At Home With Thomas Hardy
If you’re intending to build a house to reflect your status as a successful author, it helps to be an architect with father and brother who are builders.
When Thomas Hardy wanted a new des res in his native Dorset, his training as an architect meant he could design the perfect dwelling to give a clear signal that he was part of the wealthy middle class. His father and brother were on hand to bring the drawings to life on a one and a half acres of land site that Hardy acquired just a short walk from the town centre of Dorchester. The house was named Max Gate as a pun on a the name of a nearby toll-house known as “Mack’s Gate” after a previous gate-keeper, Henry Mack.
The red brick townhouse was designed to incorporate as much natural light as possible. In the entrance hall, for example, an otherwise dark space was illuminated with the aid of internal windows above the main staircase. Unfortunately the light levels were compromised by the thousand pine trees that had planted around Max Gate to provide privacy. They grew so vigorously that they blocked the light into the house, making it dark and gloomy.
Hardy and his (first) wife Emma took up residence in 1885, expanding the property twice as his reputation and income grew with the success of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. In 1894-95 a new, larger kitchen and scullery were added together with a third study where Hardy wrote most of his poetry.
He lived in the property until his death in 1928.
In 1940 his sister Kate left the house to the National Trust. Max Gate has been continually occupied since then. It was designated as a Grade I listed building in 1970 and opened to the public in 1994. The garden is still very much as originally planned but the rooms are recreations of how they would have looked in the early 20th century because Hardy’s second wife Florence sold off most of the furniture upon his death.
A Rural Start In Life
Max Gate might have been built to impress with its size and style but for character, the cottage where Thomas Hardy was born in 1840 is much more to my taste.
Located deep in the Dorset countryside, it’s almost too picture perfect thatched cottage with roses and honeysuckle around the door and surrounded by a cottage garden and wildflower patches. The house was built in 1800 by Hardy’s great grandfather in a traditional style using cob and thatch.
Hardy wrote much of his early poetry and prose work from a small desk in his bedroom overlooking the front garden. Under the Greenwood Tree and Far From the Madding Crowd are believed to have been written while he lived in this cottage. He was inspired by views across to the nearby ancient woodland of Thorncombe Woods and Egdon Heath which made an appearance in two of his novels: The Return of the Native and The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Apparently the cottage has not been altered very much since the family left. It still has the whitewashed walls, open hearths, small windows and stone floors. Inside it’s been furnished to give visitors a feeling of a typical 19th century rural cottage as it would have been furnished while Hardy lived there.
I’m adding both these properties to my list of places to visit that have literary associations.
29 thoughts on “At Home With Thomas Hardy”
Oh I would love to visit that cottage!
Wish my garden looked like that!
Great post! I’ll go with the thatched cottage. As you don’t mention this historical novel on him, entitled, guess what, Max Gate, I recommend it to you: https://wordsandpeace.com/2016/07/11/book-review-max-gate/
Thanks for that link – indeed I hadn’t heard of it before
Not a huge fan of Hardy’s work, but those are beautiful houses!!
What is about Hardy’s prose that doesn’t appeal to you?
It’s so grim and gruelling and sad….
Under the Greenwood Tree isn’t like that (thought it’s not that great). Far From the Madding Crowd ends on a positive note.
It’s probably an unreasonable prejudice – I remember being enraged in my feminist youth that someone could sell his wife, and Mr. Kaggsy’s descriptions of how gruelling and emotionally draining Jude the Obscure is haven’t helped…
Jude is the one I dislike with a vengeance. I find the main character so annoying……
It’s not so much the prose, as the subject matter!
Ah yes, there are not that many happy endings…..
Here’s a link with info on the renovated King’s Arms. https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2020/dec/03/thomas-hardy-favourite-hotel-inn-kings-arms-dorchester-review
Dorchester, of course, provides settings for many of the scenes in Hardy’s novels, particularly The Mayor of Casterbridge – ‘Casterbride’ being Hardy’s Wessex name for Dorchester. In that novel he mentions The Kings Arms by it actual name, rather than using a fictional one. In recent years the hotel fell into a sorry state but it has recently been renovated and now looks fit to once again host a banquet for the town’s notables with Mayor Michael Henchard at the head of the table.
It was looking very down at heel last time we were in Dorchester
I read Tess in high school and nothing of Hardy’s since, to my great shame. And no, reading books in school didn’t put me off them, rather the opposite.
Red brick and pine trees wouldn’t be my choice if I had money, but a big rambling house would be nice. My grandfather’s farm had thatched outbuildings – lots of mice!
So glad to hear that school experience didn’t put you off the classics – you hear the opposite too often. I do sympathise because some of those works that were forced upon us didn’t engage me at all. I still shudder at the memory of an appalling play by Milton that we had to do.
Max Gate is my type of house. I think I’ve visited both, but long, long ago. Been in the gardens or peered at them, at least!
Depending on how long ago it was you visited Max Gate you might not have seen much inside. It appears that when the NT took it over, there were only a few rooms open and furnished. A good excuse though to have a second visit 🙂
I went to both some years ago, but neither was open to the public. We saw H’s dogs’ graves in the garden of Max Gate, which was touching. Jude is his weirdest and best novel, I think – he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but always interesting – sometimes frustrating.
That was before the NT took them over presumably?
I’d love to visit these houses. You remind me that it’s been a long time since my last Thomas Hardy.
Yes it years and years since I last read one. Do you have a favourite? I think mine would be Mayor of Casterbridge. The one I like least is Jude the Obscure, because I find the central character so irritating
I’ve only read a few and I liked The Mayor of Casterbridge and Far From the Madding Crowd.
I can recommend Tess of the D’Urberviles
This is so beautiful. Thanks for sharing. 🐧🌷
It’s frustrating to think I was in Dorset only 4 years ago and never knew either of these places existed – would definitely have visited…..
On my bucket list!
Thanks for these lovely pictures.
I’m loving the virtual travel I’m able to do before the real thing is opened up again.