PETER and ANN FROST tell a chilling tale.
Thomas Hardy was born on June 2, 1840, at Higher Bockhampton, Dorset, where his father worked as a master mason and builder. From father he gained an appreciation of music, from his mother an appetite for learning and the delights of the countryside about his rural home.
Hardy was frail as a child, and did not start at the village school until he was eight years old. One year later he transferred to a new school in the county town of Dorchester.
At the age of 16 Hardy helped his father with the architectural drawings for a restoration of Woodsford Castle. The owner, architect James Hicks, was impressed by the younger Hardy’s work, and took him on as an apprentice.
Hardy later moved to London to work for prominent architect Arthur Blomfield. He began writing, but his poems were rejected by a number of publishers. Although he enjoyed life in London, Hardy’s health was poor, and he was forced to return to Dorset.
In 1870 Hardy was sent to plan a church restoration at St. Juliot in Cornwall. There he met Emma Gifford, sister-in-law of the vicar of St.Juliot. She encouraged him in his writing, and they were married in 1874.
Hardy published his first novel, Desperate Remedies in 1871, to universal disinterest. But the following year Under the Greenwood Tree brought Hardy popular acclaim for the first time. As with most of his fictional works, Greenwood Tree incorporated real places around Dorset into the plot, including the village school of Higher Bockhampton that Hardy had first attended as a child.
The success of Greenwood Tree brought Hardy a commission to write a serialized novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes, for Tinsley’s Magazine. Once more Hardy drew upon real life, and the novel mirrors his own courtship of Emma.
Hardy followed this with Far From the Madding Crowd, set in Puddletown (renamed Weatherby), near his birthplace. This novel finally netted Hardy the success that enabled him to give up his architectural practice and concentrate solely on writing.
The Hardys lived in London for a short time, then in Yeovil, then in Sturminster Newton (Stourcastle), which Hardy described as “idyllic”. It was at Sturminster Newton that Hardy penned Return of the Native, one of his most enduring works.
Finally the Hardys moved to Dorchester, where Thomas designed their new house, Max Gate, into which they moved in 1885. One year later Hardy published The Mayor of Casterbridge, followed in 1887 by The Woodlanders and in 1891 by one of his best works, Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
Tess provoked interest, but his next work, Jude the Obscure (1896), catapulted Hardy into the midst of a storm of controversy. Jude outraged Victoria morality and was seen as an attack upon the institution of marriage. Its publication caused a rift between Thomas and Emma, who feared readers would regard it as describing their own marriage.
Of course the publicity did no harm to book sales, but reader’s hid the book behind plain brown paper wrappers, and the Bishop of Wakefield burned his copy! Hardy himself was bemused by the reaction his book caused, and he turned away from writing fiction with some disgust.
For the rest of his life Hardy focussed on poetry, producing several collections, including Wessex Poems (1898).
Emma Hardy died in November 1912, and was buried in Stinsford churchyard. Thomas was stricken with guilt and remorse, but the result was some of his best poetry, expressing his feelings for his wife of 38 years.
All was not gloom, however, for in 1914 Hardy remarried, to Florence Dugdale, his secretary since 1912.
He made his romantic proposal of marriage to Florence by taking her to the grave his first wife Emma, and asked Florence if she would like the plot next door, the one reserved for the second Mrs Hardy. Florence said yes.
Thomas Hardy died on January 11, 1928 at his house of Max Gate in Dorchester. He had expressed the wish to be buried beside Emma, but his wishes were only partly regarded; his body was interred in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey, and only his heart was buried in Emma’s grave at Stinsford.
Or was it?
A rumour has persisted since Hardy’s death that it is not the author’s heart that was buried beside Emma. The story goes that Hardy’s housekeeper placed his heart on the kitchen table, where it was promptly devoured by her cat.
Apparently a pig’s heart was obtained to replace the poet’s heart and it was this that was buried in the grave in Stinsford Churchyard.
This was part of a series on graves that was published in various magazines.