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Thomas Hardy's Wessex

 

WANDERERS through our south and south-western counties, especially that portion of them which would be enclosed by a triangle with the south coast from Exeter to Portsmouth for its base, and Bristol for the apex, will find few better guides than Mr. Hardy. To follow the fortunes of the people of his fancy through their native Wessex would be as good an itinerary as any need desire. And in the main this is a feasible plan, for though Mr. Hardy, as an artist, works with a free hand, and is not a mere photographer, yet in many instances his indications of localities, partially veiled by fictitious names, are clear enough to leave little room for doubt in their identification. If at times we do miss the track, we shall nevertheless be breathing the air of that old world country, of whose spirit, as well as of whose face, he is so faithful an interpreter.

Let a start be made, say, at Bristol-perhaps from the very tavern where rude old Squire Dornell had the angry meeting with the polite, dapper Squire Reynard, his son-inlaw by no consent of his, as to the rights of a husband over a wife wedded at the mature age of twelve! If you follow the old Squire on his way home, your track will lie by wooded high-roads, past the Mendip Hills, in the direction of the town of Ivell (Yeovil). At Falls Park the Squire has reached his destination, and he will turn in to nurse his gout and die of it, his obstinate old soul cheered at the last by the news of his daughter's escapade. It is a twenty miles' ride from Falls to King's Hintock which you may possibly find in the neighbourhood of Evershot. Here doubtless you will look for the carriage-drive like a turnpike, and for the long low outline of King's Hintock Court, where the old Squire's ambitious lady preferred to dwell. At the cross roads, the south-eastern one may be picked out as Long Ash Line, by which Lady Betty escaped for that very short flight with her timid lover, the news of which escape so improperly gladdened her fathers dying moments. By this road, too, she went no doubt later, to keep her equally clandestine appointment with her husband. It was along this way that Farmer Darton rode with Japeth Johns to “meet his fate like a man," that is, to go a-courting, on that dark night that brought the "Interlopers" to "the Knap." Near by is Little Hintock "snipped out of the woodland," where the dead leaves rot on the quiet street, a fitting frame to the picture of the patient, faithful Giles and to that strange, silent, solitary figure, Marty South, one of the finest of Mr. Hardy's creations. Then there is damp ivy-covered Hintock House, the manor in the hole, where the mysterious and fascinating, Mrs. Charmond sought to find rest, and found only a fatal adventure; and Hintock Woods, on which stood One Chimney Hut, the scene of poor Giles' delicate hospitality to his old love. Who could ever visit the Woodlanders' market town of Sherton Abbas (Sherborne) without seeing in his mind's eye honest Giles's specimen apple-tree, his mill and press, and all the other appurtenances of a travelling cider-maker? Here he met Grace on her way from her elegant school-life to the homeliness of Little Hintock here as a bride she looked down on him at his savoury work from the old inn windows; here it was her fine lady instincts were ruffled by his humble provision for her at the Three Tuns. And as to its association with higher personages-it was in the first, short, abortive siege of the castle during the Civil War that the noble dame Anne Lady Baxby performed such feats of agility with her political principles, and in return for her renewal of loyalty to the Royalist cause, tied her lord's locks by a stay-lace to the bed-post! From Sherton Abbas the road runs due south to Casterbridge, which surely needs no identification. On the high grassy slopes to the north of the town, the traveller can still look down and test Elizabeth Jane's description of it m "a plot of garden ground shut in by a box-edging," and trace the old Roman streets mathematically dividing it, and running into the cornfields and combes outside. The Roman remains-and they are many in this old market town--play their part in these tales of only yesterday. Was it not in the Ring--the great amphitheatre of Maumsbury Rings, where Hadrian's soldiers are still seen by dreamers sitting in the arena-that the Mayor, that strange, half-noble barbarian, met his wife eighteen years after lie had sold her at Weydon Priors Fair? Passing along the deep, slow river under the cliff here, Gertrude Lodge saw the three rectangular lines of the scaffold rise against the sky, and in the inner court of the jail she laid her withered arm across the dead man's neck But Casterbridge has other pictures less melancholy--Gabriel Oak playing “Jockey to the Fair" on his pipe, the young Scotchman moving about in the market-place with Lucetta's eyes upon him; and, best of all, Bathsheba, the “shapely maid," with her sample bags, archly doing business with the rustics in the Corn Exchange.

