Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 18, 2017
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Hardy country

Few writers have woven the landscape so memorably into their works as the shy man from Dorset, England

Shivering beneath glowering clouds on a dull Sunday morning, I was reminded again how England in March can chill you to the bone. Tracing the footsteps of 19th-century poet and novelist Thomas Hardy in southern Dorset, I looked across misty hills crowned with leafless trees. Drifts of daffodils did their best to brighten the countryside but there was an air of melancholy about the morning that would have made Hardy feel right at home.

Dorset's most famous native son left an indelible stamp on this quiet corner of southwest England for which he re- surrected the ancient name of Wessex. The area is the setting for most of Hardy's novels — and not just as background landscape. Specific places referred to in the novels are clearly traceable today. Even though farming and for-estry have altered the face of the Dorset countryside since Hardy's time, one can still imagine Tess Durbeyfield, wrapped in her cloak, walking across Blackmore Vale, or Jude Faw-ley, tools slung over his shoulder, striding a country road towards Shaftesbury.

Hardy was born in 1840 in a small thatched cottage at Bockhampton, about nine kilometres east of Dorchester. Stepping inside the home, now a National Trust property, my own childhood home, a similar Wessex cottage about 80 kilometres away, came back to me immediately. The tiny, low ceilinged rooms and narrow staircases were very familiar. Upstairs is Hardy's bedroom, a simple room where he wrote Under the Greenwood Tree and Far From the Madding Crowd. Hardy loved the cottage and returned often in later life to see that it was in good repair.

At 16, apprenticed to a local architect, Hardy was already writing poetry. For a few years he worked as an archi-tect in London but returned to Dorset in 1867 to concentrate on writing — and to explore the Dorset countryside from the seat of his bicycle. After many rejections, Hardy's first works were published by instalment in London magazines. Editors paid well for serializednovels, the soap operas of their day, and by 1872 Hardy had abandoned his architectural career.

Like Jude in Jude the Obscure, Hardy was sensitive about his rural education and tried to conceal his working-class background. Growing up in a small Hampshire village in the late 1930s, I knew what Hardy felt. While giving us a sound basic education, the local school could not disguise our rural dialect. The villages's few wealthy families sent their children to private schools where they would learn a more cultured way of speaking. I still recoil from the affectation of the "upper class" English accent — indeed it was one of the reasons I left Britain in the 1950s for the more equitable society of Canada.

The centre of Hardy country is the town of Dorchester — or "Casterbridge," as the novelist renamed it. Here is where Hardy lived, as did many of his characters, such as Michael Henchard of The Mayor of Casterbridge. The fictional mayor's home on South Street was described as "one of the best, faced with dull red and grey old brick." A distinctive blue plaque identifies the house.

On the High Street, the King's Arms Hotel still has its "spacious bow window projected into the street over the main portico" from which Mayor Henchard spoke to the crowd about the bread crisis. But occasionally fiction and reality blur: I did a double take at a sign outside a hotel proclaiming it as the meeting place of the Casterbridge Rotary Club.

Leaving Dorchester, I decided to pursue the trail of Tess and stopped at the Crown Inn in the village of Marnhull, near Shaftesbury. This was the Pure Drop Inn of Tess of the d'Urbervilles where Tess' father, John Durbeyfield, celebrated the news of his connection to the aristocracy.

I stepped inside to ask directions to Tess Cottage at Walton Elm Cross and, after a few wrong turns, eventually found the charming thatched house where Hardy was once seen late in life. When asked if he needed anything he replied, "No thank you, I was only seeing where I put my Tess."

Tess and Angel Clare spent the first days of their doomed honeymoon at Well-bridge House in the village of Wool about 15 kilometres east of Dorchester. Here fiction and reality undeniably come together. I turned off the busy highway and walked to the ancient bridge across from Woolbridge House. It looked exactly as described by Hardy — and was still rather foreboding. Of the bizarre murals above the staircase that frightened Tess, one apparently still remains.

After a series of disasters — Hardy's novels have more victims than villains — Tess and her mother needed somewhere to sleep. In Kingsbere, they set up their bed against the south wall of the church beneath the "beautifully traceried window of many lights... called the d'Urberville window." The real church in the village of Bere Regis, east of Dorchester, contains tombs of the Turberville family and the stained glass windows bearing their coats of arms.

Upon Angel Clare's return, Tess stabs Alec d'Urberville to death and is pursued to Stonehenge, where as a child I played amongst the great monoliths long before they were fenced off from the public. After her capture, Tess is taken to prison in Wintoncester — or Winchester — and I remember passing that grim building each day on my way to high school.

Hardy became the most famous English writer of his time, yet in 1948, 20 years after his death, I don't remember studying anything more modern than Dickens. Perhaps the subjects of Hardy's works were still considered too controversial for impressionable young minds — his last novel, Jude the Obscure, created such an outcry that he devoted the rest of his life to writing poetry. Or perhaps Hardy's work had not yet been recognized as literature. And that's a pity because he wrote about a world that in many ways was still very familiar to the people of Wessex.

Not far from Hardy's birthplace of Bockhampton is the village of Stinsford. The church was long associated with the author's family and its cool, musty atmosphere reminded me of a similar village church where I was once a choirboy. Hardy wished to be buried in the churchyard near other members of his family, but only his heart was set here in the grave of his wife. His ashes rest in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey in London.

Other writers have made parts of Britain their own: the Brontæ sisters, Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott and, more recently, James Herriott come to mind. But none have woven the rich tapestry of actual landscape into their works so completely and memorably as the shy, gentle man from Dorset; a landscape that is in my bones and is, in my hopelessly biased opinion, the most beautiful in Britain.

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