Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928)


Thomas Hardy

The grand old man of Wessex letters might be expected to feature Winchester strongly in his novels and poetry but the city is peripheral, geographically and artistically, to his version of Wessex. Hardy was a Dorset man, lived in Dorchester, and was largely indifferent to Winchester’s pedigree as the ancient capital. It figures significantly in just one novel and one poem. However, the novel is Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) and its heroine, Tess Durbeyfield, is the epitome of the women for whom Hardy spent so much of his life yearning. (One of Hardy’s biographers, Robert Gittings, nominates Mrs Hamo Thornycroft as one of the models for Tess, and she became associated with Winchester as the wife of the sculptor of the King Alfred statue in the Broadway.)

Tess of the d’Urbervilles was Hardy’s big hit, bringing him national acclaim as well as some ticking-off from the very forces of social prurience he tackles in this novel, and also in his last, Jude the Obscure. Hardy was a countryman, of modest birth, and his fiction provided an authentic reckoning of rural working class life. On the whole it wasn’t a pretty picture but Hardy’s passion for his surroundings, and his willingness to describe passion, brought him critical reprimands as well as substantial sales. Tess’s story is one of abuse by three men: her gormless father; her hypocritical husband Angel Clare, son of a clergyman; and her seducer Alec d’Urberville, son of the manor and whom she murders.

Tess asleep at Stonehenge, with Angel Clare, during the final hours of her freedom. Illustration by D A Wehrschmidt for the London Graphics 1891 serialisation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

d’Urberville is stabbed through the heart by Tess with a carving knife, while they are staying in a smart lodging house in Bournemouth, or Sandbourne as Hardy prefers it: ‘a city of detached mansions; a Mediterranean lounging-place on the English Channel’. Tess and her husband are then reunited and make their fugitive way north, during which time she bequeaths him her younger sister Liza-Lu. She experiences something like happiness with Angel during these concluding days but is eventually arrested at Stonehenge at dawn, having spent the night asleep on one of the fallen sarsens.

The entire final chapter of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, succinct, restrained, is set in Winchester and ends with the mandatory death by hanging of Tess in the county gaol. As a sixteen year old, Hardy had climbed in to a tree outside the gaol in Dorchester and witnessed the hanging of Martha Browne in 1856; she was the last woman to be hanged publicly in Dorset and the memory of it stayed with Hardy all his life. By 1868 the spectacle of public hangings had become so repugnant that public opinion and campaigners, including Charles Dickens, brought about its end. Thereafter hanging took place within the walls of prisons, and the habit of flying a black flag to mark an execution ended in 1902.


Tess of the d’Urbervilles

The city of Wintoncester, that fine old city, aforetime capital of Wessex, lay amidst its convex and concave downlands in all the brightness and warmth of a July morning. The gabled brick, tile, and freestone houses had almost dried off for the season their integument of lichen, the streams in the meadows were low, and in the sloping High Street, from the West Gate­way to the mediaeval cross, and from the mediaeval cross to the bridge, that leisurely dusting and sweeping was in progress which usually ushers in an old-fashioned market-day.

From the western gate aforesaid the highway, as every Wintoncestrian knows, ascends a long and regular incline of the exact length of a measured mile, leaving the houses gradually behind. Up this road from the precincts of the city two persons were walking rapidly, as if unconscious of the trying ascent – unconscious through preoccupation and not through buoyancy. They had emerged upon this road through a narrow barred wicket in a high wall a little lower down. They seemed anxious to get out of the sight of the houses and of their kind, and this road appeared to offer the quickest means of doing so. Though they were young they walked with bowed heads, which gait of grief the sun’s rays smiled on pitilessly.

One of the pair was Angel Clare, the other a tall budding creature – half girl, half woman – a spiritualized image of Tess, slighter than she, but with the same beautiful eyes – Clare’s sister-in-law, ’Liza-Lu. Their pale faces seemed to have shrunk to half their natural size. They moved on hand in hand, and never spoke a word, the drooping of their heads being that of Giotto’s ‘Two Apostles’.

When they had nearly reached the top of the great West Hill the clocks in the town struck eight. Each gave a start at the notes, and, walking onward yet a few steps, they reached the first milestone, standing whitely on the green margin of the grass, and backed by the down, which here was open to the road. They entered upon the turf, and, impelled by a force that seemed to overrule their will, suddenly stood still, turned, and, waited in paralyzed suspense beside the stone.

The prospect from this summit was almost unlimited. In the valley beneath lay the city they had just left, its more prominent buildings showing as in an isometric drawing – among them the broad cathedral tower, with its Norman windows and immense length of aisle and nave, the spires of St. Thomas’s, the pinnacled tower of the College, and, more to the right, the tower and gables of the ancient hospice, where to this day the pilgrim may receive his dole of bread and ale. Behind the city swept the rotund upland of St. Catherine’s Hill; further off, landscape beyond landscape, till the horizon was lost in the radiance of the sun hanging above it.