If you follow the track of Bob Loveday’s wheels as he drives off from the Greyhound at Casterbridge with that “genteelest” of girls, Miss Matilda Johnson, you will reach Overcombe Mill, overlooking the channel, near Weymouth. If these two eager young persons outstrip you, it may not be amiss to look for the mill in the neighbourhood of Sutton Pointz. There, if you can, put back your time to those days of keen suspense and excitement, when rustics were drilled on the green plot outside the church, in the use of pikes, or hurdlesticks, and in hatred of Boney. From Weymouth you may take the road to Portisham with Bob, to beg the honour of a chance of death by Captain Hardy's side on board the Victory; or to Portland, and sit where Anne Garland sat to watch that great ship as it passed the Bill like a phantom; then back to the little watering-place, all agog with the court, the soldiers, and the lying reports concerning the French; through Radipole, where under the willow tree by the sulphur spring Allege met the King--till Overcombe Mill is reached again. Before you leave it, cast one look at the bridge over which clanked the brave Trumpet Major's ringing step for the last time when he went away to meet his death on a Spanish battlefield.

Eastward along the coast you are on the track of Mrs. Lizzle: Newberry's smuggling adventures, near Lullstead Cove and Chaldon Down on the road to Knollsea (Swanage). This last in Ethelberta's days was a mere village lying within two headlands, “as between a finger and a thumb." You will scan the high slope for Ethelberta's cottage, looking down on the bay and the curved wall of cliff beyond-the bay “smiling in the summer sun like a courtier before a king," but with a different aspect in an east wind, as Solomon and the Hon. Edgar Mountclere found when they were foiled in the prevention of Ethelberta's wedding. Coombe (Corfe) Castle near by, beautiful for situation, famous in story, gathers interest too, from that lady's fortunes; for was it not here she tied her ass that day she found herself in the midst of the conference of the “Imperial Archaeological Association"? And here, too, it was that the fiat went forth from Lord Mountclere's lips that before the setting of the sun the six tall elms should fall that hid the sea from her gaze.

If you pass through Anglebury (Wareham) on your way north, you will doubtless seek out the "Old Fox" inn, or one like it that shows an "absence from its precincts o all that is fashionable and new." Here arrived, by different routes, but all with like motive, the different persons who were interested in preventing Ethelberta's marriage; and on the road near here young Brook loitered, by his mothers direction, to gaze at his father's new wife.

From Anglebury you reach without difficulty the waste land lying to the west of Poole Harbour, which Mr. Hardy calls Egdon Heath, nowadays not a continuous heath, but cultivated in parts. Who that has ever lived in a moorland county can ever forget his picture of “haggard Egdon," in 'The Return of the Native,' with its lonely face, “suggesting tragical possibilities." It is not every one who recognises that places have their own especial times and seasons, but Mr. Hardy does, and it is with perfect understanding that he bids us look on the “great inviolate place” in the hours between afternoon and night. If this were a fitting occasion to cavil, we might dispute his theory that the love for wild places like Egdon is a “recently learnt emotion”; but let that pass. Strange melancholy figures glide before you on the heath--Gertrude Lodge with her withered arm, on her ghastly errand to the gaol; the young dreamer, Yeobright ; Eustacia, wild, discontented, passionate, and shallow; the “reddleman," watching under his shroud of red the struggling lives of others till Death covered over the unquiet ones with his dark waters. If we take Shottsford Forum (Blandford) on our northward route, it will recall to our mind the sad story of the young Apollo, Edmund Willowes, of that town, who entrapped the heart of Barbara of the House of Grebe, but lost the love of his lady with his beauty, and who fled from her when the sight of him brought horror to her eyes. From Shottsford Forum the road runs north-east to Melchester (Salisbury), where the astronomer's bride lived as the Bishop's lady, and where Christopher at the Cathedral tired out the head-blower with his absent-mindedness and his musical vagaries. In Weyhill, near Andover, you will probably identify Mr. Hardy's village of Weydon Priors, the scene of that strange bargain in flesh and blood, the selling of Sarah Henchard to the sailor. And bending your course south-east, you may, if you be so minded, end your wanderings--though there will still be many Wessex paths untrodden--at the city of Wintoncester, from whence Sir Astley bore his bride away; Winchester, “the most convenient place for meditative people to live in, since there you have a cathedral with a nave so long that it affords space in which to walk and summon your remoter moods without continually turning on your heel."

To see Mr. Hardy's Wessex in good company you must trudge the highways and byeways with his rustics fellows of infinite humour and quaint homeliness. But they want space to unfold themselves, and refuse to answer to our swift modern pace, and therefore they have been left alone in this short ramble through “dear delightful Wessex," as the devoted painter of its face and manners calls it, "whose statuesque dynasties are even now only just beginning to feel the shaking of the new and strange spirit without,. like that which entered the lonely valley of Ezekiel's vision, and made the dry bones move, where the honest squires, tradesmen, parsons, clerks, and people still praise the Lord with one voice for His best of all possible worlds."

Anonymous. “Thomas Hardy’s Wessex”. The Bookman (October, 1891): 26-28.
(Scanned and proof-read by Birgit Plietzsch)

Link: Map of Wessex published as part of this review

 

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