The Return of the Native: context links Contents
Fame as a novelist
Marriage and mobility
The beginnings of prosperity
Hardy finally married Emma in 1874, after some delay owing to the opposition of her family, who considered Hardy socially inferior to Emma. His family, especially his mother, were not keen on the match either. However, Hardy was confident of being able to support a wife since, by 1874, he was assured of a steady future as an author. His work started to be serialised in Cornhill, a magazine edited by Leslie Stephen, a well-known literary critic of the day. Serialisation rights paid much more than book publication, even though the magazine editor often interfered in the writing to a greater extent.
The return to Dorset
The Hardys lived their first year of married life in the London suburb of Surbiton, renting a furnished villa. They then moved nearer the centre of London, since Hardy wanted to be near the literary life of the day, joining clubs and meeting various writers.
However, Hardy’s health again troubled him. As a result, they moved for two years to Sturminster Newton (the Stourcastle of Tess of the d’Urbervilles); Hardy later remembered this time as the happiest two years of their married life. Sturminster overlooked Blackmoor Vale. Whilst there, he started on The Return of the Native.
Finally, the Hardys settled down in a house just outside Dorchester which Hardy designed himself, called Max Gate. His brother built it but by all accounts it was not a comfortable house, and was later extended.
During the 20 years after 1874, Hardy wrote the following famous novels:
- Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)
- The Return of the Native (1878)
- The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886)
- The Woodlanders (1887)
as well as a number of other novels and short stories.
These would appear first in serialised form over a period of two years or so. Hardy found it difficult to find a regular publisher or journal for serialisation, so each new novel had to be separately negotiated. Sales went well in the United States, mainly through Harpers, the main New York publisher.
The creation of ‘Wessex’
Gradually, the concept of a rural setting based on Hardy's own Dorset emerged and was formed into ‘Wessex’. Hardy’s early thoughts of writing novels about city life in London disappeared as both critics and reading public preferred his rural settings. More importantly, his imagination was stirred more deeply as he went back into his own experiences and memories. However, he never repeated his settings between novels.
A darkening of mood
At first, the dominant mood of Hardy’s novels was pastoral, as in Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd. But gradually conflicts and tensions turned fatal. Even Far from the Madding Crowd had the sad episode of Fanny Robin, a sort of prototype of Tess in some regards, jilted by her soldier lover, who was left to die with her baby. The mood became more sombre with the classic tragic novels of his middle years, from The Mayor of Casterbridge and The Woodlanders onwards.
Gradually Hardy’s relationship with Emma deteriorated, as she became more devoutly Christian and his agnosticism became more pronounced. In the early days of their marriage, she had shown less interest in religion, although they had often gone to church together.
Hardy ceased to share his literary ideas with Emma, though she continued to make fair copies of his manuscripts for him (a significant task in days before typewriters). She also introduced him to the joys of cycling. The Hardys enjoyed travelling at home and touring in Europe. But beyond these leisure times, Hardy immersed himself in the world of his characters, working in solitude in his study.
The Hardys had no children, although no explanation was ever given for this. They were both about thirty when they married, comparatively old for a couple then. Their childlessness never seemed to be a problem for them; however it meant Emma was frequently bored and frustrated, with few outlets for her own creativity.
London and literary circles
Hardy and his wife continued to visit London once a year. Here he found time to develop friendships with other men and women. He had always been sensitive to women and often lost his heart to them. Perhaps the best known of these women was Florence Henniker, a society hostess. Though their emotional bond did not continue to develop, a good literary friendship remained.
Hardy was accepted into all the literary circles of the country by the 1870's. Although he was pleased with his success as a ‘poor boy made good’, he never felt totally secure in middle and upper class society. Significantly, Hardy never lost his sense of rootedness with the people and place of his upbringing and kept in touch with his own family. Emma, however, never accepted his working class relatives, leaving Hardy emotionally stranded between the precarious class structures of Victorian England.
Protest about Tess
After Tess of the D’Urbervilles appeared in novel form in 1891, there was a storm of criticism. This centred on Hardy’s sub-title which claimed Tess as a ‘pure woman’. Hardy was seen to be challenging all the Victorian stereotypes of purity in women, particularly in turning Tess into a murderess at the end.
Hardy was genuinely shocked at the ferocity of these attacks. Over the years, his work had suffered many modifications at the hands of his serialisation editors. He had, however, usually found readers and reviewers of the full-length novels, which contained the uncensored copy, were more tolerant. Not so with Tess.
Reaction to Jude the Obscure
Hardy tried one more novel, Jude the Obscure, about the rigid class and educational structures in England that prevented a bright young man from the lower classes from developing his potential and vocation. It appeared in 1895 to even more condemnation, both of its descriptions of unorthodox sexual relationships and of Hardy’s criticisms of social inequality and the practices of The Church of England.
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