Thomas Hardy, The Novelist
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 27 Mar 1924, p. 153-165

Windle, Sir Bertram, Speaker
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The place of the dramatist as the "abstract and brief chronicle of the time" now taken by the novelist. Some remarks about history and the purpose of studying history. Studying history through novels written at a particular place and time. Novels which lead one to a further study of history. The intelligent study of the novel which will lead up to a knowledge of the best kind of history. A specific example in the shape of Thomas Hardy. Some background on the Hardy family history, and in particular, Thomas Hardy, the novelist. A review of Hardy's life and work. The social history to be found in Hardy's work.
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27 Mar 1924
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PRESIDENT BROOKS, before introducing the speaker, referred to the death, yesterday morning of Sir Edmund Walker, who had been a very active and interested member of the Club, a great Empire man, whose passing would be felt intensely by the whole Dominion of Canada. He then introduced the speaker of the day as an old friend of the Club, who was now one of ourselves.


Mr. President and Gentlemen,--Shakespeare puts into the mouth of Hamlet the statement that the players are "the abstract and brief chronicles of the time." That, I dare say, they were at that date; there were no memoirs worth speaking of; there were no novels, practically; the stage was perhaps the only thing which could give a view of life as it was and as it had been. That state of affairs passed away. We may console ourselves, I hope, by thinking that 500 years hence people will not sum us up


Sir Bertram Windle is professor in St. Michael's College and lecturer in the University of Toronto. A brilliant scholar,he has from Dublin, the degrees, M.A., M.D., and D.Sc., with high honours; from Birmingham, M.Sc., and LL.D., and from Rome, Ph.D. He was Commissioner of Intermediate Education for Ireland and an examiner in six of the great British Universities. He is the author of books on history, literature, archxology, science and morals and is a contributor of scientific papers and articles to various magazines.


I hope they won't--by the drama of the last 25 years (laughter)--and particularly the latter part of that 25 years, perhaps. But the place of the dramatist as the "abstract and brief chronicle of the time" has, to my mind, been taken by the novelist; and that is the first point I want to make.

If you want to study history, about the worst book that you can study it in is an ordinary history if you really want to get at the meaning of history. And after all, history ought to mean something more than a dreary succession of sometimes uninteresting and sometimes disgraceful and unedifying monarchs, their prime ministers, their wars, their amours, and other things of that kind. That is not history. What a student of history wants to know, at least what I want to know, is what people like myself at a certain period which 1 want to study were thinking and doing; that is real history. (Applause)

There is an old book, a very interesting one, which I suppose is out of vogue now; that is the "New Republic" by W. H. Mallock, who died the other day; full of acute sayings. In it, at a dinner party conversation there is a lady who says to the gentleman beside her that she hates history. "Why," he says, "I saw you reading the 'Memoirs of Count deGrammont the other night.' " She replied, "Very well, but you don't call that history?" He says, "Certainly it is history." And so it is. If you want to know how people lived in the 18th century, it is better to go to the novels by Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, or to Thackeray who knew it because he had been saturated in it, or to Swift's "Letters to Stella," or Horace Walpole. There you find how people really lived; you will see there the springs of conduct in many places. From that foundation it is possible to build up a considerable amount of history, and you are led on to want to know something more.

I don't know whether I could do it now, but there was a time when I could have written down all the military movements at the Battle of Waterloo, and certainly all those of Quebec, and I was entirely led on to this by Thackeray's novels. After reading "Vanity Fair" I wanted to know what actually did happen at Waterloo. After reading "The Virginians" I wanted to know what did happen at Quebec. I never thought then that I would have the opportunity, as I have had since, of scrambling up that narrow path where Wolfe and his men fought perhaps the most decisive battle of the whole world--the battle which, amongst other things, rendered the United States a possibility; and that, I think, is possibly one of the most significant facts of history, certainly of later history. So I say that the intelligent study of this kind of novel will lead up to a knowledge of the best kind of history.

Now I come to my specific example in the shape of Thomas Hardy. The Hardy family is seated in Dorsetshire. They are derived from a certain Sieur de Hardy, who came over from Jersey I suppose 200 or 250 years ago; and he had two very distinguished descendents. Mr. Hardy told me once that he could not trace any absolute connection with the other Thomas Hardy--by whom I mean the captain of the "Victory," who left his little house at Frensham to sail the "Victory" and Nelson to death and victory; the man to whom Nelson said, "Kiss me, Hardy." He was one of the descendents of that Sieur de Hardy who first came from Jersey to found the clan in Dorsetshire. Thomas, the novelist, is another.

