Thomas Hardy actually didn't consider himself much of a novelist, even though he is now super famous for his novels. Instead, Hardy thought of himself as a poet who just wrote novels on the side to make some cash. Whatever his motives for writing them, his novels are what most people remember him for, and his novels brought him fame (and notoriety) in his own lifetime.
Hardy was born in 1840 and died in 1928 – so he lived to be crazy old. But he pretty much stopped publishing novels and prose by the end of the nineteenth century. What's the deal? Well, Hardy's novel Jude the Obscure (1895) received such scathing reviews that he swore off the whole novel-writing business and decided to just go back to poetry for the rest of his life. And we can see some signs of things to come in Hardy's reaction to the criticism The Return of the Native received.
The Return of the Native was Hardy's sixth published and seventh completed novel – his first novel was apparently so crappy that he never published it, upon the advice of his friend and mentor George Meredith. This novel was published in a serial magazine called Belgravia in twelve installments during the year 1878. Belgravia was known for being highly sensational, or over-the-top, which may account for some of the more melodramatic elements in The Return of the Native. Overall, the novel got fairly mixed reviews. People generally were impressed with Hardy's writing chops, his skills with language, and his characters. But they also found him somewhat off-putting for his depressing attitude.
The Spectator magazine's 1879 review said that the book "treats tragedy itself as hardly more than a deeper tinge of the common leaden-colour of the human lot, and so makes it seem less than tragedy – dreariness, rather than tragedy."
People had fairly mixed reactions to how much of a downer the book was. However, Hardy was also put-off by his own audience. The interesting thing about The Return of the Native is that its ending is not what Hardy had in mind (you can read the juicy details in the "What's Up with the Ending?" section). Long story short, Hardy bowed to public pressure and demand for a happy ending and got rid of his original completely-and-utterly depressing ending. But he also added a rather snarky footnote that implies that his readers were too dumb to handle his original, and wildly depressing, ending. Hardy could be a bit elitist and wasn't always a fan of the general reading public, who failed to "understand" his ideas.
As a result of the tensions between Hardy and his readers, The Return of the Native can come off as rather strange in places, like a puzzle that doesn't quite fit together. It's definitely interesting to see the different elements that make up the novel – a mixture of Hardy's naturalistic interest in nature and the universe, and public demand for romance and drama. And that's not all – we can also see Hardy's decision to draw upon Greek and Shakespearean tragedies in this novel, the constraints of serial publishing (which turned chapters and volumes into mini TV-like episodes), and the odd historical position that Hardy occupied in the late Victorian era.
What was so odd about this historical position? Well, Hardy was sort of caught up between the Romantic movement (which was on its way out), Realism (which was on the rise), and Modernism (which would be coming down the pipeline in a few years). Hardy's novel seems to veer back and forth between over-the-top romance, harsh realism, an interest in character drama, and a focus on mythology and nature.
This focus on nature is definitely worth noting in this novel. See, Hardy set nearly all of his novels in the fictional county of Wessex in Southwest England, which is where Hardy himself was born and raised (in the real county of Dorset – that would be cool if he were raised in an imaginary county, though). Wessex is sort of like Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha county.
In the fake county of Wessex, Hardy explored social issues, the impact of industrialization on the countryside, his own ideas on nature and fate, and so on. It was sort of a laboratory for Hardy's ideas. The land and nature play a huge role in all of Hardy's work, but perhaps none more so than The Return of the Native. It's also worth noting that Hardy moved from London to a more rural area before beginning work on The Return of the Native, and Hardy's own "return" to a more natural zone may have influenced the direction this novel took.
One last thing to consider: why did Hardy set the novel about 25 years in the past? Well, this was actually a rather common thing to do among Victorian realist authors – George Eliot set many of her (yes, George Eliot was actually Mary Anne Evans – no nineteenth-century trend to name girls George, Harry, Richard...) novels in the past, as did Charles Dickens. The past was a way for these authors to explore social issues and to examine how the current way of doing things came about in the first place. So for realist authors concerned with social themes, it made sense to go back in time to explore them. Hardy is no exception to this Victorian novel trend.
It's easy to come away from this novel with a superficial impression of it. The Return of the Native comes off a bit like survivalist guide crossed with a love advice column, plus a large portion of National Geographic stirred into the mix. And what sort of wisdom do we get with this book? Well, we learn about pool safety, the perils of hasty elopements, hiking safety, and the fact that you really can't "change" your love interest (sorry, Grease).
