The son of a stonemason, he derived a love of music from his father and a devotion to literature from his mother. Hardy could not afford to pursue a scholarly career as he wished and was apprenticed to John Hicks, a local church architect. He continued, however, to study the Greek and Latin classics. From 1862 to 1867 he served as assistant to Arthur Blomfield, a London architect; ill health forced him to return to Dorset, where he worked for Hicks and his successor until 1874.
Despite his employment, Hardy was writing continually during this period of his life. Such early novels as Desperate Remedies (1871) and A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) met with small success and may be considered formative works. After the appearance of Far From the Madding Crowd (1874), popular as well as critical acclaim enabled him to devote himself exclusively to writing. His success also made marriage feasible, and in 1874 he married Emma Lavinia Gifford.
Over the next 22 years Hardy wrote many novels, including those he referred to as
romances and fantasies—most of which were first serialized in popular magazines. His major works are The Return of the Native (1878), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891), and Jude the Obscure (1896), the latter two considered masterpieces.
Hardy's novels are all set against the bleak and forbidding Dorset landscape (referred to as Wessex in the novels), whose physical harshness echoes that of an indifferent, if not malevolent, universe. The author's characters, who are for the most part of the poorer rural classes, are sympathetically and often humorously portrayed. Their lives are ruled not only by nature but also by rigid Victorian social conventions. Hardy's style is accordingly roughhewn, sometimes awkward, but always commanding and intense.
Hardy had always written poetry and regarded the novel as an inferior genre. After Jude the Obscure was attacked on grounds of supposed immorality (it dealt sympathetically with open sexual relations between men and women), he abandoned fiction. However, the compelling reason was probably that his thought had become too abstract to be adequately expressed in novels. Beginning at the age of 58, Hardy published many volumes of poetry, including Wessex Poems (1898), Satires of Circumstance (1914), Moments of Vision (1917), and Winter Words (1928).
His poetry is spare, unadorned, and unromantic, and its pervasive theme is man's futile struggle against cosmic forces. His verse drama The Dynasts (written 1903–8) is a historical epic of the Napoleonic era, expressing the view that history, too, is guided by forces far more powerful than individual will. Hardy's vision reflects a world in which Victorian complacencies were dying but its moralism was not, and in which science had eliminated the comforting certainties of religion.
Hardy's wife died in 1912, and in 1914 he married Florence Emily Dugdale, a children's book writer, some 40 years his junior. He spent the latter half of his life at Max Gate, a house built after his own designs in his native Dorset, and died there. His ashes are interred in Westminster Abbey, but his heart is buried separately, with a certain dark propriety, near the Egdon Heath made famous by his novels.
See E. Hardy and F. B. Pinion, ed., One Rare Fair Woman, his letters to Florence Henniker (1972); M. Millgate, ed., The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy (1978–1988); biographies by his wife F. E. Hardy (1928 repr. 1971), E. Hardy (1953, repr. 1973), R. Gittings (1975 and 1978), M. Seymour-Smith (1994), M. Millgate (rev. ed. 2004), C. Tomalin (2006), and R. Pite (2007); studies by R. C. Carpenter (1964), C. J. Weber (2d ed. 1965), I. Howe (1967), M. Millgate (1971), J. I. M. Stewart (1971), F. R. Southerington (1971), and M. Williams (1972); studies of his poetry by E. Brennecke (1924, repr. 1973), J. O. Bailey (1971), P. Zietlow (1974), and I. Gregor (1974).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: English Literature, 19th cent.: Biographies