the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

Max Gate, Thomas Hardy’s home

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Thomas Hardy designed and lived in Max Gate, situated on the outskirts of Dorchester, from 1885 until his death in 1928. When we first moved to the county town, the house was occupied by tenants and you could only access two of the ground floor rooms. Over time, the National Trust have opened more of the rooms including the attic rooms where Emma, Hardy’s first wife withdrew to.

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Emma’s boudoir in the attic at Max Gate

Emma started to use the rooms as a daytime retreat, but by 1899 she decided to move her bedroom up there, too. She described her space as a ‘sweet refuge and solace’. It’s strange to think of Hardy working at this desk directly beneath Emma’s rooms.

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Thomas Hardy’s first floor study

In his study at the house, Hardy wrote Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure and The Mayor of Casterbridge and much of his poetry.

Very little of the furniture in the house belonged to Hardy because his second wife, Florence, sold everything upon his death. Therefore, the contents of each room is there to recreate the atmosphere that might have existed. As such, this is one of the few National Trust properties I’ve been to where visitors are encouraged to take a seat and enjoy the warmth of the fire in the lounge.

Use of the toilet, however, is not allowed (although there are loos for public use).

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Max Gate is well worth visiting for anyone staying in or passing through Dorchester.

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Dorchester: Thomas Hardy Country

Just outside Dorchester in the parish of Stinsford, the poet and novelist Thomas Hardy was born in 1840. He grew up in the cob and thatch cottage at Bockhampton, which like Max Gate (the home he later designed and occupied from 1885 until his death in 1928) is open to the public through the National Trust.

From the car park, after a stroll through woodland, you reach the back of the cottage.  Follow the path to the gate and into the cottage garden, planted as it would have appeared when Hardy occupied the house. The accommodation was renovated to make room for a growing family, including turning a staircase around to create a bedroom for Hardy’s sisters.

This is the view from Thomas Hardy’s bedroom, where he was able to see on the hill at Portesham, the monument erected in memory of his distant relative Vice Admiral Sir Thomas Hardy.  You can find out more about this in an earlier post here.

It was at a small table, like this one, that Hardy wrote the first of his novels set in Wessex, the fictional county based upon Dorset. Few authors besides Hardy have such strong associations with the landscape and culture of their local area.

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Thomas Hardy and Dorchester

In Thomas Hardy’s tragic novel, Michael Henchard is the eponymous Mayor of Casterbridge who lives in the fictional town (based upon Dorchester). When I moved to the county five years ago, this was the first book I read as a Dorset resident. The narrative follows the actions of Henchard, who sells his wife and young daughter after drinking too much at a fair. Years later, when his wife tracks him down, she sees him at the hotel, through the ‘spacious bow-window projected onto the street over the main portico’ and learns that he is being entertained as the Mayor.

The King's Arms

 
This is a photograph of the hotel today and it’s just one of the buildings of the town, described by Hardy.
 
 

Plaque on Barclays Bank

 
 
 
 
 
Barclays Bank bears this plaque indicating its connection to the novel. And below is a photo of the building.
 

Henchard's House

 
Henchard’s house was ‘one of the best, faced with dull red-and-grey brick. The front door was open, and, as in other houses, she could see through the passage to the end of the garden nearly a quarter of a mile off.’
 
Chapter 9, The Mayor of Casterbridge
 
 
 

Statue of Thomas Hardy

 
In 1931 the statue of Thomas Hardy was unveiled by James Barrie, author of Peter Pan. Each year wreaths are laid here on the Saturday nearest to the anniversary of Hardy’s birth on 2 June. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
When the weather improves, I’ll cycle over to Stinsford to take photographs of the church where Hardy’s family are buried and visit the National Trust property that is the home of his birth.
 
If this focus on Dorchester has inspired you to share your stories about  places in the UK that have a literary link, please think about joining a new project called ‘Literary UK’. You can become involved by posting information through writing, photography or painting. For further information, please contact Victoria Bantock (editor, What the Dickens? Magazine): victoria@wtd-magazine.com
 
 
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