In 1935 the painter, Paul Nash, wrote and illustrated the first Shell Guide to Dorset in which he discussed Thomas Hardy: ‘no other region that I can recall has become so closely indentified with the work of a writer as this part of Wessex has with the novels and poems of Hardy’.
As well as a number of guide-books covering ‘walking in Hardy country’, quite apart from the biographies and literary appreciations, there are also maps that superimpose Hardy’s place-names (e.g: ‘Melchester’ is Salisbury) on the real places.
There is also an active Thomas Hardy Society with a very comprehensive web-site: http://www.hardysociety.org/, from which all the Hardy novels can be downloaded, while here is a small excerpt of their summary of the great writer: ‘Hardy’s literary reputation – his fame and fortune – was based entirely upon his appeal as a novelist. Widespread public acclaim came with his fourth novel Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) – sufficient to allow him to abandon his architectural career in favour of the less certain path of a writer of imaginative fiction. Over the ensuing twenty years he published a further ten novels, variably received at the time. However in his final five novels – a sequence beginning with The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) – he found his mature voice, producing fiction which upset Mrs Grundy and in one case (Jude) was burnt by a bishop but which ensured his place in the premier league of English novelists’.
(Those keen to walk in the footsteps of the great author should access the Hardy Society web-site, click on ‘Resources’ and then clock on ‘Walks’).
On 4 September 1895, while Thomas Hardy and his wife Emma were staying with the Pitt Rivers at Rushmore an annual sports day was held at the Larmer Tree Gardens followed by a night-time dance. Hardy ‘led off’ the country dancing with Agnes Grove, Pitt Rivers’ youngest daughter and the wife of Sir Walter Grove, another old local family. Agnes later became a literary pupil of Hardy’s, and after her death in 1926 Hardy wrote the poem Concerning Agnes, reflecting on the night they first met. The first two stanzas read:
I am stopped from hoping what I have hoped before
Yes many a time!
To dance with that fair woman yet once more
As in the prime
Of August, when the wide-faced moon looked through
The boughs at the faery lamps of the Larmer Avenue
I could not, though I should wish, have over again
That old romance,
And sit apart in the shade as we sat then
After the dance
The while I held her hand, and, to the booms
Of contrabassos, feet still pulsed from the distant rooms