Thomas Hardy’s depictions of a fictional Wessex and his own dear Dorset are more accurate than they may at first appear, says Susan Owens.
We feel a frisson when a real place plays a key part in a novel. The Cobb at Lyme Regis will always be associated with silly Louisa Musgrove and her tumble in Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Knole in Kent with Virginia Woolf’s hero-heroine Orlando. Thomas Hardy, however, took the use of known locations to another level. He may have invented the characters in his novels, but he made them walk along actual roads, look across valleys at real views and live in recognisable villages and towns — sometimes, even in identifiable buildings.
For all its operatic symbolism, Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) is a novel in which practical footwear matters. Among its heart-breaking moments is when Tess’s walking boots are discovered stuffed in a hedge where she had hidden them, mistaken for a tramp’s pair and taken away, forcing her to walk many miles back home along a rough road in pretty, but thin-soled, patent-leather ones.
Those who live in the country come to know land by ear as much as by eye. Hardy’s characters are expert in this — even in the dark and when drunk, as in Desperate Remedies (1871): ‘Sometimes a soaking hiss proclaimed that they were passing by a pasture, then a patter would show that the rain fell on some large-leafed root crop, then a paddling plash announced the naked arable.’