Laura Fox Gill, University of Sussex
Laura Fox Gill is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Sussex. Her research investigates the influence of John Milton on nineteenth-century culture (painting, poetry, and prose) and she is soon to begin work on connections between the thought and writing of Milton and Thomas Hardy. She tweets at @kitsunetsukiki.
Walking for Thomas Hardy was a complicated matter; never simply a way of getting from A to B . Though his novels largely represent a pre-industrial community in which walking is a primary means of transport – particularly for the rural poor, memorable moments in his fiction are centered on the act of walking, such as the climax of 1891’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, in which an especially exhausting walk leads Tess and Angel to the ancient site of Stonehenge, and Tess’s downfall. In Far From the Madding Crowd (1874), most recently adapted by Thomas Vinterberg for the big screen, the pregnant Fanny is forced to walk through the night to a workhouse, setting off a chain of events with disastrous consequences for Bathsheba Everdene and her various suitors. Walking in Hardy’s fiction often exhausts to the point of death, or brings about coincidental meetings that are far from serendipitous, but walking can also reinforce a relationship between humankind and nature, forge a relationship with the land, build familiarity with the Dorset landscape we now know as ‘Hardy’s Wessex’.
The second edition of Margaret Marande’s The Hardy Way: A 19th-Century Pilgrimage, re-released this year to coincide with Vinterberg’s film, involves a much lower chance of death or arrest. Marande has updated her curated walk through Hardy’s Wessex that can be taken either as a circular long-distance walk of 220 miles, or in shorter sections divided into chapters (or, if you’re as lazy as me, you can walk an even shorter segment of the latter).
Marande has described the long circular walk as a ‘pilgrimage’, firstly, because it involves locations ‘held sacred by Hardy admirers’ and, secondly, because ‘it ends as all true pilgrimages do, in a Holy place – Stinsford chuchyard – where his heart is buried.’ It also begins where Hardy was born (and almost thrown aside after he was mistakenly identified as stillborn) at Hardy’s Cottage in Higher Bockhampton (now a National Trust property). I jumped in mid-walk and tested one section of the pilgrimage between Abbotsbury and Langton Herring, which started on the old railway track, veered through fields with distant views of the sea and Hardy’s monument, and ended not at a churchyard, but at a pub (I think this is a preferable finale). Practically speaking: at points the signage was confusing, but this is no different to any other walk utilizing footpaths through the English countryside – landowners often fail to keep up maintenance with public paths and you might find yourself battling through a crop or two. However, generally Marande’s instructions were easy to follow, and there are regular official ‘Hardy Way’ signs along the way. I would, however, recommend also purchasing a detailed map of the area to supplement the directions and rough maps in the guidebook, as indeed Marande does in the introduction. If you end up taking a wrong turn the book alone won’t be much use in helping you get back on track.
Marande underscores the relationship between Hardy’s literary Dorset and the land itself by arranging the literary commentary and illustrations alongside the walking directions: on the left-hand pages she details literary landmarks and reprints extracts from Hardy’s poetry and prose; on the right-hand pages are the directions and ‘points of factual interest’. This sort of text works so well with Hardy because of his investment in Dorset, and the numerous direct representations of Dorset landmarks in his semi-fictional Wessex. Marande demonstrates a great knowledge of Hardy’s oeuvre and the world his characters inhabit. She also, however, employs a no-nonsense approach to linking this literary landscape with that of the ‘real’ Dorset: doing away with ‘may have been’ or ‘resembles’ she boldly states that ‘Hardy’s cottage is the Dewy’s cottage in Under the Greenwood Tree’. It is worth querying how far we should blur the line between Hardy’s fiction and his reality, as although the two are certainly tightly intertwined, they should perhaps not be so straightforwardly represented as identical. There is a difference between Hardy’s imaginative landscape and its real-life counterpart – though perhaps a walking guide is not the place to work out those subtle distinctions.
I would suggest, however, that a strength of The Hardy Way which plays upon its simplicity as a walking guide is that it can prompt thinking about the academic impact agenda. In connecting walking as a public and accessible act with literature Marande is bolstering the link between literary research and a literal impact of non-academic feet on Hardy’s soil – the publication of this new edition is certainly hoping to encourage fans of Vinterberg’s new film to engage further with Hardy in the act of walking. In The Hardy Way public engagement with Victorian literature is constructed outside the sphere of the University; it’s in the hills, the coast, and the heath-land of the southwest.