Against these far stretches of country rose, in front of the other city edifices, a large red-brick building, with level gray roofs, and rows of short barred windows bespeaking captivity, the whole contrasting greatly by its formalism with the quaint irregularities of the Gothic erections. It was somewhat disguised from the road in passing it by yews and evergreen oaks, but it was visible enough up here. The wicket from which the pair had lately emerged was in the wall of this structure. From the middle of the building an ugly flat-topped octagonal tower ascended against the east horizon, and viewed from this spot, on its shady side and against the light, it seemed the one blot on the city’s beauty. Yet it was with this blot, and not with the beauty, that the two gazers were concerned.

Upon the cornice of the tower a tall staff was fixed. Their eyes were riveted on it. A few minutes after the hour had struck something moved slowly up the staff, and extended itself upon the breeze. It was a black flag.

‘Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Æschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess. And the d’Urberville knights and dames slept on in their tombs unknowing. The two speechless gazers bent themselves down to the earth, as if in prayer, and remained thus a long time, absolutely motionless: the flag continued to wave silently. As soon as they had strength they arose, joined hands again, and went on.

Hardy spent thirty years writing fiction and it wasn’t until he was 58 that he started publishing poetry, devoting the next thirty years or so to one of the most important and influential bodies of work in the twentieth century. The first collection, Wessex Poems, appeared in 1898, although many of the poems had been written years before. One of them describes with aching melancholy an unfulfilled relationship with a married woman, the spirited, aristocratic Florence Henniker whom he met in 1893. Hardy yearned for the unattainable with women and though the Hon. Florence Henniker was game for a busy friendship with the well-known author, she was certainly unattainable. When Hardy learned that she was staying at the family’s seaside house in Southsea, he proposed that they meet in Winchester so that he could show her the cathedral, to which she agreed. He left Dorchester, and his own wife, by train and met Mrs Henniker at Eastleigh station, where they caught a train to Winchester. In a compartment together, between the two stations, Hardy told her that he had more than the cathedral on his mind and Mrs Henniker told him that surveying the cathedral would be quite sufficient. It’s to their credit that the friendship survived this proposition. The pair did stay in Winchester that night, at the George Hotel, and Hardy took some pleasure from the staff thinking that the couple were in fact married.

The courtyard of the George Hotel, looking out into the High Street. Photo by William Savage, reproduced by permission of Winchester City Council Museums.

At an Inn

When we as strangers sought

Their catering care,

Veiled smiles bespoke their thought

Of what we were.

They warmed us as they opined

Us more than friends –

That we had all resigned

For love’s dear ends.

And that swift sympathy

With living love

Which quicks the world – maybe

The spheres above,

Made them our ministers,

Moved them to say,

‘Ah, God, that bliss like theirs

Would flush our day!’

And we were left alone

As Love’s own pair;

Yet never the love-light shone

Between us there!

But that which chilled the breath

Of afternoon,

And palsied unto death

The pane-fly’s tune.

The kiss their zeal foretold,

And now deemed come,

Came not: within his hold

Love lingered numb.

Why cast he on our port

A bloom not ours?

Why shaped us for his sport

In after-hours?

As we seemed we were not

That day afar,

And now we seem not what

We aching are.

O severing sea and land,

O laws of men,

Ere death, once let us stand

As we stood then!

What to see


Retracing the steps of Angel Clare and Tess’s sister Eliza-Louisa is a straightforward haul from the Westgate up Romsey Road (West Hill as it was then) to Winchester Prison half a mile out of the town. At the time of the novel, the present perimeter wall didn’t exist and the entrance, which is opposite St James’s Lane, can still be seen over the embankment. Angel and Liza-Lu stop at a ‘milestone’ and the probable site for this is at the top end of Romsey Road, just opposite the junction with Sleepers Hill. A milestone inscribed ‘1 WESTGATE WINTON 10M CORN EXCHANGE ROMSEY’ stands sentinel, one of 39 such Grade II listed monuments in and around the city. The prospect from this site now is much reduced by trees and it’s doubtful that the view ever took in much of the city below, or the single spire of St Thomas’s in Southgate Street (now converted to apartments and with a plaque referring to its citation in the novel). The ‘one blot’ on the city’s landscape was for many years not so much the prison as the 1966 county police headquarters, mercifully demolished in 2016. In Hardy’s day, the Hampshire Constabulary was housed in a sturdy 1847 building on West Hill and just to the east of the prison.

Forlorn lovers can readily recreate Hardy’s train journey from Eastleigh: fifteen minutes in his day and ten now, as well as the walk, or probably cab ride into the city; down Station Hill, along City Road, turning right along Jewry Street to the junction with the High Street. Hardy and Mrs Henniker stayed at the George Hotel. This was the city’s smartest hotel, only rivalled by the Black Swan diagonally opposite (see Conan Doyle), and stood in part on the site now occupied by Barclays Bank. The George Inn, subsequently the George Hotel, had been on this site since the fifteenth century. The main entrance was in High Street (with a covered footbridge at second-floor level, spanning the top of St George’s Street, to a stable yard and garage). The hotel was requisitioned in 1939, subsequently housed offices of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, and was demolished in 1956 to widen surrounding roads and build the bank.


Gittings, Robert, 1975. Young Thomas Hardy. London: Heinemann

Gittings, Robert, 1978. The Older Hardy. London: Heinemann

Tomalin, Claire, 2006. The Time-torn Man. London: Viking

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