Anyone who has ever studied or read anything about English literature has likely heard of Thomas Hardy, the Victorian writer, and poet. Author of famous books such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Far From the Madding Crowd, it was in South West England where Hardy chose to make his home. Here’s what it’s like to follow in the footsteps of Thomas Hardy in Dorset…
Though Hardy’s critics may have been hard on him, there’s no denying that he soon became a Victorian celebrity in his own right and fabulously wealthy to match his ever-increasing popularity. Hardy had superfans and became a celebrity in the same way an actor or pop singer might today. It’s said that Hardy even met his second wife, Florence, a woman some 39 years younger than him, when she wrote him a letter asking to meet (all this while he was still married to his first wife!).
All this being said, Hardy was fiercely private and while he lived along the main road leading to Dorchester, he installed a number of security measures in his house so people would not be able to peer in the windows. This included an entire forest of Austrian pines and extra blinds in the house. After all, one story goes that a fan climbed a tree in Hardy’s property, merely so as to catch a glimpse of the man himself…
The fictional County of Wessex
Dorset is a beautiful county of contrasts. Home to land, sea, and rugged terrain, it’s well-known that Thomas Hardy’s semi-fictional county of Wessex, the backdrop for so many of his novels, was loosely based on the county. Real villages such as postcard-perfect Evershot and the hill of Toller Down both exist and can be visited today.
Sherborne, Shaftesbury, and the landscape surrounding Dorchester were also particularly influential to Thomas Hardy. So much so, that Hardy chose to construct his long-time residence on the outskirts of Dorchester. Now, Dorset makes for the perfect weekend getaway and highlights of the region include the ever-so-picturesque Corfe Castle, as well as the impossibly ancient Jurrasic Coastline.
Following in the footsteps of Thomas Hardy in Dorset
Both Hardy properties which can be visited (Max Gate and the Cottage) are now owned and managed by the National Trust, an organisation in England which cares and maintains well over four hundred properties. From castles with historic value to small houses once lived in by famous people, the Trust truly owns a real mix of places.
The Hardy Cottages are just a ten-minute drive from one another and can easily be visited together over the course of an afternoon. Although we opted to visit Max Gate first as it made more sense for our route, chronologically it would be worth seeing the cottage where Hardy grew up to begin with. While the properties are free to visit if you’re a National Trust member, there’s an entry charge if you’re not.
Thomas Hardy’s Cottage: 1840-1874
Thomas Hardy’s Cottage is a small cob cottage on the fringes of Higher Brockhampton. During his childhood, Hardy would walk from the cottage to school in Dorchester. The thatched abode was constructed in 1800 and it was here, in 1840, where Thomas Hardy was born to Thomas and Jemima Hardy. To the front of the property, there’s a sprawling and traditional cottage garden to explore.
Hardy’s parents had been forced to wed after Jemima fell pregnant. And as a result, Jemima discouraged all of her children from marrying, encouraging them to instead pursue education. While Thomas’ brother and two sisters never ended up marrying, instead finding careers in teaching (one of the only reputable ways a woman could live by her own means in the Victorian era), Thomas disobeyed his mother’s wishes.
He wrote his first three novels at the Cottage and left only when he married Emma Gifford, the daughter of a solicitor. For the first ten years of their marriage, they bounced between rental properties, before finally settling on a plot of land on the outskirts of Dorchester. This house was to become Max Gate, the property where both Emma and Thomas would live the rest of their days.
Max Gate: 1885-1928
The modest cottage where Thomas Hardy grew up is stark in contrast to Max Gate, Hardy’s later home where he spent his final years. Although Hardy originally set out to be an architect (and even designed Max Gate to his own specifications), his true passion lay in poetry.
And while it would have been hard to turn a profit from creating poems, he instead turned his hand to writing novels. This, in turn, led him to amass a fortune which allowed him, in later life, to focus on his poetry once and for all. When Thomas Hardy died, so iconic was his body of works, that it was decided he would be interred in the poet’s corner of Westminster Abbey.
You may well wonder why the house is named ‘Max Gate’. Well, the name is actually meant to be a play on words. For nearby, in a gatehouse, there was a keeper called ‘Mack,’ and thus the gate would have been Mack’s Gate. The house was constructed by Hardy’s relatives and he lived there from 1885 until his death in 1928.
In 1940, the property was given to the National Trust by Hardy’s sister on the condition that the property be tenanted. As such, Max Gate has only been open for viewing by the public for around a decade and extensive renovation works are still in operation today, particularly on the first floor of the house.
Today, the property is Grade I Listed and highlights include a pet cemetery in the garden (these kind of graveyards were incredibly popular during the Victorian era) and furniture which recreates how the house would have looked during Hardy’s ay. All but a couple of pieces of Hardy’s original furniture were sold off after his death by his second wife, Florence.