Monday, December 10, 2012

The Graveyard Chronicles - Stinsford & Thomas Hardy

In the winter of 1979 I was given a present that transformed my teenage reading habits and initiated me into the world of great literature. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles was a Christmas gift from a friend at the Manchester city centre tax office where I worked. From the very first chapter I was drawn into Tess’ life, entranced by it, by her. Within the year I had read the novel three times, mostly before 8.00 am on the Number 167 bus, where I was one of many passengers making the daily commute into work. The bus journey, and indeed my own life, faded into the background as something to be endured while awaiting the next opportunity to immerse myself in the novel.
         Tess of the D’Urbervilles was my first encounter with Hardy’s Wessex* and even though I progressed on to others of his masterpieces, it has always remained my favourite. Jude the Obscure came next and whether it was coincidence, synchronicity or entirely meaningless, the fact was that Jude’s struggle - against the rigid class system of his time - to enter university - mirrored my own endeavours. Every evening and all weekend, whatever free time I had, was devoted to studying for my A levels. University, a degree, offered me an opportunity escape the daily tedium of office work and the chance to spend a few years just reading books, aka becoming a full-time student. Jude tragically failed because circumstances, or to use Hardy’s own words, fate, was against him. I was more fortunate. 
      And so it was that when I passed my A levels I set off on a “pilgrimage” to Wessex, to the home of the man I owed my enlightenment to, Thomas Hardy. Hardy, of course, died in 1928 at the age of 88. His birthplace in the Dorset village of Upper Bockhampton, had been acquired by the National Trust and was open to the public. It is a pretty, neatly thatched cottage surrounded by equally pretty gardens. The visit, however, gave me little insight into whatever vicissitudes the Hardy family had faced almost 200 years ago. Plodding through the house in the company of half a dozen other visitors and led by a guide whose deadpan voice reeled off all the relevant facts, it was difficult for me to get a sense of the man. I couldn’t feel a connection when I sought Hardy’s presence in this, his family home. Just for the record I took a few photos and departed, heading down Bockhampton Lane toward Stinsford Churchyard, where Hardy is buried together with other members of his family.
Three decades later I returned to Stinsford. On an unusually warm Saturday morning last August, I took the Southampton to Dorchester train in the company of my friend Jane, who had first introduced me to Hardy with her Christmas gift so many years ago. We were both excited about visiting Max Gate, the house that Hardy designed (he was a skilled architect) and had built for himself and his wife Emma on the outskirts of Dorchester. While I was enthusiastic about visiting Max Gate, the main reason for my journey was to satisfy my curiosity. Something uncanny had happened in 1981 when I visited Hardy’s grave and I had been yearning to return to Stinsford in the hope that a second visit would shed some light on that experience.
Jane and I walked from the train station along Arlington Avenue out to Max Gate. The house stands in its own 1.5 acre grounds, close to the busy A35.  We passed through the gates and followed the short driveway up to the house; as we stepped on to the porch I noted the sound of birdsong, but only as a feeble competitor with the roar of traffic. It was an uneasy blend that accompanied us throughout our tour of Max Gate, a soundscape that Thomas Hardy would not have been acquainted with. 
Max Gate was disappointing. Neither Jane nor I felt Hardy’s presence in the rooms we passed through, not even in his study where he had produced his best work, including Tess and Jude. Visiting his home should have been a rewarding experience; but I was unmoved. I began to wonder whether my enthusiasm for the great writer had faded over the years. However, as we were preparing to leave, Jane glanced at one of the leaflets an American lady had given us in the downstairs reception area upon our arrival. It was then we understood that very little of the furniture from Hardy’s time remained in his home. Dorset County Museum, for example, had acquired the original furniture from the study, which it has used to recreate the room as it was in the writer’s day – but behind a glass wall - as we discovered later on that afternoon.  To me, Max Gate felt as if it had been divested of something essential; part of its personality was missing.  
The walk from Max Gate to Stinsford Churchyard took longer than we expected. Not having a map, we decided to follow our instincts and found ourselves tramping through fields of nettles, aka delightful meadows.  Exasperated, Jane retrieved her “sat nav” from her bag. I groaned; it seemed sacrilegious to use 21st century technology in a quest to find the grave of this quintessentially 19th century writer. As it was, the device could not or did not recognise our location, so on we went.  Eventually we discovered a signpost directing us to Stinsford; we followed the pathway in hushed appreciation of the beauty of our gentle unspoilt surroundings.
The scent of newly-mown grass in Stinsford Churchyard blended with the heat just as it had done on that day in 1980 when I had first visited. I walked up the slope toward St. Michael’s. Many of the graves I passed dated back to Thomas Hardy’s time and earlier. Sadly, the church was closed. It was here – around 150 years ago - that Mr Shirley, the vicar, infuriated the young Thomas Hardy one Sunday by criticising the endeavours of the lower class to improve their lot in life by joining the professions. This was very possibly the place where the author experienced what became a life-long aversion to the Church and the class snobbery typical of its clergymen.
Thomas Hardy was drawn to this churchyard again and again from his earliest years. His parents, grandparents, sister and his first wife, Emma, were buried here before him. It was not unusual for him to stroll to Stinsford from Max Gate with visitors and point to the spot where he wished to be buried. When others left, he often lingered here alone. One hundred years ago, in November 1912, he placed a wreathe on the grave of Emma “From her lonely husband with the Old Affection.” On Christmas Eve 1919 he told Florence, his second wife, that when he was arranging some holly on his father’s grave, he’d witnessed a ghost. They exchanged a few words but it vanished when he followed it into the church. 
Looking down at the grave of Thomas Hardy, that uncanny sense of something-being-not-quite right filled me once again. It was the same feeling I had experienced earlier in Max Gate and also many years ago in the cottage at Upper Bockhampton, Hardy’s birthplace. The inscription reads, “Here lies the Heart of Thomas Hardy OM”. His heart was a concession to the writer’s family and to his last wishes, as expressed in the will, to be buried alongside his kin. The remainder of the corpse was claimed as belonging to the nation and taken off to be cremated and buried at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Thirty years ago. I was standing in this churchyard when a powerful and unexpected sense of déjà vu overcame me. It seemed to rise up from the earth and hold me to the spot. I didn’t know how to explain it then and still don’t now; but that sensation seemed to justify the nostalgia that fills me whenever I visit Wessex. I scanned the churchyard, hoping to recognise the spot…
I’d come here seeking to relive that unique moment in my life, hoping to make another connection with something mysterious. Leaving Stinsford Churchyard, I understood that I hadn’t failed. Nostalgia, yearning, melancholy, the pathos that forms the essence of Hardy’s genius is here for anyone who opens to it.
I leave the final word on pathos to the master himself:
Winterborne’s fingers were endowed with a gentle conjuror’s touch in spreading the roots of each little tree, resulting in a sort of caress, under which the delicate fibres all laid themselves out in their proper directions for growth …
“How they sigh directly we put ‘em upright, though while they are lying down they don’t sigh at all,” said Marty.
“Do they?” said Giles. “I’ve never noticed it.”
She erected one of the young pines into its hole and held up her finger; the soft musical breathing instantly set in, which was not to cease night or day until it should be felled – probably after the two planters should be felled themselves.
         “It seems to me,” the girl continued, “as if they sigh because they are very sorry to begin life in earnest – just as we be.”
  The Woodlanders, Thomas Hardy  

1 comment:

  1. "What arrested him now as of value in life was less its beauty than its pathos." — Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, 1891.