Every person has a special place that becomes, in his mind, as much an emotional as a physical landscape. The artist -- that is to say, a painter or a writer -- often seems drawn to these "personal regions" more than ordinary folk, or, at least in many cases, the drive to create is linked to a continuing evocation of place. The relationship of Thomas Hardy to his native Dorset is one important literary example of the enduring effect of land upon man, and now two modern writers, both under the spell of Dorset themselves, seek to examine their predecessor's world.
John Fowles, the novelist ("The Magus," "The French Lieutenant's Woman," "Daniel Martin"), and Jo Draper, a local historian and archeologist, present in "Thomas Hardy's England" a photograph album, with text, that delineates a bygone era. What gives it its distinction, though, is that most of the book's pictures were taken by one man, Hermann Lea, who was well acquainted with Hardy during the later years of the novelist's life. In fact, Hardy even cooperated with Lea in the preparation of an earlier photographic volume, "Thomas Hardy's Wessex" (1913) -- Wessex being, of course, the name given by Hardy to his fictional territory, his own corner of England.
Not surprisingly, the book at hand reproduces some shots which appear to be from that earlier one, yet, annoyingly, there's no way to tell. Some photos are identified as Lea's, while others are not credited at all, although a careful reading of the acknowledgments and Fowles' introduction reveals that other contemporaneous camera buffs are also represented. But it takes looking in three places to gather up all the names -- Richard Hine, George and Harold Baker, the Rev. Thomas Perkins -- in addition to which there are, seemingly, quite a few "Anonymouses" from the Dorset County Museum Collection.
One feels this lack of attribution so greatly not only because different photographers have different personalities, but because Hardy enjoyed a 30-year friendship with Lea and freqeently accompanied him on picture-taking jaunts. Unfortunately, however, the sepia-toned prints found here seem to be from an era slightly prior to Hardy's acquaintance with Lea, and one looks in vain for much evidence that Hardy participated. This might not be an issue, except that we are told that Hardy went on some 60 outings with Lea in a two-year period alone. We hear, too, that many of the photos here "have never been made public before, and show a much more interesting and lively side of Lea's work than the rather formal photographs in 'Thomas Hardy's Wessex.' "
Still, one doesn't know which is which and what's what. And that's too bad, although there are photos, such as the one of the shoemaker who is identified as having been an employe of a cousin of Hardy, where -- since it was taken after Hardy and Lea had met -- one could infer the novelist's involvement. However, if one overlooks the troubling matter of chronology and attribution, there is a wide, if not deep, portrait of Victorian Dorset presented in the selection Fowles and Draper have made. The master of fox hounds (who looks a bit Trollopian), two children standing on the ford of a small stream (shades of George Eliot!), the young woman reading aloud to her grandfather (rather Dickensian) -- turning the pages, one feels not only the pull of Hardy's England but of all his fiction-writing peers.
A book of this type gains or loses much by its text. It's particularly important, I think, in "Thomas Hardy's England" because, while the pictures have a good deal of charm, there's a flatness to them, and many of the subjects do not jump to life. Happily, the introduction provided by John Fowles is insightful, affectionate and informative, not woolly-minded at all -- that is to say, not inclined to romanticize the environment of a century ago. Fully recognizing the risk of nostalgia -- filtering the past and giving it a faux glamor -- he puts it firmly into a context of reality.
"It is very difficult to present the old rural past without creating this nostalgia, precisely because nowadays we have the bastard versions of it thrown so continually at us: that is, the implication that the old countryside must have been more beautiful, more peaceful, more worthy, more stable and reliable -- all that our present world is not." Jo Draper, too, though a more pedestrian stylist than her collaborator, understands this. Four-fifths of the book is given over to her brisk tour of Hardy's life and times and of Hardyesque Dorset (and to some bits about Hermann Lea), but she concludes with an arresting few pages in which she also comes to terms with nostalgia's insidious distortions.
This dream of the past, she writes, "is just that." But for admirers of the distinct Hardy world, even its harshness is seductive, and "Thomas Hardy's England" is a worthwhile tour guide, if not an imaginative feat.