Thomas Hardy was born June 2, 1840 in the village of Upper Bockhampton, located in Southwestern England. His father was a stone-mason and a violinist. His mother enjoyed reading and retelling folk songs and legends popular in the region. From his family, Hardy gained the interests that would influence his life and appear in his novels: architecture and music, the lifestyles of the country folk, and literature itself.
Hardy attended Julia Martin's school in Bockhampton between the ages of 8 and 16. However, most of his education came from the books he found in Dorchester, the nearby town. He taught himself French, German, and Latin. At sixteen, Hardy's father apprenticed his son to a local architect, John Hicks. Under Hicks's tutelage, Hardy learned about architectural drawing and the restoration of old houses and churches. Hardy loved the apprenticeship because it allowed him to study the histories of the houses and the families that lived there. Despite his work, Hardy did not abandon his academic studies; in the evenings, Hardy would study with the Greek scholar Horace Moule.
In 1862, Hardy was sent to London to work with the architect Arthur Blomfield. During his five years in London, Hardy immersed himself in the cultural scene by visiting museums and theaters, and studying classic literature. He even began to write his own poetry. Although he did not remain in London, choosing instead to return to Dorchester as a church restorer, he maintained his newfound talent for writing.
From 1867, Hardy wrote poetry and novels, though the first part of his career was devoted mostly to novels. At first, he published anonymously, but after people became interested in his work, he began to use his own name. Like the work of his contemporary Charles Dickens, Hardy's novels were published serially in magazines, and they became popular in both England and America. His first popular novel was Under the Greenwood Tree, published in 1872. The next great novel, Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), was so popular that the profits allowed Hardy to give up architecture and marry Emma Gifford. Other popular novels followed in quick succession: The Return of the Native (1878), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), The Woodlanders (1887), Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891), and Jude the Obscure (1895). In addition to these long works, Hardy published three collections of short stories and five shorter novels, all moderately successful. However, despite the praise Hardy's fiction received, many critics were offended by their violence and sexual content, especially in Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. The outcry against Jude was so great that Hardy decided to stop writing novels and return to his first great love, poetry.
Over the years, Hardy had divided his time between his home, Max Gate in Dorchester, and his lodgings in London. In his later years, he remained in Dorchester to focus completely on his poetry. In 1898, his dream of becoming a poet was realized with the publication of Wessex Poems. He then turned his attentions to an epic drama in verse, The Dynasts; it was finally completed in 1908. Before his death, he had written over 800 poems, many of which were published while he was in his eighties.
Hardy also found happiness late in his personal life. His first wife, Emma, died in 1912. Although their marriage had not been happy, Hardy grieved at her sudden death. In 1914, he married Florence Dugdale, and she was extremely devoted to him. By the last two decades of Hardy's life, he had achieved a level of fame equal to that of Dickens. In 1910, he was awarded the Order of Merit. New readers had also discovered his novels though the publication of the Wessex Editions, definitive versions of all Hardy's early works. As a result of this increased popularity, Max Gate became a literary shrine and a tourist attraction.
After a long and highly successful career, Thomas Hardy died on January 11, 1928, at the age of 87. His ashes were buried in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey. After his death, Florence published Hardy's autobiography in two parts under her own name. Hardy bequeathed many of his possessions to the nation, most notably his pens. Hardy personally engraved each bone handle with the name of the text it was used to write.
Although Hardy's novels were received badly by critics when they were first published, Hardy has been consistently recognized since his death as one of the great English novelists. He was an important influence on modernism, and many later writers, including Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and Robert Graves, named Hardy as influences. His poetry has been similarly influential; in the twentieth century, several classical composers, including Gustav Holst and Benjamin Britten, have set Hardy's poems to music.
Hardy's poems offer a grounded, even cynical account of what it means to be alive. His poetry is frequently skeptical of the existence of a God, and seems set in a universe in which terrible events occur without cause. His work was also very inspired by his native landscape of southern England, both its physical characteristics and its ancient history. Although popular in his own time, his poetry became much more influential over the course of the twentieth century, as a less flowery or grand approach to life became more popular. He was an inspiration to Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, Philip Larkin, and Dylan Thomas.
During his lifetime, Hardy was frequently asked to allow his texts to be adapted for the emerging medium of film. He was far-sighted enough to see film's promotional benefits, and the attraction in widening his audience. However, early attempts at filming his work were less than satisfactory, despite Hardy's involvement in the process—most notably, The Mayor of Casterbridge in 1921. Perhaps because the depth of his stories so often depends on the brooding internal conflicts of his strongest characters, it is almost impossible to truly capture the nuances of his work in other media.