Thomas Hardy, the novelist, was born in a tiny little thatched cottage in the woods, ten or twelve miles from Dorchester, which I have often seen; and when I was writing a book about his Dorsetshire, Thomas Hardy's mother was still alive--she lived to be 91, if I remember right--and Thomas Hardy himself is now in his 84th year. The first time I ever saw him, and we were talking over this book I was going to write, he said, "There is just one place of which I will ask you not to tell the world the name, and that is the little place where my mother lives; I don't want her bothered with people going to look at the cottage," so of course the name does not appear. Now, that cottage is close by the schoolhouse over which there hangs a huge tree, and it is the scene of the story "Under the Greenwood Tree," which to a very large extent is the autobiography of Hardy himself.

Thomas Hardy's father was what is called a trenter--you have not that term here. A trenter is a country express man, hauling furniture or goods from one place to another. The father was also a builder, and perhaps that accounts for the fact that Hardy, the son, was trained as an architect.

It is to a curious coincidence in connection with the name of that book that Hardy really owes his success. The first novel that he issued was a thing called "Desperate Remedies." I suppose I am one of the few that has ever read it, and I do not want to read it a second time; it was a flat failure, and deserved to be; it hardly shows anywhere a sign of the genius which Hardy had. The next book that he wrote was "Under the Greenwood Tree," which at first made no very great success; but at that time there was a very well-known writer--I remember him as a noted journalist when I was a boy--whose name was Greenwood. He was the man who invented that system of journalism which may be summed up in this way: If you want to write an article about something, go and do it; go through with it. He dressed in rags, and went to the different tramp wards in London-"Casual wards" as they are called -and he wrote a series of articles on them signed "Amateur Casual," which articles made a great stir. They were the first things of the kind, where a man went and lived through a certain phase of life in order to write about it. Now, this Mr. Greenwood, when starting on a journey, saw his name on a book at a railway book-stall, bought the book, was greatly taken with it, and wrote a very strong article in favour of it; and thus Hardy's reputation was made. (Laughter) I am not going to claim that it rests on the fact that he had the name "Greenwood" in the book, but it was an accident that gave a sudden impetus to his work.

Hardy began life as an architect, and his first success was obtaining the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of Architects for the annual student essay. The subject was "On the Use of Terra Cotta in architecture." If I had to write an article on that subject it would be compressed into one word--"Don't." (Laughter) Hardy, however, never seems to have done much in the architectural line. I don't know that he ever built anything except his own comfortable house, which I fear has terra cotta about it. However, the architect occasionally peeps out of his books. There is one very curious passage in which he is talking about a very pretty girl, and wants to make it plain that she had a very beautiful mouth, and he says, "Her mouth was of that exquisite curve which is termed the cyma recta, or the 'Ogee arch.'" (Laughter) I do not know whether I have any architects amongst my hearers, but I am quite sure that nobody else in this room knows what a cyma recta is; and I am sure that if most young men told their adored ones that they had cyma recta mouths it might lead to trouble. (Laughter) Of course it really means what a more literal novel-writer would call "Cupid's Bow"; that is what the Ogee arch is; but I suppose no one but a literary architect ever applied such a term to a pretty girl's mouth. (Laughter)

Of course it was whilst living in this little cottage that Hardy obtained the immense knowledge of woodland life which you find in "The Woodlanders," one of the best of his novels, some think the best, though I do not. Of course what is called "lumber" over here does not occur in England at all; the timber is not of a size to be suitable for that, and a good deal of what Hardy speaks of in that book is what we should call reforesting--the planting of young trees and caring for them. In his topography Hardy is extremely accurate; so accurate and complete are his descriptions that you can go about from place to place and see the exact spot that he meant.

It was of course during this time that he acquired the wonderful knowledge of country life. And there I am coining back to what I started with, because I believe that in another hundred years Hardy's novels will be the most valuable documents of a kind of life that by that time will have entirely disappeared-the life of the peasant who had nothing but a plow and a horse to drag it; long before there were tractors or railways. As showing how conservative that population is, I used to have a house on the edge of the Cotswold Hills, six miles from a railway station, and I knew quite a few old people there who had never seen a railway train. That is a type of life, of course, that is going, and people a hundred years from now will know of it only through the novels of Thomas Hardy and similar ones, just as we can absolutely enter into the early Victorian life of the country by reading Jane Austen's novels, but not from the pages of any history. They will get it out of books like "The Return of the Native" and "Far from the Madding Crowd."

There is a curious and interesting story about "Far from the Madding Crowd." I remember it coming out in one of the periodicals that was edited for a time by Charles Dickens. It had no name attached to it, and many critics asserted in print that it was written by "George Eliot" anonymously, with the view of seeing whether her reputation was keeping up. Now there is a curious turn of the wheel of fate, for I suppose no one reads George Eliot now--very few, certainly, although a certain number of her works are quite worth reading, particularly "Scenes in Clerical Life." But Hardy is the star in the ascendent; and yet he was so unknown at that time that no one could have imagined that he had written this story. At least the critics did not, though they are supposed to have more prescience than other people.

