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Thomas Hardy's Wessex?


Links: The evolution of Wessex | The fictional concept | The marketing concept


To the modern reader it may seem that Hardy had already developed Wessex when he started writing his fiction. Such a conclusion is misleading, and if one analyses the process of Hardy’s creativity -- the period during which his works first appeared, editorial changes he made for subsequent editions and the changing social and economic environment of author and work -- Wessex turns out to be a complex concept that emerged gradually and was strongly influenced by interaction between Hardy and his readers, publishers and literary critics. It is the aim of this site to examine some of these processes. Thus subsequent sections will analyse the evolution of Wessex, the fictional concept, and a marketing concept.

The evolution of Wessex

When Hardy started writing he had not decided whether to pursue his career as an architect or whether to become a professional novelist. It was not until Far from the Madding Crowd --- his fourth published novel -- that he gave up architecture in favour of writing. This step meant for him that he had to earn a sufficient income that enabled him to make ends meet. To be able to fulfil this condition he had to write to the taste of his nineteenth-century readers. This has not always been easy for Hardy, and his communication with publishers (e.g. Alexander Macmillan and Kegan Paul) and editors (e.g. Leslie Stephen) reveal some of the advice Hardy received during this time. It was not only advice that was privately given to Hardy that influenced his writing; perhaps more importantly it were literary reviews his works received that had an influence on their form and content.

It would be oversimplifying matters to suggest that the only demand from the public on Hardy was to create a regional framework for his plots. There were other issues that influenced Hardy during the process of his writing, most importantly the demand of the circulating libraries to write 3-volume fiction that suited the needs of household reading. In addition to complying with these restraints Hardy had to create a kind of trade mark for his fiction that made his works distinguishable from the writings of other professional novelists. This trade mark came to be Wessex.

When Desperate Remedies Hardy's first published novel appeared in 1869 Hardy had not yet created Wessex as the fictional region for his works. Wessex as it is known to us today was the outcome of a long process of evolution that took several decades. Hardy first used “Wessex” in Far from the Madding Crowd writing that Greenhill fair is “the Nijnii Novgorod of Wessex” (1). It is doubtful whether at this stage Hardy had Wessex as a fictional region for his works in mind. It seems more likely that his continuing to use Wessex to describe the region in which his fiction is set was the outcome of responses from the public which he received. In favour of this suggestion is that it was not until he wrote Two on a Tower -- his eighth published novel -- that he began to use a uniform system of naming places which he retrospectively introduced in subsequent editions of novels that have previously appeared.

Hardy soon began to divide Wessex into different regions. In The Return of the Native (1878) he introduced South Wessex. In Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891) Upper- and Mid-Wessex are mentioned for the first time. In Jude the Obscure (1895), the reader learns of the existence of North- , Nether- and Outer Wessex. Finally in 1914, Off Wessex appears for the first time on any of Hardy’s maps.

Hardy undertook two extensive textual revisions -- the first for the Wessex Novels Edition (London: Osgood, McIlvaine, 1895/96) and the second for the Wessex Edition (London: Macmillan, 1912). The main purpose of these revisions was to turn Wessex into the largely consistent region as which it is known to us today. The outcome was that from then on Wessex came to be perceived as an existing region (mainly Dorset) into which people can travel.

The fictional concept

It is difficult to draw a clear line between what has been distinguished on this site as the fictional concept and the marketing concept. Hardy did not make this distinction himself. Although there are overlaps, it is useful to keep both aspects of Wessex separate.

The fictional concept as it is understood here strictly relates to how Hardy regarded his fiction in statements about his works and in his works. This approach is not completely unproblematic because for the Wessex edition Hardy introduced a classification which is clearly the outcome of the success of his books reflected in print figures at that time -- a classification that has been undertaken for marketing reasons and does not always reflect the initial success or failure of the respective works among Hardy’s first readers and critics. The outcome of this classification is that until today Hardy’s fiction is mainly perceived as “Wessex novels” which modern critics have mistakenly divided in Hardy’s major works (the seven novels of character and environment) and in his minor works (the remaining seven novels). The outcome of this has so far been that half of Hardy’s fiction has been hardly read during the twentieth century and that readers and critics alike interpreted his works in a very narrow regional context.

The marketing concept

As professional novelist Hardy willingly responded to the public demand and turned Wessex increasingly into a region that can easily be recognised in geographical terms. Those books that contain detailed descriptions of the geographical region or suggest that life in Wessex (or Dorset for that purpose) is more romantic than elsewhere in the country were most popular. Tess of the d’Urbervilles sold particularly well. Other novels that were (and still are) especially popular are Far from the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native.

The perception that Hardy’s Wessex (Hardy Country) is mainly Dorset has survived to the present day. Thus contemporary tourists planning a trip to South England will at an early stage of their preparations come across references to an apparently existing region called "Wessex". According to the map of England there is no such area. "Wessex" relates particularly to Dorset, one of the counties that is fictionally represented in the works of Thomas Hardy. "Hardy's Wessex" or "Hardy Country" are similar expressions used by the modern tourist industry to attract visitors. Thomas Hardy is therefore not just a literary figure but also a trademark that stands synonymous for Dorset--his native county and the region of his inspirations as a writer.

