Max Gate and Cerne Abbas

It was further than I thought to Max Gate, Hardy’s home in Dorchester, past Gallows Hill and the memorial to the executed Catholics and on beyond the by-pass. There were several places in Dorset where the old religion died hard (usually because the local lord of the manor was sympathetic to the Catholics and protected the villagers, including Chideock with its martyrs and my own ancestral village, Marnhull, which has an unbroken history of discreet catholicism from pre-reformation days).

My old body was in a cooperative mood despite the long walk and we made it without grumbling (there and back).

The house is not as secluded as in Hardy’s time; modern buildings now overlook the large partly molehill strewn garden. It was exciting to see the room where Hardy wrote Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both because it’s a favourite of mine and because of a family connection, my great great grandfather being publican of the Crown Inn in Marnhull on which Hardy’s Pure Drop Inn in Tess was based. Hardy outraged a froth of bishops and moralists, their ire intensified by his sub-title a pure woman.

Rather less uplifting was seeing the cramped quarters where his first wife  found refuge, fell ill and died, the latter part of his marriage being grim. I know more than I wish to about this and have just written a couple of paragraphs but unusually I lost my file; perhaps it’s best that my thoughts about this matter float around for eternity with all the other forlorn documents in the cyber void.

I’ve  also been to Cerne Abbas which I’ve long wanted to explore. Once a town with an important monastery, it gradually declined to its present village status, especially during the nineteenth century when the railway took another route. There’s not much of the abbey left but a number of fine old buildings. Cerne is famous for its giant carved on the chalk hillside above the village. Its age is uncertain, the first written record being from 1694 and other earlier accounts of the location not mentioning it. However, as one writer neatly puts it absence of evidence is not sufficient evidence of absence. Ancient remains may well have attracted less attention in earlier historical periods and we can also, for example, find descriptions of Avebury, which make scant reference to the prehistoric stones, which we know were there.

The Cerne Giant has been related to a Celtic fertility god and popular etymology links the name of Cerne to this God, although more reliable sources relate it to the Welsh word Cairn, with the probable meaning of rocky stream. Recent research on soil samples has indicated that the giant may have originated in the late Saxon period although other samples produce a later sixteenth century date.

Martin Papworth, the National Trust’s senior archaeologist , has advanced the theory that the giant may have been covered over and rediscovered at some point, for instance, in the seventeenth century.

There is anyway solid evidence against it being of British Celtic origin.

It would hardly have been an asset during the monastic period, when the monastery would have been more interested in relics of saints etc. to attract pilgrims rather than a chalk giant, especially in its present form of a giant with an erection (there are theories, however, that this resulted from later tampering with the figure).

I’ve spent time in the Dorset Museum’s library and found out more about my publican great great grandfather who attracted the ire of the village by loose talk with an excise officer, which led to the prosecution of another villager (as I understand it for transporting a woman passenger on a goods vehicle without a licence). The villagers hung an effigy of Jimmy Kendall in a tree, then staged a mock funeral which passed the pub before a mock burial took place in a nearby field. This came to be known as Jimmy’s fete (the source here being a guide written by the Women’s Institute in 1940). It reminds me of the Skimmington Ride described by Hardy in the Mayor of Casterbridge where villagers outraged by what they regard as a serious breach of moral conduct organise a noisy procession with an effigy past the house of the offending party.

In two days’ time, I start my return to Sweden, well satisfied with my travels to Germany, France, Ireland, Wales and England.

Barnes and Hardy revisited

Rereading my blog, it could give the impression that I want to nudge Barnes and Hardy in the direction of socialist realism, which wasn’t my intention.

From Alan Chedzoy’s “The People’s Poet”’, I understand that Barnes’ social position was more marginal than Hardy’s. His father John apparently described himself in an early census as “a labourer in husbandry” (the date 1801 is given which seems very early for such individual details in a census). Chedzoy describes Barnes’ and his wife’s struggle to make a living from running schools in Mere and Dorchester. How Barnes tried to stabilise his social position by taking a degree in divinity at Cambridge and the price paid by his overworked wife in poor health and the negative effect on their school of Barnes’ prolonged absences for study.

Chedzoy describes the conflict between the need for the Barnes to attract “middle class” parents to place their children in a school run by a family whose social status was dubious and the effect of Barnes’ ideas, his enthusiasm for the Dorset dialect, regarded in polite society as vulgar, and willingness to participate in the educational activities of an aspiring working class, activities frowned on by the burgess.

