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The Real and Imagined Dorset of Thomas Hardy : The Victorian novelist's vivid descriptions inspire travelers roaming southern England

June 13, 1993|MARGUERITE McGLINN | McGlinn is a free-lance writer based in Rosemont, Pa. and

DORCHESTER, England — Many Thomas Hardy novels begin with an anonymous character wending his way along a country road toward a destination as yet unrealized. As my husband and I drove the Dorset roads at the start of a three-day literary pilgrimage focused on Hardy, I strongly felt the analogy. In this county in Southern England, we hoped to find the settings used by Hardy in his novels, to come closer to the "sense of place" that distinguishes his style and provides a backdrop for his tragically engaging characters.

Hardy's creative life spanned the late Victorian and early modern periods. Although he attained literary stature in his own day, he remained a man of the heaths, country lanes and villages that make up his native Dorset. In his novels, the familiar settings of his homeland receive faithful but poetic treatment. The heath next to his Bockhampton home becomes a metaphor for the mysterious connection between man and his natural community; the many little rivers that water lower Dorset splice the wanderings of dislocated characters; the Iron Age forts, Roman roads and prehistoric barrows show the antiquity of the human drama.

Place names in the novels reinforce the sense of antiquity. Hardy calls Dorset and its environs Wessex, the 5th-Century Saxon name for the haunt of both Lear and Alfred the Great. Other names undergo a similar metamorphosis. In fact, many guidebooks and maps list sites under both the real name and the name in Hardy's novels. I had researched two of my favorite novels, "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" and "Return of the Native" in two such guides: "The Michelin Guide to The West Country" and Anne-Marie Edward's "Discovering Hardy's Wessex." My husband was game to try some literary exploring as he also enjoyed Hardy's writing.

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We had reserved a room for three nights at Summer Lodge, a country hotel in Evershot. The village, which appears in "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" as Evershead, has a quaint main street lined with private homes, a general store, a bakery and an inn. The church of St. John Osmond and Tess' cottage, where the beleaguered heroine of the novel stopped for refreshment on a journey, mark the end of the village street. Summer Lodge, formerly the dower house (meaning, basically, that it came with the title) of the Earls of Ilchester, sits back from the main street on five acres that extend behind the village buildings.

When we drove through the gates into Summer Lodge, we knew that we had made a good choice. We saw a stately house with a broad facade that fronted on a walled garden and a croquet lawn. Hotel guests had brought their afternoon tea onto the lawn, and they were scattered about in small groups on low-slung canvas chairs. One couple had a champagne bucket between them.

Our room, bright and large, looked out over the walled garden to the fields beyond. Small bunches of flowers sat on window sills and table tops. Fresh flowers seemed to be everywhere in Summer Lodge. A large bouquet of yellow and white mums filled one window in the drawing room and appeared to spill out into the garden.

Thomas Hardy, who earned his living as an architect before his writing could support him, designed the drawing room. It is the heart of Summer Lodge. Guests gather there for afternoon tea and before and after dinner. Owners Nigel and Margaret Corbett create a welcoming atmosphere. Nigel greets dinner guests in the drawing room while they sip aperitifs and study the menu. He consults and advises and calls guests to the dining room when dinner is ready. Margaret makes the flower arrangements and helps her husband oversee daily operations. Civility and good food marked our three-day stay. Reinforced by the wonderful meals and restful setting, we would set out each day to tour literary Dorset.

We wanted to visit the Hardy cottage and his grave in addition to sites from the novels. We planned to start with the graveyard, which offered a macabre touch since it holds only the author's heart. His ashes rest in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey, but, true to his wishes, his heart remains in the countryside he loved.

Since our walk began in Dorchester, the market town and capital of Dorset, we stopped by the tourist information office there. Although there were many books and pamphlets designed for self-guided tours through Hardy country, no group tours are organized except during the International Thomas Hardy Conference, scheduled for one week every other summer. (The next one will be in 1994.) The tourist office could arrange for a private guide at a cost of $60 for half a day. We felt safe with the research I had done, however, and decided to rely on that expertise.

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