Thomas Hardy’s the Dorsetshire Labourer and Wessex

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Critics typically recruit authors in support of their own world views, and over the last fifty years have cast Hardy as a social historian: a sympathetic and concerned portrayer of the rural poor, who positioned himself, so the novels persuade them, on the political left. This study challenges that view. Hardy’s intense, even poetic, response to the familiar places of his native Dorset, combined with his powerful realist rhetoric, has encouraged the belief that his portrayal of rural society must be similarly accurate. But Hardy was not a disinterested observer, however much the authorial voice of the novels may persuade us that that is the case. Born and brought up in a village-tradesman family, he broke away, re-inventing himself first as a professional architect, and then as a successful man of letters. To introduce this argument, the first part of the study offers an edition of Hardy’s article for Longman’s Magazine, ‘The Dorsetshire Labourer’ (1883). This may be treated either as an end in itself, or as a way to open up important questions about Hardy’s representation of the rural world in his novels, which becomes the focus of the second part of the study.


“This is a searching, thorough, and challenging reading of Hardy which provides a reasoned counter-view to the widely-accepted belief that Hardy was a well-informed, concerned, and materially accurate commentator on the social and economic conditions of rural labour either in his novels or in ‘The Dorsetshire Labourer’, his overt contribution to the long-running nineteenth-century ‘rural question’ debate. … However, as Dr. Lowman’s shrewd and incisive commentary on ‘The Dorsetshire Labourer’ amply demonstrates, Hardy generalizes, distances, and sentimentalizes social issues. His largely paternalistic, benevolent, and conservative picture of the rural poor (far richer in nostalgic sentiment than information) tends to reassure the reader that there was less of a problem than was generally supposed. Hardy avoids any real engagement in the socio-economic ‘rural question’ debate and maintains his mythical Dorset, dominated by ideas from pastoral such as the contrast between the country and the city and between new and old ways. What is true of ‘The Dorsetshire Labourer’ is a fortiori true of the rural novels, which are the subject of the second half of this book, where Dr. Lowman takes issue with the social-realist critics who find it necessary to play down Hardy’s pastoral. He argues that Hardy’s themes are not social-historical but are far-reaching, permanent, and informing pastoral myths for which the rural community serves as a metaphor. Through character, narrative, and setting Hardy explores contrasting ideas: art and nature, refinement and simplicity, ambition and contentment, passion and moderation, calculation and instinct, change and stability. The Wessex of his novels is a pastoral place of the imagination: so, too, is the Dorset of his “Dorsetshire Labourer’.” – (from the Commendatory Foreword) James Sambrook, Emeritus Professor of English, Southampton University

“This book has the great virtue of addressing a central feature of Hardy’s work, his use of the rural world in his fiction. The commonly accepted view is that Hardy was faithfully representing the country society of Dorset in the nineteenth century, a view which receives support from the General Preface of the Wessex Novels, and which has continued to be held, with a few reservations, in critical writing since that time.… This book is a radical counter-argument to the idea that Hardy is faithfully representing the Dorset of his time, an argument which has been accepted uncritically for too long. It is a valuable contribution to what will no doubt be an on-going debate about a central feature of Hardy’s fiction: in that debate, Roger Lowman’s voice needs to be heard.” – Richard Watson, Emeritus Professor of English, Durham University

“This stimulating book provides a corrective to the current view that Hardy was first and foremost a writer with a radically critical approach to the social conditions of his native Dorset.… It is certainly well worth publishing. Its conclusions may be considered controversial, but they are founded on the texts themselves and are persuasively and clearly argued. While making use of established critical insights the author takes them further. The result is to restore an awareness of Hardy’s achievements as a writer of socially informed pastoral and of the reasons for his enduring popularity with a reading public that is not confined to scholars or to academics only. Not least the clarity and vigour of the author’s style should ensure him a wide and appreciative readership.” – Dr. Glen Cavaliero, St. Catharine’s College and Faculty of English, Cambridge University

Table of Contents

Abbreviations and References
1. The Dorsetshire Labourer - Introduction, Text, Commentary
2. The Rural Novels - Society in the Rural Novels, Pastoral

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