However, the contours of established society in Dorchester seem vague to me from my reading. Being the county town, there must have been a layer of people of higher social rank – judges, the military, lawyers etc. as well as the old landowning aristocracy. given Victorian England’s version of the caste system, this layer would not be on calling terms with the broad layer of folk in trade, which encompassed Barnes (just about) and Hardy’s families. Which children did Barnes cater for in his school – presumably those of the traders; it’s not clear to me after reading Chedzoy’s book although I’d need a second careful reading to be sure.

Thomas Hardy’s father was a mason. Hardy was assisted by a genteel lady (as well as his mother with a remarkable breadth of interest) but the contours of Dorchester society in descriptions of Hardy’s younger days are vague. The picture of the intellectually ambitious Hardy discussing theology and the classics with friends such as the tragic Horace Moule, the vicar’s son and others is attractive. I think, however, that Hardy’s lack of a university education cast a shadow on his work; his novels contain not a few biblical and classical references that I find superfluous but which might indicate that Hardy felt he needed to demonstrate his learning.

Hardy, the man of Dorset, also spent long periods each year in London where he obviously enjoyed being feted by the “cream of society” His life seems fragmented between Dorset and London so that it was perhaps appropriate that his remains were divided up, the heart returning to Dorset while the remainder made for the Abbey. It was not a solution desired by Hardy; I find it distasteful.

He is often sympathetic towards the common folk, although I don’t always enjoy his occasional use of them for comic relief. His positive characters are those who rise above their lowly station through personal qualities (Gabriel Oak, perhaps Farfrae) or make the effort but fail such as Jude, victim of his Achilles penis, negative towards the nouveau riche (D’Urberville). But the emphasis as I wrote earlier is on the individual, never on individuals working together to improve their lot in these turbulent times as England industrialised and the poor became separated from their means of production. I would argue that his vision of the common people is partial and romantised.

But I still think Hardy is a great novelist, even if he, like us all, is a product of his social circumstances. I was attracted by him from my school’s soft intro of Under the Greenwood Tree and had read most of his other novels by the time I left for university. I loved his descriptions of West Country nature, his architect’s eye for shape and space, familiar to me as I walked and cycled around my village on the fringe of Blackmore vale. And the stoic grimness of the fate of his characters (those not blessed with a happy ending). I wasn’t so fond of his melodrama, perhaps a side-effect of serialisation. And I greatly disliked the descriptions of his first marriage with Emma Gifford, a romance that ended in a long drawn-out death in life at Max Gate before she actually died, but that was later when I hit the lit crit.

And I suppose he struck a social chord, a young man in the country but not completely of it, who aspired to the world of ideas and wanted to move beyond his origins before later returning as  a successful writer. I’ve re-read his novels as an adult but want to do so again.

William Barnes and Thomas Hardy

My wanderings around Europe, to Germany, France, Ireland, Wales and England are drawing to a close and in less than two weeks time, I will return hopefully to a less frozen home. It’s been an intensive experience as, besides translating, I’ve met friends and family from various stages of my life, moving back and forth in time as well as space.

In a few hours, I’ll leave the strange suburb of Elstree/Borehamwood, with its film and TV studios where seat plaques commemorating worthy folk who loved this place are likely to be cheek by jowl with information boards about Hitchcock, and where gaggles of folk hoping for a glimpse of the great cluster at the roadside, ignoring signs requesting them not to do so.

But I can breathe here, there’s a small town calm and the hotels are a fraction of the price of central London gearing up for the coronation. And there are also fast regional trains to St Pancras within easy reach of the British Library and friends in town.

But now I’m off to Dorset and have been reading Alan Chedzoy’s biography of William Barnes “The People’s Poet”, interesting as I know far more about Thomas Hardy than Barnes. Barnes wrote poetry in the Dorset dialect, which he considered to be closer to Old English than modern standard English, but which was considered by fine folk to be low and vulgar. Barnes would have liked to strip English of its Latin and Greek accretions and return it to its robust Anglo-Saxon roots so that school students would perhaps study Folk Lore rather than Civics.

More than a generation older than Hardy (1840-1928), Barnes (1801-1886) looked back to the eighteenth rather than forward to the twentieth century.  A largely self-educated polymath, his interests ranged far beyond philology writing “View of Labour and Gold” in 1859, the same year that Karl Marx produced his “Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”. Despite his thoughts about the labour theory of value, Barnes was not an early socialist, not even of the utopian kind. He looked back to an imagined golden past where the wealthy established justified their privileges by pastoral care of the less well endowed, who still had access to their own modest means of production before the disruptions caused by the onward march of Mammon.

