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Thomas Hardy

Like most of the characters in his novels, Thomas Hardy was a creature of the English countryside. He was born on June 2, 1840, in Higher Bockhampton, a hamlet in the southwestern county of Dorset. Growing up on the edge of what is now Egdon Heath, he became intimately acquainted with the world of nature; he also witnessed firsthand the poverty and dislocation that plagued many rural English families in Victorian times.

Financially better off than most of their neighbors, the Hardys were still of fairly humble social standing, though--like Tess's family--they had been more prominent in centuries past. Hardy's father and grandfather were builders and master masons , and it was expected that Thomas would follow in their footsteps. Hardy's mother, however, encouraged his precocity--he could read by the time he was barely able to walk--and his love of learning. Well-grounded in Latin and Greek, he considered attending a university and taking holy orders but complied with family tradition, leaving school at 16 to become an apprentice architect in nearby Dorchester. Nevertheless, before setting off on the three-mile walk to that city, he would awaken at 4 A.M. to continue his self-education, reading Greek classics that later would influence his own writing.

In 1862 Hardy moved to London and found work with a noted architect, but during the next five years he gradually lost interest in his chosen profession. Taking up writing in his spare time, he penned several poems and a novel but was unable to get them published. Luckily, the manuscript of the novel came to the attention of author George Meredith, then working as a reader for a publishing house. Recognizing Hardy's promise, Meredith encouraged him to continue writing. The result was Desperate Remedies, a detective novel of sorts, published in 1871. Over the next three years, Hardy published three more novels that met with increasing popularity: Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), and Far From the Madding Crowd (1874). The last of these was so successful that Hardy was able to say good-bye to his architectural blueprints and to marry Emma Lavinia Gifford, a young woman of somewhat higher social standing than he.

With Far from the Madding Crowd, Hardy encountered a problem that would beset him as long as he wrote fiction: he was sharply criticized in some quarters because his views on male-female relationships were not in step with Victorian views. The problem continued with The Return of the Native (1878) and grew even worse with Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891). By the time Hardy published Jude the Obscure in 1895, he was laboring under a notoriety that he frankly hated. Deciding to abandon the writing of fiction altogether, he returned to his early love, poetry, earning praise as an important transitional poet, bridging the Victorian and modern eras.

Hardy spent his final decades as one of Britain's most prominent men of letters. In 1914, two years after Emma Hardy died, he wed his secretary, Florence Emily Dugdale, who helped prepare what was called his biography but was largely an autobiography written in the third person. Following his death in 1928, Hardy's ashes were placed in Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey, next to those of Charles Dickens. His heart, however, was taken out and saved for burial in his beloved Dorset.