The Return of the Native: context links Contents
Thomas Hardy was born June 2, 1840, at Higher Bockhampton, Dorset, in the parish of Stinsford. It was a small farming community, near the county town of Dorchester. Like an earlier English novelist, Charles Dickens, Hardy began life in humble circumstances, but ended up famous, mixing with the leading literary figures of the day and receiving many honours, including Honorary Doctorates from Oxford and Cambridge, and the Order of Merit (OM) from the King.
His father and grandfather were both called Thomas Hardy. They were both skilled rural workers, often employed at a big local estate just outside of Dorchester, called Kingston Maurward.
His mother, Jemima Hand, had been a domestic servant for upper class families and had lived for a while in London. She was ambitious and quite a forceful personality. She was already pregnant with Thomas when she got married, and impressed on her children what a drawback marriage was. Only Thomas married, though he still retained a close relationship with his mother.
Thomas was the eldest of four children. His brother, Henry, became a builder, and his two sisters, Mary and Katharine, started as pupil teachers before going to Teaching Training College, as did one of his cousins, Tryphena Sparks.
Hardy's paternal grandfather lived with the family. It was a musical family and Thomas learned to play the fiddle at a young age, attending many local dances as a musician. As a boy, Hardy enjoyed solitude, although there were many children in the village and cousins living nearby.
Hardy first attended the local village school at Lower Bockhampton, from 1848-1850. He had been able to read from an early age, but ill-health prevented him attending school till he was eight years old.
Mrs Martin, the lady of the Kingston Maurward estate, recognised Hardy's promise, as did his mother. So, in 1850, he was sent to a private academic school in Dorchester, walking there and back each day. There he learned Latin and began teaching himself Greek. He began to have thoughts about becoming a clergyman in the Church of England (although later, in his twenties, he became an agnostic).
As Hardy’s family had been in the building trade for generations, in 1856 he became apprenticed for six years to John Hicks, a local architect with offices in Dorchester. During this time, Hardy still maintained his academic studies. By 1862, he felt ready to go to London to work in a big city office as a draughtsman or assistant architect. For a country boy, that was a big step.
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