Thursday, 8 August 2013

UNMISTAKABLY DORCHESTER: THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE



There can be few towns in literature as readily identifiable with their real life counterparts as Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy's fictional version of Dorchester.  The town is the focal point of The Mayor Of Casterbridge, the story of a man, Michael Henchard, who drunkenly sells his wife in his youth.  This act comes back to haunt him later in life, by which time he has become the Mayor Of Casterbridge. The story makes numerous references to local landmarks and buildings which can be pinned down to their real-life equivalents.  One of Dorchester's best known features is The Walks, a series of pleasant, tree-lined avenues which follow the line of the original Roman walls.  In Hardy's time, these avenues more or less formed the boundary between the town and the countryside, and there are several references to the way in which the agricultural areas around the town almost encroached on its streets.  Hardy describes the town as "like a chessboard on a green table-cloth", and he talks of how, when an execution took place, the cows had to be moved out of the way from the meadow next to the "drop" to make way for the spectators.  And how the judge, when passing sentence, did so "to the tune of Baa", from the sheep nearby.  Meanwhile, the High Street was colonised by pig-dealers occupying the recesses outside people's houses, and by the sellers of horses who "occasionally nipped little boys by the shoulder who were passing to school".  Needless to say, the present-day Dorchester has spread far beyond the confines of The Walks.

Halfway up Dorchester's High Street is the Kings Arms Hotel, an inn built in 1720 which has played host to Queen Victoria and King George VI.  The hotel, with the same name, features prominently in The Mayor Of Casterbridge (and also appeared in Far From The Madding Crowd).  Many of the important events of the novel take place in the Kings Arms.  In chapter 5 the Mayor of the title presides over "a great public dinner of the gentlepeople and such like leading volk", with the town band playing outside and lesser townsfolk peering in through the windows at the proceedings therein.  This is the point at which the sold wife first sees her husband after a long separation.  Another prominent pub which features in the story is The Three Mariners - this was based on an inn called The King Of Prussia, which was pulled down at the end of the 19th century.  

The house reputed to have been lived in by Michael Henchard. Photo by Brian Turland

The Kings Arms. Photo by Brian Turland

As well as the town itself, several nearby landmarks play an important part in the story.  As its name suggests, Dorchester had Roman origins, and there are many relics of that time around the town.  Maumbury Rings was the site of a Roman amphitheatre in the 1st century AD.  The site, which is referred to as the Ring in the novel, is where Henchard has a rendezvous with his former wife, and later with the other woman in his life, Lucetta.  There is a road referred to in the story as the Via, so called because it was once a Roman road.  This Via is overlooked by Maiden Castle - or Mai Dun - the largest prehistoric earthwork in the country, which is used as a vantage point by Henchard to observe comings and goings along the Via.  Some of the more rural scenes in the novel are set in "an eastern purlieu" called Durnover.  This is a fictional village on the edge of town, of which the real-life equivalent is Fordington, a former village which now forms part of the built-up area of Dorchester.  Further afield, the seaside town named Budmouth in the novel is Hardy's version of Weymouth, which also appears elsewhere in his work.


Maumbury Ring. Photo by Brian Turland


Fordington, aka Durnover. Photo by Brian Turland


Hardy was well qualified to base a novel around Dorchester: he was born in Higher Bockhampton near the town in 1840, and in 1849 began attending a school in Dorchester.  At 16 he went to work for the architect John Hicks, at 39 South Street.  Later in life, after spending time in London and a variety of locations he returned to live in Dorchester, moving into Max Gate in 1885.  This Victorian house designed by Hardy himself is now run by the National Trust, who also run his Higher Bockhampton birthplace.  Near Dorchester, commanding an elevated position with views out to the coast and inland, is the Hardy Monument, also National Trust.

Thomas Hardy's statue. Photo by Brian Turland
File:Hardy's cottage, Higher Bockhampton - geograph.org.uk - 480484.jpg
Thomas Hardy's birthplace. Photo by Chris Downer, via Wikimedia Commons

For tourist information about Dorchester see here.

Map of the town.

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