Like many writers of his era, Thomas Hardy was drawn to a largely nostalgic, Pre-Industrial English past. His creation of the fictional Wessex illustrates his desire to preserve English pastoral practices in a literary form for future generations. However, Hardy’s authorial role was not limited to that of a cultural anthropologist—his Wessex also had its origins in Pre-modern English mythology. The formation of this renowned imaginary region demonstrates Hardy’s literary genius at blending local folklore with the physical landscape of Dorset. Indeed, Thomas Hardy’s literature is so distinguished because of its fusion of naturalism and regional mythology. The creation of the Wessex region enabled Hardy to illustrate the Dorset of his youth on a grander, mythological scale. As the author himself observes:
I first ventured to adopt the word “Wessex” from the pages of early English history, and give it a fictitious significance as the existing name of the district once included in that extinct Kingdom. The series of novels I projected being mainly of the kind called local, they seemed to require a territorial definition of some sort to lend unity to their find…I believe I am correct in stating that, until the existence of this contemporaneous Wessex in place of the usual counties was announced…it had never been heard of in fiction and current speech. (Hardy “Preface to Far From the Madding Crowd”)
The formation of fictional Wessex had its roots in Medieval English history; indeed, Hardy asserted that Wessex was based on the six counties that composed the old kingdom of West Saxon. Hardy’s medieval geographical construction sets the thematic tone for his Wessex novels—their rugged landscapes and fatalistic endings are perhaps anachronistic in the Victorian Era. The author’s references to Medieval England through the formation of Wessex illustrates his brilliance at combining the modern with the mythological; the result is a distinctive “hybrid” culture on which Hardy is able to embed his aesthetic and sociological ideals.
This archaic construction is further demonstrated through Hardy’s naming of various locations in Wessex: major background landscapes retained their common names, however towns and villages are given ancient or invented ones. This combination of the mythological with the local is at the heart of Wessex; Hardy’s region represents a simple pastoral past that is completely at odds with the rapid industrialization and urbanization of late Victorian England. Because of its provincialism, Wessex acts as a sort of foil to the rapidly industrialized England of the late 19th century—the region is completely unscathed from the progressiveness of the late Victorian era.
In addition to preserving anachronistic English pastoral values, Wessex also enabled Hardy to articulate unique themes on the nature of the individual in society. As the critic B.P Birch notes in his Wessex, Hardy, and the Nature Novelists, “The selective use of the Wessex environment…[reflect] Hardy’s primary interest in examining, by means of his fiction, the nature of the relationship between man, the community and the environment” (Birch 352). Wessex acts as the perfect “control” for Thomas Hardy’s sociological literary experiments; the author often illustrates the tension between his thoroughly modern protagonists and the provincial culture of Wessex.
Through this interesting tension, the reader sees that Hardy’s construction of Wessex is not solely nostalgic in nature; the author clearly recognizes the various social constraints of his provincial Wessex. Through these interesting sociological tensions, Thomas Hardy proves why rural “Wessex culture” became obsolete in the late 19th century—the progressive values and rapid urbanization of the era prevented such a traditionally pastoral lifestyle from flourishing.
Ultimately, Hardy’s portrayal of Wessex is neither overtly sentimental, nor is it judgmental; he is simply immortalizing the Dorset of his childhood in a literary form. However, this notion is complicated by the sheer scale of his project; through the rearticulation of local geography, Hardy succeeds in creating his own regional mythology. It is evident that such fantasy novelists as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were heavily influenced by Hardy’s very meticulous geographical construction of Wessex. Indee d, not only did Wessex preserve Dorsetian culture for generations to come, it also altered the way authors and readers alike considered topographical space in the novel. Thomas Hardy’s hyper-detailed but fictional Wessex set a precedent for authors to follow; Hardy expanded the imaginative realm through the creation of a fictional geography.
© Copyright Clare Keating & Katie Hickey 2007