Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Thomas the Architect

Thomas Hardy's architectural drawing of his home, Max Gate.
Before he was a published author, Thomas Hardy was directing his ambitions toward becoming an architect. All told, Hardy spent more than fifteen years learning and plying his craft. Advancing himself as an architect competed with his ambitions of becoming a writer for at least ten of them. Though he would go on to be remembered for his writing, there is much in Hardy the writer that is dependent upon the experiences he had working in architecture.

Almost immediately after beginning his apprenticeship, Hardy began associating with men in Dorchester who would provide him with some of the social and intellectual polish he would need to someday transition into a writer of novels. Perhaps the most important was Horace Moule, a Cambridge student whose father was a vicar. In him, Hardy found not only a friend but someone through whom he could see precisely what would be expected of him should he aspire to attend college in order to be a scholar or a cleric. Though Hardy would, at first, diligently undertake the self-education to pass the entrance exams, he discovered that there was simply not enough time in the day to learn enough to pass in a timely fashion. If Hardy had not given up those aspirations, it is doubtful he would have turned to a democratic form like the novel in order to fulfill his urge to publish.

Moule also introduced Hardy to many of the important ideas and writings of the day, connecting him to the currents of thoughts that were circulating as far afield as London herself.

Hardy's early years as an apprentice gave him the opportunity to travel quite widely throughout the country for a man of his age and status. His work took him into many diverse communities where his journalistic eye and ear could soak up visual details, folk lore and dialectic tics that separated one from the next as well as exposing him to the deep history of each place in its oldest, most important buildings now in need of repair.

After several years of apprenticing, Hardy moved to London to work as an assistant to a well-known architect who specialized in the restoration of old churches into a contemporary style ironically known as the Gothic Revival. He took full advantage of cultural opportunities that were simply unavailable in Dorchester and, again, socialized with people well-above his natural station of the son of a stonemason from Dorset. After five years, it appears that his health suffered from city dwelling and he returned to his home territory. His experiences had taught him that he had ambitions that went beyond merely being an architect but also gave him a social framework to understand Londoners' tastes and expectations.

Of course, Hardy would later borrow extensively from his direct experience with stonemasonry, carpentry and architecture in his novels and poems. Both his first and last published novels feature major characters who occupy some point on the spectrum of building crafters and his insider knowledge of how the vocation worked (literally) could be called upon to provide a "sense of truth" to his writing in the same way he might highlight a local turn of phrase or an almost forgotten folk ritual. Moreover, Hardy's characters seem to occupy real physical spaces, often modeled from his memory on homes, offices, churches and other types of buildings that he himself had occupied or studied.

Perhaps I'm stretching credulity with my final point here but, as he began to tackle the idea of producing a novel, I think it would be unwise to overlook his experiences as a designer of spaces in relation to his ability to create within the very structured form of the English novel of the period. The creative journey from serialization to three volume release and finally into one volume form imposed three different sets of structural demands upon his stories. This ability to think about the structure of a story in three-dimensions as it were was no small feat and yet it was one he seemed to master by his fourth novel, Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), completed only four years after his first, the unpublished The Poor Man and the Lady.

Hardy all but abandoned the craft of architecture after his first novel's publication with the grand exception of his home, Max Gate, the home he designed and had built for him outside of Dorchester. As I hope I've been able to demonstrate here, Hardy benefitted generously from not only the skills and experiences he gained in his time as an architect but also the opportunities the profession offered him to expand himself socially and intellectually into the man he would eventually become.


  1. This aspect of Hardy's life is fascinating. The connections you make between architecture and writing make eminent sense. It also reminds me of my youth when I, briefly, dreamed of becoming an architect. I never pursued that vocation but I can appreciate someone like Hardy who went further in that field and gave it up for writing; a choice for which all of his readers can be thankful.

  2. It's valuable to remember that Hardy aspired to be in the clergy before he "settled" on being an architect. His own journey to London, after apprenticing in Dorchester, represents not only his last stab at achieving the education he'd need to acquire in order to do so but, like Jude, his leaving five years later was an admission of failure and a recognition that he simply didn't have the time or tools necessary to pull that off. It's funny to imagine also that Hardy never really gave up being an architect. He just did it fictionally for a living!