Wessex: Its Location
An understanding of Hardy’s Wessex, its physical features, etc., is necessary for a proper understanding of his works, for this region forms the background to all that he has written. In some of his novels, as in the Return of the Native, it is a dominant over-character influencing both character and action.
Wessex was the name of the ancient kingdom of the legendary King Alfred. Hardy used this name for the six odd counties in the South-West part of England. Wessex of Thomas Hardy stretches from the English Channel in the South, to Cornwall in the West, and as far as Oxford to the North. It is this limited region which forms the scenic background to each of his eighteen “Wessex novels” and to his poems, and also reappears in the epic-drama. The same physical features —hills and dales, rivers, pastures and meadows, woodlands and heaths —appear and reappear in all his works. This imparts to his works a kind of scenic continuity and a touch of realism difficult to match in any fiction. Every event in his novels takes place within this locality. It is seldom that he strays out of it. It is for this reason that he is also called a regional novelist.
Hardy’s Treatment of Wessex: Its Realism
The heart and centre of Hardy’s Wessex is the country of Dorsetshire. It was here that he was born and bred up and it was here that he settled in after life. It was here that he produced the best of his works. He had acquired a thorough knowledge of this region. He was permeated with its scents and substances, with its scenes and sights. He has described the physical features of his Wessex with great accuracy and realism. He has expressed the very spirit of this locality in his works. He has immortalized the land of Wessex which is a living, breathing reality in his novel. That is why many a Hardy enthusiast and topographer has taken the imaginary for the real and has gone in search of various landmarks described in the Wessex novels. For example, the description of Casterbridge in The Mayor of Casterbridge is so realistic that many have taken it to be an exact reproduction of the town of Dorset. Similarly, all visitors to the Hardy country have testified that the dreary and desolate atmosphere of Flint Comb-Ash farm in Tess is exactly the same as that of the real place.
Wessex: Heightening of Reality
But this does not mean that Hardy’s works have the literal fidelity of a guidebook. We should not expect scientific accuracy from a writer of fiction. As Hardy himself pointed out, his Wessex is partly a real and partly a dream country. It is a clever blending of fact and fiction. The general features and broad outlines remain the same as of the real objects. The spirit-of the place also remains the same. Thus much is realism. But the details are shifted, modified or enlarged to suit the purpose of the novelist. For example, the powerfulness of his imagination enabled the writer to magnify a small heath to epic proportions and immortalise it in the Return’ of Native. Similarly, he magnified the small wood near his native place, and in the Woodlanders, imparted to it a vastncss and grandeur which is utterly lacking in the original.
Wessex: Its Historical Associations
Dorsetshire and its neighbouring countries —the South-western part of England —are rich in historic associations. The Romans ruled it for a number of years and have left their monuments behind. Many other invading hoards came to it one after another. Race by race and tribe by tribe as they came and went they have left the traces of their arrival, which time has failed to obliterate. Hardy is fully alive to the historic character of the region that he has chosen as a background to his works. Every sod in Hardy’s Wessex breathes history. He invokes history, even pre-history and geology, to cast over the land of Wessex a romantic glow. In the Mayor of Casterbridge, for example, we are told that even if we dig a few feet we are sure to find some skeleton of Roman warrior, with its feet touching its abdoman and its vessels hurried near him. Such “Skellingtons” are a common sight for the Wessex farmers and urchins. Near Casterbridge there is the Roman ring or ampitheatre, the ancient relic of the Roman Empire, which no one likes to frequent out of fear of its bloody associations. In Tess we get the temple of Stonehenge which the ancients had built of placate the powers that be. Then there are the palaces of ancient Wessex families like that of the D’urbervilles, now in ruins and unfrequented but still important landmarks in Hardy’s landscapes. In A Pair of Blue Eyes we are given an account of the various races and tribes that came to Wessex from time to time. We are then taken into the realm of pre-history, and made to see with our mind’s eyes the different animal species that have- successively stalked the land of Wessex. A similar condition of things obtains in all other Wessex works.