Barnes has little to say about popular resistance, devoting little or no attention to Captain Swing, the Tolpuddle Martyrs or other social turbulence in the nineteenth century. “Man of the people” is thus what the Swedes would call “a truth with modification”.

Writing later, Thomas Hardy can be critical of the stressful and sometimes dangerous effects of the introduction of agricultural machinery. And highly critical of the hypocrisy of Victorian morality (in for example, Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure) with a grim empathy for its victims. But they, as are his heroes and heroines, are tragic and/or admirable individuals expressing their aspirations and making an impression on others by their personal qualities rather than being participants in collective action.

Hardy was inspired by many events that had taken place in Dorset and there are references to the wider world but his silences are significant. There is no novel about the Tolpuddle Martyrs despite their trial taking place in Dorchester. Nor did stories about the Chartists or the agricultural crises of the later nineteenth century make an appearance in his work.

I haven’t seriously studied Barnes’ dialect poetry or Hardy’s poetical work (he wrote mostly as a poet from the beginning of the last century onwards). It’s a gap in my education. I enjoyed poetry as a sixth former but since then my diet has been almost exclusively prose. I must try to correct this but need to find an annotated version of Barnes and Hardy’s poems as I am slow to interpret and lose patience too quickly.


Long High West Street past the museum and William Barnes statue, remembered independent shops selling “clothes for gentlemen”, and leather goods for the rural leisured. A few remain in the shadow of closures, charity shops and the retail hopeful at best quirky, more often mournful.

At the top Dorchester Castle visited (for some reason) on a family excursion back in the 60s where the local military had Hitler’s desk on proud display.. And on High Street and down Cornhill, cafes offering genteel teas, historically prejudiced as tea-bound farmers’ wives taking a break after the weekly shopping round and meeting husbands done with bartering livestock. I struggle to equip the women with rubber boots and get them to the market too but I think it was not so.

And then the museum with its British Celtic defender from the battle against Vespasian’s Legio II Augusta (at what is now known as Maiden Castle) with a ballista bolt buried in his spine. Vespasian is remembered at Vespasian House (a Covid vaccination centre).

And the wonderful old museum hall full of objects from Dorchester’s history with Hardy’s study at the end. Now emptied of content, a space for events, elegant and architectonically fine but for me, with the memory of how it once was, too barren, a space for those with panic fear of the intruding object. The museum revamp was otherwise better than I dared hope, even the bookshop has perked up, allowing space for more volumes of Dorset interest although the obscure shelf warmers that I loved have gone.

And at the bottom not all the way down to Maumbury Rings but in that direction, the two stations, Dorchester West much as it always was but ghostly quiet with porter replaced by digital help point. And Dorchester South rebuilt to remove the nineteenth century vestigial terminus to allow trains to go straight through to Weymouth without reversing. Weird that it took so long to do this (was the idea of an extension to Exeter so long lived?).

Beside the South station, there was the brewery, Eldridge Pope. Industrial activity close to the town centre, at the same time clamorous and calm, all very West England, and now all gone, swept away by brewery consolidation, which unmired Dorset from its fastening in an earlier capitalism. Now it’s Brewery Square shopping and entertainment centre. As an architectural solution, I don’t dislike it. It’s not tabula rasa. Old buildings have been repurposed and we can imagine the area’s history not completely unanchored. But the quiet mellow where I peacefully thrived has gone.

The market is on the other side of Weymouth Road, its present state unknown although I suspect it is not what it once was. And beyond at the beginning of the rolling green relic-strewn country, there is Poundbury, with its imitation historic architecture,  and the heavy royal hand with its Queen Mother Square and all the rest. Some individual buildings I like but it’s all appearance, the modern buildings are there behind the façade. And the styles are jumbled – it’s part village, part town and the community feels more socially upscale and dormitory than organic settlements. And it lacks connection to the glory of the surrounding countryside, reminding me more of a circle of covered wagons protecting against the outside wild.

Sometimes I feel mournful when I return, especially in winter, feeling estranged among the chic.

But I wouldn’t like it either if there was only the Dorset of my memories hanging on in shabby survival in slow collapse.  All that’s living has to develop but I am at times Greekly nostalgic returning “home” in pain.