgot the woman’s thin black gown, nor the white cap over her head that in the rain clung to her features. These harrowing scenes made a powerful impression and he would draw on them for Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) and his neglected novel, The Well Beloved: A Sketch of a Temperament (1897).
The poem featured above, ‘The Self-Unseeing’ was first published in Hardy’s second book of poetry Poems of the Past and the Present in 1902. It refers directly to his childhood and the many evenings when he and his mother would sit by the kitchen fireplace in their cottage, listening to his father play the violin. As in much of his work, loss, missed opportunity and regret are the poem’s themes. Hardy feels regret that he did not make more of one of the most carefree and joyous times of his life. But there is the suggestion too that it is impossible to fully appreciate the present, those days that are like ‘a dream’, for in order to do so, one would have to become conscious, to step away from the self and bear witness; to make the self seen. And by becoming an onlooker rather than a participant, one would need to wake from the dream, thereby losing the joy and spontaneity of the moment. Hardy lulls the reader into a false sense of security, bathed in comfort and nostalgia, then delivers the last line like a visceral punch.
Most crucially, Hardy’s work recalls the tempo and the quality of life in Dorset. He felt at one with the landscape and was able to create characters who were equally at one with their rural settings. He chronicled their joys, disappointments, heartaches and longings, not as an objective observer, but as one from similarly humble beginnings who had received his share of these things too. ‘The Self-Unseeing’ and a number of his other poems remind us that he was a fiddler’s son. And as Claire Tomalin points out, he was a boy with:
…music in his blood and bone, who danced to his father’s playing before he learned to write. This is how I like to think of him, a boy dancing on the stone cottage floor, outside time, oblivious, ecstatic, with his future greatness as unimaginable as the sorrows that came with it.
Photographs of Hardy’s Cottage have been taken with the kind permission of the National Trust.
Enrico, Lord Nelson’s Hornpipe – Enrico (Arr. Townsend) The Mellstock Band and Choir
This old English reel is said to have been one of Thomas Hardy’s favourite tunes. It makes an appearance in his drama The Dynasts:
Let us go and look at the dancing. It is ‘Voulez-vous danser – no, it is not, – it is ‘Enrico’ – two ladies between two gentlemen.
Hardy wrote that it was the accompaniment to a dance called Bonnets of Blue and, when he was young, to the Dorset dance Hands Across.
He left a vast store of music and songs which he and his family wrote down over many years. The collection is now housed in the archives of the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester.
In my early teens I was given an anthology of poetry featuring some of Thomas Hardy’s work. ‘The Self-Unseeing’ was included. I found it haunting and learned it by heart. Later, as I studied Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge, some of his descriptions of nature were so exquisite they made me to stop to catch my breath.
I visited Hardy’s childhood home twice, lucky on one occasion to see it on a bright spring morning when Thorncombe Wood was luminous with bluebells. These stunning flowers of the British Isles are mentioned in The Mayor of Casterbridge, when Elizabeth, learning to ride up the social scale, swaps their old Dorset dialect name of ‘greggles’ for ‘wild hyacinths’.
This is your archetypal romantic old cottage nestled in a profusion of flowers and vegetation. The rooms are tiny by today’s standards and would have been bursting at the seams with the family of six, plus grandparents and visiting relations.
Just over one and a half miles from the cottage is Stinsford church, where Hardy’s parents met. St Michael, as the medieval church is called, can be found down a quiet lane, surrounded by trees and soaring rooks. The fiddle and viol players of Hardy’s fictional Mellstock Choir based on men he knew, are buried here. And amongst the lichen-covered gravestones, is a memorial for Thomas Hardy himself, whose heart lies buried here (his ashes were interred in Westminster Abbey).
I have walked through many parts of Hardy’s Wessex, the land that takes in six main counties – Dorset, Hampshire, Somerset, Wiltshire, Devon and Cornwall. We will return to these parts another time.
Hardy’s cottage is managed by The National Trust.
It’s possible to retrace the steps of Hardy’s walk from the cottage to his school in Dorchester. At the National Trust website you download maps for this walk.
The Thomas Hardy Society offers a wealth of articles and links about the man.
Hardy’s visual sense and feeling for dramatic stories make his work easily adaptable to film. Here are clips from the 2005 adaptation of Under the Greenwood Tree, directed by Nicholas Laughland, starring Keeley Hawes.
A BBC documentary about the life of Thomas Hardy.
Jeremy Irons reads Hardy’s poem ‘Afterwards‘.
The Hardy Country Website features a number of Dorset attractions connected to Thomas Hardy and lists accommodation.
Visit England features details about Thomas Hardy country and accommodation in the area.
Ronald Blyth, Writers and Their Houses: A Guide to the Writers’ Houses of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, Ed Kate Marsh, Hamish Hamilton, 1993
Hardy, Thomas. Selected Poems of Thomas Hardy, Ed. Robert Mezey, Penguin, 1998
Hardy, Thomas. The Return of the Native, Penguin, 2012
Hardy, Thomas. Under the Greenwood Tree, Penguin, 2013
Norman, Andrew. Thomas Hardy: Behind the Mask, The History Press, 2011
Page, Norman. Thomas Hardy, Routledge, 2011
Tomalin, Claire. Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, Viking, 2006
Wilson, Keith. A Companion to Thomas Hardy, John Wiley & Sons, 2009