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Shaftesbury And The Donheads Celebrate Hardy

Fans of Thomas Hardy should head to Donhead St Mary next month for a weekend celebration of one of England’s greatest writers and poets. A film, fiddle-playing, food and drink, and insight into the author’s life and literature are on the programme.

Alfred’s Keri Jones found out more.

Christopher Nicholson, a published author who lives in The Donheads, is a firm Hardy fan. “There is no other English writer, apart from Shakespeare, who has such a developed sense of place and who puts you where you are in a location,” said Christopher. Hardy is the figure you go to if you want to find out what was happening in mid and late 19th century rural England. He will give you a brilliant picture of what it was like.”

Christopher will share his extensive knowledge of Hardy in his talk, following a light supper in Donhead St Mary Village Hall on 12th October, and he hopes to inspire his audience. “I’d like them to believe that Hardy was an extraordinarily interesting man. But most of all, I’d like them to go home and have a look at his novels and poems.”

Anna Mcdowell and Christopher Nicholson

There is a misunderstanding about the real Hardy, in Christopher’s view. “That he was a pessimist, gloomy, hard on women and not a nice sort of bloke. I don’t think he was that at all. He was a very complex man who had a great love for life, dancing and music. He loved old stories, which he was told by his grandparents,” said Christopher, who understands where the dour label comes from.

“There is quite a lot of pessimism in late novels, like Tess and Jude the Obscure. These are the accounts of a man whose marriage had completely founded. You see accounts in which the woman is trapped in a relationship with a man that she doesn’t want to be trapped with, and vice versa,” said Christopher. “Hardy didn’t like the binding nature of the marriage contract. That led him into problems in late Victorian England. The gloomier reputation that he has comes from that sort of stuff, but the accounts of him as an old man are that he was witty and could be great fun.”

Diners attending the Donheads event will be served the author’s favourite tipple as part of the Saturday supper. “I’m hoping to arrange for Donhead cider to be served at the beginning of the meal, because Hardy did enjoy cider,” said event organiser Anna McDowell.

To further dispel Hardy’s doleful reputation, Anna has arranged for live music. “We’ve got an excellent fiddler, Emily Farewell. And she knows a lot about the type of music that Hardy would have listened to and enjoyed.”

Christopher says that Hardy was both praised and savaged by the critics during his lifetime. “He was highly thought of, because he’d written a series of great novels that described country life. Britain had become an urban country by this stage. Hardy fed the dreams of the city. Love, loneliness and all the other human emotions were drawn together by Hardy. He gave up writing novels, oddly enough, in his mid 50s, after the reception of Judy the Obscure. I think he probably just ran out of energy.”

That book was not well received. “One of the bishops burnt it,” said Christopher. “It appeared to be full frontal attack on the marriage contract. That was deeply offensive to many. Shaftesbury was caught up in the whole thing. What (local) people made of that novel, I don’t know. People in Dorchester had reservations about Hardy at that stage.”

Donhead St Mary’s Village Hall

Hardy was born, and died, in the Dorchester area and is closely connected with the county town. Donhead St Mary’s lies across the Dorset border, a few miles into Wiltshire. Christopher says that wouldn’t have mattered to the author. “I don’t think Hardy was really interested in county borders, because he had this part real, part-dream county – Wessex. He would not be bothered in the least about whether it was Wiltshire or Dorset,” said Christopher.

“He knew the area around here well. When he was a young man in his 30s, trying to get out of London, he went house hunting. One of the places he came to look was Shaftesbury. He found one but it fell through and he ended up in Wimborne,” said Christopher. “Tess of the D’urbervilles opens with Tess’ father making his way from Shaftesbury, down to Marnhull, in a drunken state. There’s a section in Jude the Obscure on Shaftesbury, or ‘Shaston’ as Hardy put it. It opens with a long, historical, topographical and geographical account of the greatness of Shaftesbury three centuries back, and how visiting it now feels ‘one with a kind of melancholy’.”

The weekend of events continues on Sunday 13th October when Shaftesbury resident Arthur Simmonds leads a guided Hardy literary walk around the town. “There’s a very nice description in ‘Tess’ about The Blackmore Vale. The perfect place to look at this and to read this is on top of Castle Green. You can see as far as the Quantocks. We’ll go around to Park Walk, another wonderful open space, where you can see as far as The Purbecks,” said Arthur.

Arthur Simmonds

Hardy described Shaftesbury as ‘the city of a dream’ and ‘one of the queerest and quaint spots in England’. He also said that our hilltop town was both ‘breezy and whimsical’. Arthur picked up one of his collection of Hardy books and shared a less positive description of town by the author. ‘It was a place where the churchyard lay nearer heaven than the church steeple, where beer was more plentiful than water and where there were more wanton women than honest wives and maids.’

Arthur’s circuit of Shaftesbury will pause on Bimport at Ox House, which features in ‘Jude the Obscure’. “The schoolmaster, who was in fact the head teacher, decided to release his wife and let her join Jude, whom she was in love with. It was the releasing of her that caused the biggest offence. He was told that he couldn’t keep his job because of that,” said Arthur.

Information on Hardy behind Shaftesbury TIC

Arthur will talk about the existing Hardy walking connection to our town, during his walk. “There’s the Hardy Way, which leads through the centre of our town. It does a 208-mile circuit of Dorset, visiting all the significant sites. It’s now on the Ordnance Survey map with green diamonds. It is a long distance route.”

That could be considered a boost the tourism and Arthur says that Hardy believed that people should come here because our elevation made Shaftesbury good for wellbeing. “He certainly did think that it should have become a kind of health resort because of its height and it gets all this fresh air. He was a bit surprised that it never did.”

The three-day schedule commences on Friday 11th October with a screening of the original production of Far From the Madding Crowd, which Christopher rates highly. “It’s miles better than the 2015 film with Carey Mulligan, which is simply squashed together so all the melodramatic elements of Hardy’s novel don’t have the stuff which brings it to life. This is the 1967 version, directed by John Schlesinger, with brilliant performances by Alan Bates as shepherd Gabriel Oak. Julie Christie plays heroine Bathsheba and Peter Finch is a disgruntled and ultimately tragic farmer, Boldwood. Terence Stamp puts in an amazing performance as the dashing soldier, Troy. It’s a marvellous film and it was shot in Dorset,” he said.

Here is an overview of the Hardy Festival programme:

Friday 11th October – Screening of Far From The Madding Crowd (1967). Doors open at 6.30pm and tickets cost £5.

Saturday 12th October – ‘Thomas Hardy – The Man’. An evening of entertainment and Christopher’s talk, with supper and music. Tickets cost £12.

Sunday 13th October – A walk around Hardy’s Shaftesbury. Starts at 3pm at the Tourist Information Centre. Tickets cost £5.

Tickets for the weekend are available from Anna McDowell on (01747) 829010 or email annamcdo59@gmail.com.