Thomas Hardy: The World of His Novels: Books

Article excerpt

By J.B. Bullen. Frances Lincoln. 256pp.Pounds 20.00. ISBN 9780711232754. Published 6 June 2013.

Thomas Hardy has been powerfully and inextricably identified with the region in which his work is mostly set. A blue plaque - one of the few to commemorate a fictional character - marks the "home" of Michael Henchard, thus forming a material link between an actual 18th-century brick house in South Street, Dorchester (now a branch of Barclays Bank) and the home of an imaginary citizen of Casterbridge.

In this beautifully illustrated and immensely readable book, J.B. Bullen sets out to identify the actual places and settings that inspired Hardy, and explores the "expressive relationship" between the villages, buildings and landscapes of the "partly real, partly dream" country of Wessex and the characters that populate it. Beginning with the "articulate architecture" of Far From the Madding Crowd, Bullen's odyssey takes us across the expressively "haggard" Darwinian landscape of The Return of the Native's Egdon Heath (Puddletown) to the tightly realised topography of The Mayor of Caster-bridge ("more Dorchester than Dorchester itself"). On we go, northwards, to The Woodlanders and Melbury Osmond - the land of Hardy's mother - before descending into the painterly landscape of Tess' Blackmoor Vale, shaped in Hardy's imagination by Turner, Frazer, Ruskin, Wagner and solar fertility myths, and finally into the "Brown Melancholy", dead medievalism and "freezing negative" of Christminster (Oxford). The seventh and final chapter explores the "Poems of 1912-13" in the magisterial landscape of North Cornwall, where Hardy becomes a character in his own narrative in a location whose every element is a graphic expression of loss, guilt and remorse.

Bullen's mission is to recuperate the "sense of pleasure" and the "enormous positive vitality" in Hardy's work that has been lost in the prevailing critical and popular concentration on gloom and despair. This he locates firmly in Wessex: a visionary place "charged with stories, legends and myths, enhanced with light, colour, sounds, texture and smells", which plays an active role in the plot and the dispositions of Hardy's "psychologically plausible" characters. …