Thomas Hardy was born in 1840 in the small village in Dorset, an area of southern England steeped in history. One of the local landmarks, Corfe Castle, was once home for the kings of the ancient Saxon kingdom of Wessex. Hardy chose the name Wessex for the Setting of his most important novels, including Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Like the Durbeyfields in Tess, the Hardys fancied themselves descendants of a noble and ancient family line. The Dorset Hardys were presumably a branch of the Le Hardys who claimed descent from Clement Le Hardy, a fifteen-century lieutenant-governor of the British Channel island of Jersey. Remote ties to Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy, who served with the British naval hero Nelson during the decisive battle of Trafalgar in 1805, were also possible.
Besides his family name, Hardy’s parents gave their son the love of literature, music (like his father, Thomas played the fiddle), and religion, which are evident in his works. A self-styled “born book-worm,” Hardy could read at age three. He might have had a successful career as a scholar, but at age sixteen, his formal schooling ended when he was apprenticed to a local church restorer. He loved knowledge, however, and continued his education by rising early every morning to study Latin and Greek before Setting off to work. He read voraciously, especially the Bible and, in 1859, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. In 1862, Hardy became an assistant to a London architect Sir Arthur Blomfield. He had thought about entering the ministry or becoming a poet, but by his early twenties his reading had converted him to agnosticism and his poetry had met with little success. For economic reasons, he decided to try his hand at prose. His first fictional piece was published in 1865; the manuscript of his first novel The Poor Man and the Lady was completed two years later. Although the book was never published, encouraging advice from George Meredith, a poet whom Hardy admired, convinced the aspiring novelist to try again. Hardy’s first popular success occurred in 1874 when the first of his Wessex novels, Far from the Madding Crowd, was published. As with Tess, this work was noted for its spirited female protagonist and Hardy’s use of his fictional landscape.
In 1885, Hardy moved, with his wife, Emma, into Max Gate, a home he had built in Dorset. There, only a mile or two from his birthplace, the novelist would live the rest of his life. Coming back to his native land seemed to stir Hardy’s creativity, and the next ten years saw the publication of three volumes of short stories as well as five major novels, including Tess. His wife died in 1912, and he married again in 1914. As the years passed, he noticed how the encroachment of civilization, especially the coming of the railroad to Dorset some seven years after his birth, had changed forever his beloved rural world. In his novels he poetically recaptures the beauty of the region.