To commemorate the death of Thomas Hardy on 11 January 1928, I’m going to take a break from writing about Oscar Wilde’s mother, Jane, to write instead about Hardy’s mother, Jemima.
Jemima, a former maidservant and cook from an impoverished and volatile Dorset family, acquired a love of reading from her own mother, Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Hand. Her sophisticated literary tastes ran to Latin poetry and French romances in their English translation, and it was said that Dante’s Divine Comedy was her favourite book.
When Jemima was thirteen, she was sent to work as a domestic servant. Aged twenty-six, her marriage to Thomas Hardy, a master mason and building contractor, was arranged by her family when it was discovered that she was pregnant with young Thomas. Happily, their marriage was a stable and contented one.
It was Jemima who instilled in her son Thomas a love of literature. She taught him to read and write before he turned four, and she sent him to school from the age of eight to sixteen. When he was ten, she enrolled him in a progressive non-conformist school run by the British and Foreign School Society in Dorchester. There, he learnt Latin and French among other subjects, but his favourite pastime was to read.
Perhaps it was a mark of Hardy’s gratitude that he maintained a great affection for his mother throughout her life. He wrote a poem to mark her death:
After the Last Breath
There’s no more to be done, or feared, or hoped;
None now need watch, speak low, and list, and tire;
No irksome crease outsmoothed, no pillow sloped
Does she require.
Blankly we gaze. We are free to go or stay;
Our morrow’s anxious plans have missed their aim;
Whether we leave to-night or wait till day
Counts as the same.
The lettered vessels of medicaments
Seem asking wherefore we have set them here;
Each palliative its silly face presents
As useless gear.
And yet we feel that something savours well;
We note a numb relief withheld before;
Our well-beloved is prisoner in the cell
Of Time no more.
We see by littles now the deft achievement
Whereby she has escaped the Wrongers all,
In view of which our momentary bereavement
Outshapes but small.
For more on Hardy and his literary life read: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/hardy/bio.html