I take next the book which to my mind gives an extraordinarily vivid and interesting picture of an extremely interesting epoch in English history. That is "The Trumpet Major," which centres around Weymouth, a most attractive Georgian town. It is curious that its real name is not Weymouth, but Melcombe Regis. It was a very attractive and goodsized place until Portland nearby became the naval centre, and became overbuilt, and is now overcrowded. George the Third used to go down there, and he made the place, just as Charles the Second made Tunbridge Wells. It was a critical area prior to the Battle of Trafalgar. It was there that Napoleon intended to land his troops. He had an immense flotilla of flat-bottomed boats moored at Boulogne or on the coast of France. He said to Villeneuve, "Give me twenty-four hours clear channel, and I will take England." There was another would-be military leader who recently wanted the same thing, but never got it. (Applause) Napoleon never got it, though if he had got twenty-four hours clear channel he would have had England, without a doubt; for he had the force, he had the boats, and everything was ready. But Nelson stood between him and that.

Not a very great distance from Weymouth there is a little circular bay called Lulworth Bay. It has a lot of history about it. There is an old standing tradition that Napoleon himself was rowed over one night and landed in Lulworth Harbour to see if that would be a good place to land his men. Whether that is true or not, I cannot vouch; it certainly is quite feasible, but that is the tale; and the countryside was all prepared for this invasion. In "The Trumpet Major" you will see a printed notice purporting to give instructions to the people as to just exactly what they were to do if the French troops landed. It is simply a copy of the old notice itself which is hanging in the Dorchester museum. In the town a little above Weymouth there was a huge equestrian figure of George the Third cut out of the chalk, like a white horse, cut by the German legion which was encamped there, as you read in "The Trumpet Major." A wonderful piece of work it is, considering the curved surface they had to cut it on. Right down from that is the little village in which the scenes of "The Trumpet Major" took place, and the identical pool where the men of the legion came down to water their horses, as you will read in the early part of that book. In it you find the agonized state of the whole countryside in regard to the French people and their possible invasion, and the preparation of bon-fires that were ready to be lighted as signals. You do not get that kind of thing in history. The book will tell you how Napoleon was preparing to fall on the coast of England, and you will see how the people treated it, how the yokels were drilled every Sunday after morning service, with pikes and any kind of things they could get hold of. They were all to get out to repulse this army if it was once towed over, which it certainly would have been if Napoleon had got what he wanted, that was, a clear channel for twenty-four hours, which he never did get. (Applause)

Hardy again gives us a wonderful picture of life in a small town. You know, his Wiltshire goes into Cornwall a little bit-a part of Dorset, part of Wilts, and part of Hants-a district without any large towns. Salisbury itself has about 16,000 people, and Winchester has about 8,000. They are tiny little places. Dorchester was an old Roman city; the lines of the walls are represented now by the avenues of trees around it. Hardy's name, "Casterbridge," is intended to indicate its Roman origin. It is an interesting, quiet little place that had its excitement in times gone by. One of the parts of the "Bloody Assize" at which Judge Jeffries presided was held there; the other part was held in Somerset, and quite a number of people were condemned to death and cut to pieces. That was, of course, after the Monmouth Insurrection. That quiet life was disturbed from time to time by such occurrences as are described in "The Withered Arm." Dorchester is a county town; it is the place where the Assizes were held; it is the place, when there is a murderer to be hanged, that he is hanged.

In the period of which Hardy writes, capital punishment was a very common thing in England. You know, the bell in Sepulchre Church used to toll every Monday morning in London from five minutes to eight until eight for the people who were to be executed at Newgate at that hour, and there were always some to be executed; sometimes ten or twelve or more, and many of them not much more than boys and girls, for some minor petty larceny--punished by capital punishment. That is what took place also, even in little places like Dorchester.

There is a great big old Roman amphitheatre where the Roman troops of the city which preceded Dorchester used to have their athletic contests, which was the scene of those executions. I believe the last time it was used was when a woman was hanged there for poisoning her husband with arsenic, and the place held 10,000 people who came from all round to see her executed. Of course after that, until the recent acts which provided for private executions, they- were executed over the great doors of the jail. You can see the place there where the platform was erected. There was no such thing in those days as the long drop; people literally did hang by the neck until they were dead, and it often took ten or fifteen minutes, and if they were slight, light people, their relatives would pay the executioner to pull on their ankles and get it over a little sooner. It was a grim thing. In the museum in Dorchester, which contains a great many relics of the place as it was, you can see two large chunks of lead, and on top of each of those is cast the word "Mercy." Those are what were tied to the ankles of the slender people, and the "mercy" was to get it over sooner. There was so much of this that there was a hangman's house, and it is still there in Dorchester. You can see the official house in which the hangman of Dorchester lived-a place of 8,000 population that could maintain a man who did nothing but hang. Of course he was the kind of person whom nobody wanted to employ in any other line of life. You get the story of that in "The Withered Arm," a piece of very old folklore in Dorchester and elsewhere. If you have a withered, paralyzed arm, and can stroke it with the rope that a man was hanged with, particularly the part that was around his neck, the result is likely to be beneficial. That is not a part of modern therapeutics, of course, but that is the old idea. There is the house about which this thing was told.

