Friday, 30 April 2021

On the Isle of Portland, with Thomas Hardy

When Lockdown lifted and travelling became possible, we escaped for a few days to a small island neither of us had visited before. This was the Isle of Portland, lying off the Dorset coast and attached to the mainland only by that great tombolo of shingle, Chesil Beach. I took with me Thomas Hardy’s last novel. I’m glad I did.


If you had asked me a month ago which of his novels Hardy had set partly in London but mainly on an island he described at different times as ‘the Isle of Slingers’, ‘this island of treeless rock’, ‘the oolitic isle’ and ‘the peninsula carved by time’, I’ll admit I wouldn’t have known. It’s The Well-Beloved and even now I’m not sure how it should be pronounced – ‘Beloved’ in two syllables, rhyming with that absurd modern euphemism for ‘secondhand’, pre-loved? or three, as in ‘Dearly Belov-ed’?


It’s a strange book. Originally serialised in the Illustrated London News in 1892 as The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved, Hardy revised and republished it as a single volume with its shorter title in 1897. At 150 pages it is hardly a full-length novel; more like a novella divided into three sections: ‘A Young Man of Twenty’, ‘A Young Man of Forty’ and ‘A Young Man of Sixty’. The young man is Jocelyn Pierston, a promising sculptor who pursues his image of ideal beauty and ideal womanhood from one woman to another. 


It’s a tale (on one level at least) of frustration and frequent disillusion. I found Pierston’s progress as voyeur, pursuer, predator even, makes uncomfortable reading, but the story is ostensibly presented by Hardy as a Victorian version of the Pygmalion myth, in which the sculptor is more in love with his own fantasy of an ideal woman than with its reality. The reality is represented by three generations of young women – mother, daughter and granddaughter – all called Avice Caro. Things don’t end happily for any of them, nor for Pierston himself. Between the sculptor and the third Avice there is an age difference of almost forty years. Hardy himself was thirty nine years older than his second wife, Florence Emily Dugdale.


Hardy knew the Isle of Portland well. History and topography matter in The Well-Beloved, as do landmarks and locations. Most of these are precisely situated and instantly recognizable. We were staying in an old quarryman’s cottage at the end of a lane that began by the Portland Museum, opposite the gatehouse to Pennsylvania Castle. Before this neat little house became a museum, it was previously known – on the strength of Hardy’s story – as Avice Caro’s Cottage. Beyond our Airbnb, the lane became a path winding under the arch of Rufus Castle, down to the coastal path and the steep steps leading to Church Ope Cove. This lane and these places, renamed Red King’s Castle and Hope Cove, loom large in The Well-Beloved. Even our holiday cottage gets a mention.


Upstairs I found a framed Indenture dating from 1802, transferring the freehold of the cottage between two brothers, Bernard and John Stone; the witness to this transfer, transacted ‘according to ancient custom time out of mind’ in the parish church, was Henry Pearce. Originally, in The Pursuit of The Well-Beloved, Hardy had spelt Jocelyn’s surname Pearston. 


Portland only gets one mention in Claire Tomalin’s 2007 biography, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man. Hardy and Florence visited the Isle in 1923 and ‘had themselves driven to Portland Bill to visit a new friend, Marie Stopes, who had settled in a lighthouse tower there’. (p.350) I’m pleased Tomalin adds that Hardy’s host for the day found him ‘boyish and twinkling […] eager to climb to the top of her tower and out onto the roof to see the circular view.’ Hardy had a head for heights,* his novels containing several memorable and sometimes visionary descriptions of landscapes and places seen – and heard – as if from on high and afar. One night the ‘young man of forty’ goes out in pursuit of Avice and from the highest point of the Isle takes in 


…the stars above and around him, the lighthouse on duty at the distant point, the lightship winking from the sandbank, the combing of the pebble beach by the tide beneath, the church away south-westward, where the island fathers lay‡ [….] He seemed to hear on the upper wind the stones of the slingers whizzing past, and the voices of the invaders who annihilated them, and married their wives and daughters, and produced Avice as the ultimate flower of the combined stocks. (p.77)


Tradition has it that when the Romans first invaded the island, they were assailed by stones hurled from the slings of the natives. Even in the mid 19th century – Hardy’s story begins in the 1840s – those who came over to the island from mainland Wessex were considered ‘kimberlins’ (foreigners) who threatened the islanders’ ancient customs and practices. But Hardy, though a kimberlin himself, loved this island ‘standing out so far into mid-sea that touches of the Gulf Stream soften the air till February’. In his Preface to the 1912 Wessex edition of The Well-Beloved he confessed it was ‘a matter of surprise that the place has not been more frequently chosen as the retreat of artists and poets in search of inspiration (p.3).’


Pierston by contrast was an islander who had learned to sculpt by chipping away at fragments of

white stone picked up in his father’s quarry. However, his subsequent fame as an artist in London, his becoming a Royal Academician, counted for little with the quarrymen of Portland. Yet today sculpture here is something of a tourist attraction. One morning, we walked a narrow stretch of the Island’s clifftop coastal path in search of Tout Quarry, a maze of old workings now converted into a Sculpture Park. I wonder if Pierston, the disillusioned ‘young man of sixty’ abandoned by his art and his women, would have recognised himself in Antony Gormley’s image, chiselled out of a sheer rock face there, of a man Still Falling?


© Adrian Barlow


Quotations above are from the excellent Wordsworth edition of The Well-Beloved, edited by Jane Thomas (London: Wordsworth editions, 2000).


Illustrations: (i) The view in early evening towards Rufus Castle and the English Channel from the garden of our Airbnb cottage on the Isle of Portland.

(ii) Antony Gormley’s sculpture, Still Falling (1983), in the Tout Quarry Sculpture Park, Portland. Photographs © the author.



*I have written before about Hardy’s head for heights, in Thomas Hardy’s Bird’s Eye View.


 ‘the church away south westward, where the island fathers lay’: I am intrigued by these ten words: their fourteen syllables and unusual metre exactly anticipate the length and metre of some key lines (lines 3, 4 and 7) in Hardy’s poem ‘Beeny Cliff’, written after the death of his first wife Emma. Scanned as a line of verse, rhythmically this line divides into two equal halves, the second being the reverse of the first: di-dum-di-dum-di-dum-di followed by dum-di-dum-di-dum-di-dum. Hardy had worked hard to achieve this effect because he had rewritten the second half, which in 1892 had appeared as ‘where the original Avice lay’. Compared with the resonant sound and significance of ‘the island fathers’, ‘the original Avice’ was crude and clumsy. 

To my mind, ‘Beeny Cliff’ is one of the most poignant of all the poems Hardy wrote in the immediate aftermath of Emma’s death, and I can’t help wondering whether the metrical virtuosity of the poem doesn’t owe something to this apparently random (but carefully revised) line buried in The Well-Beloved.

Hardy also wrote a poem entitled ‘The Well-Beloved’, set not on the Isle of Portland, but at Kingsbere (Bere Regis), the village in whose church lay the ancestors of Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

I have written elsewhere about Hardy’s fascination with time in his poetry: Short Measures (ii): Time and Thomas Hardy. 

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating, Adrian. thank you. I shall now read the novel.