Lowman, Roger Books

Dr. Roger Lowman read English at The Queen’s College, Oxford, and completed a Ph.D. at Southampton University. He taught English in schools in Surrey and Berkshire, and then for twenty-eight years at King Alfred’s College, now University College, Winchester, becoming inaugural Head of the School of Cultural Studies. He sang in the choirs of Guildford and Winchester Cathedrals successively for almost thirty years, and is currently editing a collection of liturgical antiphons for daily use at Winchester.

Thomas Hardy’s the Dorsetshire Labourer and Wessex
2005 0-7734-6089-6
This study returns to questions which have occupied critics of Hardy’s novels since their first appearance: how should readers understand his rural world? Is he a reliable witness of contemporary conditions? What are his purposes as he describes the countryside of ‘Wessex’ and tells stories of its people?

Critics typically recruit authors in support of their own world views, and over the last fifty years have cast Hardy as a social historian: a sympathetic and concerned portrayer of the rural poor, who positioned himself, so the novels persuade them, on the political left.

This study challenges that view. Hardy’s intense, even poetic, response to the familiar places of his native Dorset, combined with his powerful realist rhetoric, has encouraged the belief that his portrayal of rural society must be similarly accurate. But Hardy was not a disinterested observer, however much the authorial voice of the novels may persuade us that that is the case. Born and brought up in a village-tradesman family, he broke away, re-inventing himself first as a professional architect, and then as a successful man of letters. The imagined societies of his rural novels are significantly selective: he ignores, marginalizes, or treats dismissively the mass of rural poor, the agricultural labourers, whose condition was a running concern of the nineteenth century. His novels focus on the independent group to which his family belonged: ‘an interesting and better-informed class, ranking distinctly above’ the agricultural labourers, as he pointedly tells us. His fictions are coloured with a rich rural conservatism where social attitudes are concerned.

Hardy’s Wessex countryside is to be valued as metaphor, not reportage: for the latter we have to turn to that huge bulk of contemporary material highlighting the situation of the agricultural poor, nowhere more severely felt than in Dorset. It is no wonder that his early readers were puzzled. This study resolves the problem by reading Hardy’s novels primarily as pastorals, and Wessex as a place of the mind.

To introduce this argument, the first part of the study offers an edition of Hardy’s article for Longman’s Magazine, ‘The Dorsetshire Labourer’ (1883). This may be treated either as an end in itself, or as a way to open up important questions about Hardy’s representation of the rural world in his novels, which becomes the focus of the second part of the study.