So why care about this novel? Well, it's worth reading because it actually shows us how connected the Man vs. Wild survival guide and the romantic advice column really are. In this novel, human relationships aren't divorced from the realities of the natural world. We often ignore nature and the wider world around us, and we often have the luxury of doing so. But Hardy makes us acutely aware of how things like nature, history, and communities have a direct impact on individuals.
Yale's Thomas Hardy Association
A veritable Thomas Hardy clubhouse, with lots of links, neat articles, and handy lists of things like his published works.
Thomas Hardy Overview
VictorianWeb's Hardy overview, with articles divided up by themes and categories, like "Economic Contexts" and "Gender Matters."
Hardy on Today in Literature
Fun website with "this day in literary history" articles. It's worth checking out the whole site, and they have a handful of cool articles on Hardy that link him to some other famous writers, like Thomas Gray.
Thomas Hardy Links and Articles
List of links to academic articles and websites about Hardy and his work.
The Love Songs of Thomas Hardy
Cool article about Hardy's poetry and what he was up to later in his long life. Plus some juicy gossip about his marriage – can't go wrong with that.
The Hardy Playlist
Hardy was a big fan of music in his novels and his poetry actually inspired a lot of composers later on – you can read all about it here.
Masterpiece Classic: Tess of the d'Urbervilles
As always, PBS's websites are filled with cool facts, articles, and more links than you can shake a stick at. And this is no exception. Get your Hardy groove on here.
A Literary Guide to Southwest England
Cool project at Kenyon College where they profile the literature and authors of Southwest England, including Hardy's The Return of the Native.
Gustav Holst's Egdon Heath Score
Article, with lots of links, about Egdon Heath, Hardy's fictional landscape, and the musical score by Gustav Holst.
Realism and Naturalism
Article on the nineteenth-century literary movements, with a focus on French realism.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Naturalism
Very detailed article about the philosophy of Naturalism.
Keats and Romanticism
All about Keats and the Romantic movement.
Thomas Hardy's World
Great interactive timelines of Hardy's life and works, with lots of pictures and links.
Learn all about Hardy's fictional country of Wessex – this site includes info about his novels, maps, and other archival materials.
Hardy's Egdon Heath Project
Very cool organization, inspired by Hardy, that's trying to preserve the culture and the natural landscape of Dorset, Hardy's actual home county in England.
Find a Grave: Thomas Hardy
Information about Hardy and his burial site (plus pictures of it!) are on this website, where you can find the grave of just about anyone famous.
The Return of the Native (1994)
IMDb page for the 1994 adaptation, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Clive Owen.
"The Heart of Thomas Hardy"
Article and review of a BBC documentary on Thomas Hardy, which aired in 2008.
Dorset Museum Gets Hardy Collection
A very recent BBC news piece (video and article) about how a museum in Dorset, Hardy's home county, got a really cool collection of Hardy materials.
The Mummers Scene
A clip from of The Mummers performing in the 1994 movie adaptation.
Egdon Heath – The Band
There's a band called Egdon Heath and they have songs on YouTube. Check it out!
Holst's Egdon Heath (Ode to Hardy) Op. 47
A tonal poem by Gustav Holst, inspired by Hardy and composed in 1927.
Alan Rickman Reads Native Aloud
Excerpt of Alan Rickman's (a.k.a. Professor Snape's) audiobook version of The Return of the Native – nature descriptions never sounded so good. There's also a link of where you can find out more about this audiobook version.
Monty Python Novel Writing Sketch
Hilarious Monty Python sketch, in which a crowd gathers to watch Hardy write The Return of the Native and a radio commentator tells us all about it.
Arthur Hopkins's Original Illustrations
These are amazing – go check them out. Seriously, do it. These are all of the original illustrations published with The Return of the Native when it was first serialized in Belgravia magazine in 1878.
Egdon Heath in 1920
Archival photograph from the 1920 anniversary edition of The Return of the Native.
Thomas Hardy Painting
A painting of Thomas Hardy, by Reginald Eves.
VictorianWeb's Hardy Gallery
A huge gallery with images of places important to Hardy in his life and work. Two thumbs up from us!
Wessex in Pictures
Nice photographs of landscapes that are described in Hardy's work.
Hardy Photo Album
Cool album of Hardy, with photographs of him throughout his life, including one of him and his bicycle. Yes – it's kind of awesome.