Tourists to this region will find themselves confronted with Wessex as a marketing concept at various stages of their preparation of their trip and through a number of different channels. Those who look at Ordnance Survey maps will find the Touring Map & Guide 15 is entitled Wessex. In addition to the map of Thomas Hardy's Wessex (1) it features an area that stretches from Chichester to Lyme Regis in the south and from Basingstoke to Bristol in the north. Others who prefer books will come across contemporary titles like Literary Dorset Wessex (2), Thomas Hardy: A Pictorial Guide of Wessex (3) or Hardy's Wessex Locations (4) just to mention three out of a wealth of other publications. They all have in common that they provide numerous illustrations of the region and identify the places that served as settings in Hardy's fiction. Still others might prefer to seek information through the Internet and come across websites like "Hardy Country" at http://www.thomashardy.co.uk/ (5) giving mainly information as to how to reach Dorchester, the weather there, where to stay and other local details.

Tourists may reach "Wessex" by a variety of means of modern transport. Travelling from Scotland they may choose the Wessex Scot--a direct train service connecting Edinburgh and Bournemouth. Those setting out from London may opt for the Thomas Hardy Flyer--a coach connection between the capital and Weymouth. Once arrived in Dorset, visitors may purchase guide books like Walk around Weymouth (Budmouth) with Thomas Hardy (6) or Walk Around Dorchester (Casterbridge) with Hardy (7) at local tourist information centres or book a guided minibus tour on the Thomas Hardy Explorer.

The identification of Dorset with Hardy and Wessex does not stop at linking real and fictional places. Since January 1999 there is an Earl of Wessex Wessex (8). People in Dorset may listen to the local radio station Wessex FM, receive their water from Wessex Water, purchase their car from Wessex Motors, get their television in gear with Wessex Aerials, become a customer of Wessex Electricals, contact Wessex Migration Services, or simply relax at the Wessex Leisure Club. This is just an arbitrary list of businesses that carry "Wessex" in their names. The list of entries under "Wessex" in the local Phone Book extends to almost two pages. For people who either live in Dorset or who just visit it as tourists it is almost impossible not to use the services of one or another branch of "Wessex" businesses. These examples carry the idea that Wessex is a geographical region further as they suggest that there is life in Wessex and provide a vague idea of how this life works. Because of this popular notion it is important to distinguish clearly between Wessex as a modern marketing concept and Hardy's fictional region. Tourists don't visit South Wessex but Dorset. They don't spend their time in Casterbridge or Budmouth but in the modern towns of Dorchester or Weymouth. This differentiation is important because it leads to the root of the problem of trying to identify real places as the settings of Hardy's works rather than as places Hardy imagined during his writing. For this reason there are differences between real places and fictional settings.

When Desperate Remedies Hardy's first published novel appeaered in 1869 Hardy had not yet created Wessex as the fictional region for his works. Wessex as it is known to us today was the outcome of a long process of evolution that took several decades. Hardy first menitioned Wessex in Far from the Madding Crowd--his fourth published novel. He developed his idea further during his time as a novelist (until 1895) and continued to expand on his fictional concept during his time as editor of his own fiction and poet until his death in 1928. Throughout his creativity the development of Wessex was strongly influenced by numerous responces Hardy received from the public.

Hardy undertook two extensive revisions of his complete works for two collected editions, the Wessex Novels Edition (London: Osgood McIlvainé & Co, 1895-96) and the Wessex Edition (London: Macmillan, 1912). Most of Hardy's revisions aimed at developing Wessex into a largely consistent region that could easily be mistaken for mainly Dorset--the region on which it had been superimposed.



1 Hardy, Thomas. Far from the Madding Crowd. Edited by Rosemarie Morgan. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 2000. 294.

2 A reprint from the Wessex Novels Edition (London: Osgood, McIlvaine and Co., 1895-96).

3 Legg, Rodney. Literary Dorset. Wincanton, Somerset: Dorset Publishing Company, 1990.

4 Brasnett, Hugh. Thomas Hardy: A Pictorial Guide. Second Edition. Wimborne: Lodge Copse Press, 1990.

5 Pitfield, F.P. Hardy's Wessex Locations. Wincanton, Somerset: Dorset Publishing Company, 1992.

6 Sands, David. Hardy Country. 1 September 2001 http://www.thomashardy.co.uk .

7 Skilling, M.R. Walk Around Weymouth (Budmouth) with Thomas Hardy. Dorchester: The Thomas Hardy Society Ltd., 1994.

8 Skilling, M.R. Walk Around Dorchester (Casterbridge) with Hardy. Dorchester: The Thomas Hardy Society Ltd., 1975.

9 This is a temporary title given to Prince Edward after his marriage to Sophie Rhys-Jones.