Now I have indicated to you where I think a people in time to come will find their social history-very largely in the works of Thomas Hardy and men of his kind; but particularly in Hardy's works, because he knows Dorset from the inside, as one of its people, and knows exactly the kind of life they lived. The old church choir, that was gone before I was a boy, had a clarionette and fiddle and other things that used to be up in the gallery. Hardy has it all there for you, and I have seen in various places the old instruments those people used to play in the church gallery harp or bassoon, things of that kind. It promoted solidarity between the clergy and the laity that I do not think exists now. Those people considered themselves a part, and they were a considerable part, of the ceremonies, and they took a great deal of pains in practising. They made their mark particularly, I suppose, at Christmas, by singing carols and so on.

As to Hardy himself, I would select two or three points about him and his methods, apart altogether from his value to history. Of course no one can read Hardy's books without seeing that, to put it mildly, he is a pessimist. I think that is part of his books and of nearly all his articles. I never ventured to ask himself if he really entertained the views which he puts forward here and there in his books--that human beings are the sport of a deity or deities who only have them as performing mice, so to speak. If that is his view, I do not wonder that he is pessimistic; it is the kind of philosophy that would encourage the pessimistic spirit. However, that is the thing that strikes you all through; that, and perhaps I may suggest the extraordinarily inconstant character of all his heroines, illustrating the motto, "Woman is always variable." Hardy's woman is that. She is very attractive. There was a very distinguished man who read a great many novels, as I do myself, who said that it should be illegal to end a novel otherwise than well, and that there should always be in every one of them at least one girl with whom you could fall in love. (Laughter) Who said that? I will give you three guesses. It was Charles Darwin, the last man in the world you could guess (laughter) that would want anybody to fall in love with, except his wife, let alone one in every novel.

Now, Hardy has that. It is not a question of your falling in love with her; it is a question of how many people will fall in love, the one with the other. Take the "Trumpet Major"; the heroine in that is never sure whether she is going to marry the soldier or sailor. She plumps for blue water finally, but it was a mere accident (laughter) and as to the pair of blue eyes, it is difficult to say how many men that young lady was on and off with before she returned--as an ironic touch--in the coffin, with two of them, unaware of her death, coming to see which one of them would succeed in securing her hand. The Hardy man also has sometimes that inconstant touch. You find such an one in "The Well-beloved," which was to have been a short story, but it was expanded into a book and became, to my mind, almost absurd; but there you have the corresponding man, the man who does not know his mind. You may take another character of the same kind in "A Laodicean," who after all was a most miserable creature; and perhaps also "Clem," a character in "The Return of the Native," although he is a little better. But Hardy has splendid men characters. I do not suppose there is a better picture of the really solid hard-working English farmer than "Gabriel Oak," and it is a picture that I recognize because I have known many men of that kind, the real old farmer, very often perhaps owning his farm, but at any rate men whose ancestors had probably farmed the same piece of land for 100, 200 or 300 years. That type of man is passing now, and future generations will know of him only from books like that. It is through these things, as I think, that the real greatness of Hardy will emerge. I am sure he will last, because his style, of its kind, is almost perfect.

Somebody once made a very astute remark about Thackeray and Meredith--"Thackeray has style, and Meredith has a style." If you compare the two men's books, that is perfectly true. Now, Hardy has style, and he has not only got style but he has got substance, and he has got the materials which will be the book from which the social historian of a hundred years or more to come will be able to draw what he wants when he is trying to explain to the people then how the rural population of England lived in the 18th century and during the first half, at any rate, of the 19th. (Loud applause)

PRESIDENT BROOKS expressed the thanks of the Club to the speaker for giving, at such short notice, so delightful a glimpse of the real home life of the people of the whileago in the Old Land.

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Thomas Hardy, The Novelist

The place of the dramatist as the "abstract and brief chronicle of the time" now taken by the novelist. Some remarks about history and the purpose of studying history. Studying history through novels written at a particular place and time. Novels which lead one to a further study of history. The intelligent study of the novel which will lead up to a knowledge of the best kind of history. A specific example in the shape of Thomas Hardy. Some background on the Hardy family history, and in particular, Thomas Hardy, the novelist. A review of Hardy's life and work. The social history to be found in Hardy's work.