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Far from the Madding Crowd

And we wander through Dorset, the geographical heart of Hardy's work. A tiny corner of England--about fifty miles east to west and thirty miles north to south--this area is the primary setting for his fourteen novels and more than a thousand poems that are equally his legacy to English literature.

In Evershot, arguably the prettiest of villages in this prettiest of shires, we learn more about Hardy. We've ambled agreeably in the sunshine for an hour or so on a sleepy Saturday morning. We savor a "filled" roll that we purchase in a back-lane bakery. We gaze at the Acorn Inn, the place Tess in Tess of the d'Urbervilles avoids on her ill-fated journey to Angel's parents, and then we stumble upon a small thatched house, now dubbed Tess Cottage. It's the spot where Hardy--who called the village Evershead--has her take breakfast on this trek. Our next stop is Summer Lodge, a country inn that was formerly the dower house of the Earls of Ilchester. We're not hungry, but the drawing room is so inviting that we can't pass up a pot of tea. To our considerable surprise, we learn that Hardy himself was the architect who designed the sunny, light-filled room that seems to bring the gardens right inside. We'd known that the young Hardy was an architect by trade, but legend has it that he wasn't a very good one. Certainly the distinctive shape, brightness and warmth of this drawing room contradicts that notion. Refreshed, we leave Summer Lodge to search for Cross-in-Hand, on Batcombe Down, the spot where Tess has a fateful encounter with the sinister Alec d'Urberville.

Hardy filled his work with powerful, memorable--sometimes lurid--events like this one, and it is those events, along with the landscape, that remain in our imaginations long after the intricacies of the plots have faded. Dorset folk have made a cottage industry, so to speak, out of searching for the places where events in the novels and poems "happened" and acquainting flocks of Hardy pilgrims with these sites. Strangely we are searching the countryside for the fictional places where characters in novels live their fictional lives. So potent is the spell that Hardy wove about his people and their world that, as two more Hardy pilgrims, we use our maps and guidebooks to traverse an imaginary land.

The landscape keeps us mindful of this double vision--the intensely wrought world where Hardy rooted his characters alongside the ravishing landscape of Dorset that we actually encounter. The verdant hills of the lush Frome and Stour river valleys fold around tiny, quiet villages; narrow roads twist between ancient hedgerows; downlands are spread wide with gorse or woods. Hardy's writing reflects this beauty and serenity, yet the landscape itself can also reveal the dark fates that befall many of his characters. Tess's beauty resonates, for instance, in the luxuriant, green world of the dairy lands at Talbothays. Yet her tragic destiny is evident in the grim, barren chalk hills at Flintcomb-Ash, where she works, desperate and alone, as a field hand.

Hardy's Wessex was a place where he could depict the entire human enterprise. Dark mysteries and calamitous turns of fate frequently engulf his characters. He was far from sentimental about the natural world or human nature. But the gentle landscape also mirrors the loveliness in the people he created. In Hardy's people and their stories--and in his poetry--we sense the fullness of what Thomas Hardy most assuredly knew life offers.

From Dorset we head into the counties of Devon and Cornwall, the haunting "Lower Wessex," along the pre- cipitous Atlantic coast, that had great significance in Hardy's life and work. In 1870, the thirty-year-old architect traveled to Boscastle to plan the restoration of St. Juliot Church. Here he met the vicar's sister-in-law, Emma Lavinia Gifford, who became his first wife. As Emma was to write many years later, "Scarcely any author and his wife could have had a much more romantic meeting . . . with a beautiful seacoast, and the wild Atlantic ocean rolling in with its magnificent waves and sprays." They married in 1874.

We walk down to the garden-encircled rectory--now a private home--where Thomas and Emma would have first laid eyes on each other. And our walk takes us into the little church--again beautifully restored and cared for--where Hardy placed a memorial plaque to Emma after her death in 1912.

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