Jemima Hardy – The Great Author's Mother

Tracy Hayes

Jemima Hardy with baby Thomas Hardy. Image courtesy of Dorset County Museum

Jemima Hardy, nee Hand, (1813-1904) was one of the most important people in Thomas Hardy's life. Fiercely independent and proud, she instilled a love of learning into her eldest child from a very early age. Jemima's own mother Elizabeth Swetman had been familiar with the writings of Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, had memorized the writings of Addison and Steele from The Spectator, and praised Paradise Lost and The Pilgrim's Progress as amongst the co

rnerstones of world literature. She, too, was strong-willed, marrying Hardy's maternal grandfather against her own father's wishes. He never forgave her, cut her from his will, and never saw her again. When Elizabeth's husband died he left her a widow with several children, the youngest of whom was only months old. Though the family lived in poverty, Elizabeth encouraged in Jemima a love of literature, who in turn showed a great aptitude for reading and writing. Like her mother, Jemima read omnivorously, and was also a talented singer. She was a collector of stories and folklore in the oral tradition, Hardy quite often requesting stories from her from which he would place certain details into his own work, such as the 'hag-riding' episode in 'The Withered Arm'.

Muslin Dress printed with flowers worn by Jemima Hardy c. 1850. Image courtesy of Dorset County Museum

As Hardy himself once acknowledged, Mrs Yeobright of The Return of the Native (1878) owed many of her characteristics to Jemima as she was in middle-age, able to fly from a gentle mood to raging anger in the blink of an eye. Jemima demanded and received unquestioning devotion from her children, but she could also be quite cold and remote, and rather intolerant in her views. She was also very much given to pessimism, a trait inherited by her famous son. Her desperate and unhappy childhood provided her with a determination to drive her children to success in all endeavours, and she taught them to value their family above and to the detriment of all others. They were to be devoutly loyal to each other, and to present a united front to outsiders. Jemima famously told her children that they were not to marry, but to live in pairs: Thomas with Mary, and Henry with Kate. Thomas was in fact the only one of the Hardy children to marry – Emma Lavinia Gifford in 1874 – though his mother refused to attend the wedding, and Emma did not get on with any of the Hardy family.

Hardy recalled his childhood dependence on Jemima in his poem 'In Tenebris. III', with the lines 'matchless in might and with measureless scope indued', and again in The Return of the Native with Clym Yeobright and his mother being so joined that their conversations are 'as if carried on by the right and left hands of the same body'. Jemima died on Easter Sunday (3rd April) 1904, her death certificate citing 'senile decay' and 'heart failure'. She had lived to the incredible age of 91, though during her final years she had become increasingly deaf and bedridden. Hardy afterwards wrote to his friend Edward Clodd that she 'did not seem to me to be old, since she was mentally just as she had been since my earliest recollection', and composed a poem entitled 'After the Last Breath', the last stanza of which reads:

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.

Hardy never fully recovered from his mother's death, writing a week later that 'the gap...is wide, and not to be filled. I suppose if one had a family of children one would be less sensible of it'.

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