Writers in Cornwall: Thomas Hardy

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On how the author of classics including Jude the Obscure and Far from the Madding Crowd began his own love story in Cornwall.

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The novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was born and spent most of his life in Dorset, the county of his birth. He found success as a writer in his lifetime, first as a novelist and then as a poet. He is perhaps best known as a landscape novelist, where place is as significant as character, and the setting itself influences the characters directly. Mostly, Hardy is associated with his beloved Dorset, and his Wessex novels. 

What was his connection to Cornwall? 

Before he could make a living from his writing, Hardy was an architect, articled to John Hicks in Dorchester. In March 1870, Hardy was sent to St Juliot, north Cornwall, to develop restoration plans for the crumbling church. It was there that he met the vicar’s sister-in-law, Emma Lavinia Gifford, and fell in love. Theirs was a four-year courtship, which saw Hardy return to Cornwall many times. He spent three weeks in August of 1872, at the time he was writing the serialisation of A Pair of Blue Eyes. Gifford both encouraged his writing and copied out manuscripts for submission.

 
 St Juliot Church

St Juliot Church

 

How did Cornwall find its way into his work?

The heroine, Elfride, of A Pair of Blue Eyes is said to have been influenced by Hardy’s impressions of Gifford as a young woman. The story also centres around a young architect that is restoring a church. Hardy denied that it was autobiographical, but there was certainly a strong influence in the rebuttal of Elfride’s prospective father-in-law, who rejected his request to marry his daughter due to a sense of social superiority. In 1872, before Hardy had found fame as a writer, he went to Bodmin to ask for Emma’s hand in marriage and was flatly refused. The ex-solicitor had better ideas for his daughter. When they married in 1874, in London, Emma’s father did not attend.

It is in several of Hardy’s poems that have the closest association with Cornwall, with the series Satires of CircumstanceWhen I set out for LyonesseAt Castle BoterelBeeny Cliff, as well as the dramatic poem The Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall. Beeny Cliff, near Boscastle, is where Hardy and Emma Gifford spent many outings together, via the beautiful Valency Valley. 

Hardy’s poem, Beeny Cliff, is a poem about love. His love. It reads with increasing depth of feeling, from love to remorse, as the reader realises that it is a love in retrospect, for the ‘woman riding high’ of the first verse is now ‘elsewhere’ by the last verse. It is a wonderful poem that encapsulates not only his love for Emma, but his flair as a nature writer. 

 

Beeny Cliff
O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea, 
And the woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free –
The woman whom I loved so, and who loyally loved me.
The pale mews plained below us, and the waves seemed far away
In a nether sky, engrossed in saying their ceaseless babbling say,
As we laughed light-heartedly aloft on that clear-sunned March day.
A little cloud then cloaked us, and there flew an irised rain, 
And the Atlantic dyed its levels with a dull misfeatured stain, 
And then the sun burst out again, and purples prinked the main.
- Still in all its chasmal beauty bulks old Beeny to the sky, 
And shall she and I not go there once again now March is nigh, 
And the sweet things said in that March say anew there by and by? 
What if still in chasmal beauty looms that wild weird western shore,
The woman now is - elsewhere - whom the ambling pony bore, 
And nor knows nor cares for Beeny, and will laugh there nevermore.

 

His love for Emma floundered during their marriage, which became increasingly troubled. Emma died in 1912, unexpectedly. Hardy had not acknowledged the severity of her failing health and had to be persuaded of the seriousness of her condition on the day she died. Her sudden departure left him heavy with remorse and longing for the woman that simply was no longer there. His mind wandered back to Cornwall, and the heady days when he left with ‘radiance rare and fathomless’. Hardy made a penitence pilgrimage back to St Juliot the year after her death, inspiration for the Satires of Circumstance

Ten years after the death anniversary of Emma, Hardy began working on The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall, perhaps as a tribute to her. He had first thought of writing it in August 1870, when during his three cherished weeks, he went with Emma to Tintagel, but he said then that he had an Iseult of his own. In the legend of Tristram and IseultTristram’s love-life gave parallels to his own. Two Florences (Henniker and Dugdale, his second wife), and two wives. It was Cornish Iseult that Tristram really loved, the one from Brittany was merely one whose lie caused his death. Hardy must have had an interesting challenge to portray the legend without offending his living non-Cornish Iseult.

That Hardy came to Cornwall was a function of circumstance. That he returned home with ‘magic in his eyes’ is fortunate for us revelling in the legacy of his writing. The woman and the north Cornish coast both won a place in his heart, finding their way into some of his finest poems.