Dorchester (Casterbridge)

Warning: this is epic and long.

It smells like the ocean. That was the first thing I thought as I stepped off of the 6 AM train into Dorchester, the grey sky above me just waiting to burst in rain.

Dorchester is a place I have always known by a different name: Casterbridge. In my junior year of high school, my English class read Thomas Hardy’s novel ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge.’ Everybody in the class despised it. The language was too old, the descriptions to long, and the events…to ordinary (for lack of a better word). Everbody in the class despised it, that is, except for me. And so began my infatuation with Hardy’s special brand of pastoral tragedy- the complicated and confused nature of his characters, the oddness of his description, and his romanticization of the everyday. Hardy has the vocabulary of a latinist, the eye of a stonemason, and the heart of a Dorset farmer. I have always said that his prose is not always as consistently masterful as, say, Jane Austen, but for me as a 16 year old student of literature, his dealing with themes of fate and mortality seemed more exciting than questions of civility, or of marriage and not marriage. The events that transpire in his novels where shocking by Victorian stantards, and his way of handling them in literature considering the context of his time was infinitely intriguing. In short,  I became a member of Team Hardy.

And as everyone who has read Hardy knows, his books are very strongly based in place, so much so that the landscape almost becomes a character in its own right, full of mad will and spasmodic resplendance.

So, Dorchester it was. I had to go.

When I arrived the town was not yet awake, the the streets where empty and the tourist office would not open for another hour, so not really knowing where I was and going soley on the what I had remebered from Hardy’s own half real, half fantasy descriptions I did the only thing that seemed natural: I began to walk. I walked through the empty, grey streets, being certain to mark the details of the stone work on the buildings as I passed. There was the church, the clock tower, the old fountain in the middle of town. Soon I passed a sign pointing in the direction of something called the ‘Roman Townhouse’, and with nothing better to do, I followed it.

I reached the townhouse at the top of the highest point in the city. The ‘townhouse ‘ was a ruin at best, but some beautiful roman mosiac floors remained. I sat there alone and ate my breakfast pondering the strangeness of the Roman settlement in England and thinking of Hardy’s lines about how Dorest houses the dead of that ancient empire.

When the tourist center finally opened and I procured a map and made my plan for the day.

First it was off to the market, the site where in Hardy’s novels the local corn merchants and farmer do business with each other. Today, it is just as lively but the goods that are traded are more like old junk, tacky trinkets, and of course, food from local farms. Walking through the crowds of bustling people, I tried to imagine Bathseba Everdine (From ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’) walking amongst them, the only woman-farmer in a the male dominated world of agricultural commerce. I myself bought a piece of carrot cake and a hunk of black pepper cheddar cheese.

Next up was Mambury rings, which are large parenthetical-shaped mounds made for some reason or another by anicient peoples and was used by the Romans as an amphitheater. Today, it is used for outdoor Shakespeare performances, and I regretting not being in Dorchester on a day of a performance. Shakespeare in a Stone Age monument sounds fantastic.

Next I walked a couple kilometers through the countryside to Maiden Castle, England’s (and possibly Europe’s) largest Iron age fort. All the while through the country side I was thinking of  ‘The Return of the Native’  and the characters’ long, wild walks through Egdon heath. As you can probably tell, most of my day was spent in my own imaginary Hardy-world. It was fantastic.

When I at last reached Maiden Castle, it was too foggy for me to see the structure from a distance, so I hiked up the first set of mounds in order to get a closer look. Upon realizing the ture enormity of the monument, I decided that I had walked far enough, turned around and walked back into town.

Next up was the Dorset county museum, which is a tidy and well-kept little musuem inside an old Victorian-decorated cathedral. There were a lot of the types of things that fascinate me: old farming implements, Roman remains, portraits of the Duke of Monmouth (who apparently was very popular in Dorset). The pinnacle of the visit, and the reason I had come, however, was the Thomas Hardy display on the top floor. The relative sparcity of visitors to the museum allowed me to spend quite a lot of time examing the manuscripts they had, pondering Hardy’s small, neat handwriting and the odd way he formatted his poetry (some stanzas aligned to the left, others justified). And then there was Hardy’s own title page for my favorite of his novels, ‘Tess of the D’Ubervilles’. It was quite an experience to read the words ‘Tess of the D’Ubervilles: or, A Pure Woman’ in Hardy’s own hand, and to realize that the edition of the Novel Ihad read several years earlier had in fact preserved the orignal format of the page. I was satisfied knowing that Hardy, as a poet (poets are often concerned about such things) would be satisfied. I stayed in that Room for quite a while, reading what I could of the orginal manuscripts and trying to imagine Hardy’s creative process.

I left the Museum to go back into town, and walked down the main street, know full of people as it would have been in Hardy’s day, in order to view that house that is immortalized as the house of Micheal Henchard in ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge.’ It is a brown brick house, very proper, and is now a Barclay’s Bank. I stood there for a moment trying to picture the cloistered Elizabeth Jane peering out from the second floor window. Next I walked by The Kings Arms, which is know a Best Western Hotel. It seemed to fit actually.

The journey I saved for last on that day was the walk out to Strindsford, to the small Parish Church where T.H.’s heart is buried. This time, walking through the sheep fields, my imagination dwelled on Tess, and her long, solitary wanderings- as well as her non-solitary ones.

I at last reached the church, it was very small. When I went in I realized that it likely looked exactly the same as when TH was baptized there. Being alone in empty stone churches in the middle of teh English countryside is a humbling and transporting experience, and for some reason I felt the urge to sing a pslam aloud. So I did.

I went out of the Church and found the small, unadorned white tomb in which Hardy’s heart is buried. The rest of his in in Westminisiter Abbey, where the Queen wanted him, but is heart, as always and as ever, lies in Dorset. I sat there for a while and paid my repspects, and thanked him for the insight, inspiration, and imagination that he has given the world of literature, and especially for the strong effect his words have had on me.

Satisfied at last, I walked back to town, said my last goodbyes to ‘Casterbridge,’ and caught a train to my next destiation: Bath. Stay tuned, and thanks for putting up with my Thomas Hardy stuff.

—–

Farm in Uppsala update: I HATE CUCUMBERS AND GREENHOUSES. that is all.

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