Life and Customs of Wessex
Equally close is Hardy’s familiarity with the life and customs of the Wessex rustics. He knows every detail of the business of the farmer, the wood-cutter, the hay-trusser, the cider-maker, the shepherd, the dairymaid and the dairyman. This knowledge is not that of a person who has studied their life from apart, with a sense of superiority, but of one who has lived with them and mixed with them on an equal footing as one of them. Characters in the Wessex novels are drawn not from the upper strata of society b from the lowest and the humblest rank of life. Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge is a hay-trusser. Clym also turns a hay-trusser and furze-cutter. Tess in the Tess of the D’urbervilles is a dairy maid, Giles an humble cider-maker and pine-planter, and Marty South makes spars for her livelihood, He reveals to us the intimate details of their respective professions, their skills and the hardships of their lives. He reveals to us the inherent nobility of their souls, their persistance and their struggle against heavy odds. They have to wrest their humble livelihood from Nature and depend upon her vagaries for their life. In The Mayor of Casterbridgc we are told that the Wessex farmer often regards the Weather-God as a person hostile to him and bent upon destroying him. In Tess we are taken to a dairy farm in the vale of the Great Dairies and are shown their life from day to day, and intimate details of their profession are described with great accuracy. The use of local dialect, in which Hardy was well-versed, and through which all his characters express themselves, imparts to his works a touch of realism difficult to be matched in any fiction. Not only this, he also knows that the Wessex rustic suggests more through his movements than through his speech. In a characteristic passage in The Mayor of Casterbridge, the various ways through which the Wessex rustic expresses himself have been graphically and humorously described.
Wessex Rustics: Their Recreations
No aspect of Wessex life escapes Hardy’s eye. Dancing, singing, and drinking are their favourite recreations. In the evening, or whenever they have leisure, they assemble in some inn and pass their time in drinking and singing or in idle gossip. For example, in The Mayor of Casterbridge the rustics gather at the Three Mariners, drink as they gossip, and pass comments on the events of the day. They heartily enjoy the song of Farfrae, and press him to repeat his performance. Village fairs are also a good source of entertainment for them. In the opening of this very novel, we are given an account of the annual fair at Weydon-Prior where Henchard sells his wife in the tent of the furmity-seller. We also get an account of such a fair in The Return of the Native, at which Eustacia dances with Wildieve. Later on, we get vivid accounts of the respective fairs organised by Farfrae and Henchard and which lead to the latter’s undoing.
Wessex: Orthodoxy and Fatalism
The Wessex of Hardy is an isolated country. Railways and modern industrialisation have not yet reached it. The Wessex rustics live their own life untouched by modernism. Many quaint customs and superstitions still persist. They are still fatalistic. In The Mayor of Casterbridge, we get the ‘Skimmity Ride’. The residents of Mixen Lane take out on an ass the effigies of Henchard end Lucetta in close embrace, symbolising their immoral relations. Elizabeth-Jane passively accepts her sorry fate because what is lotted cannot be blotted. Tess when confronted with misfortunes passively exclaims, “It was to be”, and goes on as usual about the daily business of her life.
Some Wessex Superstitions
The Wessex rustics are a supertitious lot. Education as yet has not dispelled the darkness of ignorance from the land. In every town, there arc conjures and fortune-tellers. In The Mayor of Casterbridge, there is (he Conjurer Fall, the Weather-prophet, whom Henchard consults before making his rash purchases. When crossed in his luck, he feels that somebody must be melting his image made in wax to spell his ruin. Later on, the sight of his own effigy floating in the dark water of the river prevents him from committing suicide. In the Return of the Native, Susan Nunsuch burns a wax effigy of Eustacia whom she regards as a witch. There is also the superstition “no moon, no man.” In Tess of the D’urbeivilles, we find that an evening crow is considered an ill-omen as it signifies pre-marital sex experience or the part of the bride. In this very novel, the cattle are supposed to withhold their yield on the arrival of a new hand and soften only when music is played to them. In the other works of Hardy also, we are told of one or the other of the Wessex superstitions.
The Impact of Modernism: Its Tragic Consequences
Hardy is suspicious of the advance of modern civilization. Wessex is so far unaffected by it, but sophisticated people from the town arrive to disturb the even tenor of the simple life of the Wessex folk. The rustics are happy and contented inspite of their backwardness, their poverty and their humdrum ways. The impact of modernism leads to tragedy. Henchard would have prospered with his old, unsystematic ways and rough and ready methods of accountancy. But then Farfrae arrives on the scene. With his systematic business like ways, with his new-fangled machines and with his polished manners, he pushes Henchard out of business as well as out of the hearts of the people. Similarly, sophisticated Luceta, with her refined manners and fashionable dresses, conquers the heart of Farfrae and causes untold suffering to simpler but far noble Elizabeth-Jane. In Tess, it is the sophisticated and self-centred Angel Clare and Alec who are responsible for the tragedy of Tess, a pure woman more sinned against than sinning. It is the same in all other prose works of Hardy.
The Universal Element
Such is Hardy’s Wessex. He has immortalised it and put it on the world map. Hardy is a great Regional novelist because he has imparted universal interest to a particular region. The scenes of all his novel are laid in one particular region. He treats only of its life, its history and its geography. Still his novels are of interest even to those who have nothing to do with Wessex. This is so because he succeeded in universalising the regional and the topical. He concentrates on passions and emotions which are universal; they are the real themes of his novels.