Although one does not immediately gain a sense of Egdon Heath in the 1878 illustrations for the Belgravia serialisation of the novel, illustrator Arthur Hopkins captures some sense of its hostile, unyielding nature in the March plate, , in which Clym and Humphrey hack away at the furze as Eustacia seems to hover in the background. Here Henry Macbeth-Raeburn establishes the heath as a brooding presence. 1895. 8.6 cm high by 12.4 cm wide, framed, in Hardy's 1878 novel The Return of the Native, volume six of the Osgood, McIlvaine Complete Uniform Edition of the Wessex Novels, in seventeen volumes (1895-1897). Subsequently, the elegant line drawings of the Scottish illustrator Henry Macbeth-Raeburn (1860-1947) were replaced in the Macmillan edition of the Wessex Novels (1912 onward) with such photographs as Egdon Heath, depriving later readers of experiencing this melancholy key-note. However idyllic Hardy's descriptions of the natural setting of the Wessex Novels may make this countryside seem, it is not an unspoiled, Rousseauian world, without malice, pettiness, and heartache; as Susanne John Flynn remarks, "The paradise of Wessex has more than a few snakes lurking about." But here Damon Wildeve is far less an opposing force, and the savage environment is much more of an antagonist for Hardy's tragic heroine. This atmospheric frontispiece, moreover, does not depict the natural world of Egdon Heath as benign and sunlit.
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A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor.
The heaven being spread with this pallid screen and the earth with the darkest vegetation, their meeting-line at the horizon was clearly marked. In such contrast the heath wore the appearance of an instalment of night which had taken up its place before its astronomical hour was come: darkness had to a great extent arrived hereon, while day stood distinct in the sky. Looking upwards, a furze-cutter would have been inclined to continue work; looking down, he would have decided to finish his faggot and go home. The distant rims of the world and of the firmament seemed to be a division in time no less than a division in matter. The face of the heath by its mere complexion added half an hour to evening; it could in like manner retard the dawn, sadden noon, anticipate the frowning of storms scarcely generated, and intensify the opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause of shaking and dread.
In fact, precisely at this transitional point of its nightly roll into darkness the great and particular glory of the Egdon waste began, and nobody could be said to understand the heath who had not been there at such a time. It could best be felt when it could not clearly be seen, its complete effect and explanation lying in this and the succeeding hours before the next dawn; then, and only then, did it tell its true tale. The spot was, indeed, a near relation of night, and when night showed itself an apparent tendency to gravitate together could be perceived in its shades and the scene. The sombre stretch of rounds and hollows seemed to rise and meet the evening gloom in pure sympathy, the heath exhaling darkness as rapidly as the heavens precipitated it. And so the obscurity in the air and the obscurity in the land closed together in a black fraternization towards which each advanced halfway. — Book One — The Three Women; Chapter One, "A Face on Which Time Makes but Little Impression," p. 3-4.
Text associated with the Half-Title and Title-Pages
Thomas Hardy's Works The Wessex Novels Volume VI.
The Return of the Native The "Egdon Heath" of the Story Drawn on the spot
"The vast tract of unenclosed wild land known as Egdon Heath." — Page 3.
The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy With an etching by H. Macbeth-Raeburn and a map of Wessex.
'To sorrow I hade good morrow, And thought to leave her far away behind; But cheerly, cheerly, She loves me dearly; She is so constant to me, and so kind. I would deceive her, And so leave her, But ah! she is so constant and so kind.'
[John Keats, "The Ode to Sorrow," Endymion, Book Four, lines 173-181. (1818)]
The wild, uncultivated moorland which Hardy knew so well as a child because it reaches almost to the back of the family cottage at Higher Bockhampton is almost a character in the 1878 novel — certainly, it is far more than a picturesque backdrop for the tragedy of frustrated hopes and desires in The Return of the Native. Although in the 1890s the heath had been reduced about 230,000 acres through 150 years of human encroachments, at the time of the novel's action in the 1840s it was more like 400,000 acres in extent. Hardy's intention from the first seems to have been to have his publishers use an illustration similar to this as the first volume-edition's frontispiece:
It was serialized in Belgravia magazine, published by Chatto & Windus, and published in book form by Smith, Elder in 1878. On October 1, 1878, he sent Smith, Elder a sketch of the heathlands near his birthplace. He noted that it was copied from one he had used in writing the story, and hoped it could be used as a frontispiece. The sketch did become the frontispiece of the first edition and the one-volume edition of 1880 (Letters I, 61). — Wright, "Egdon Heath," p. 76.
Ironically, the heath is something of a touchstone, revealing the various characters' attitudes and personalities by their responses to it: whereas, for example, Damon Wildeve and Eustacia Vye as young, urban outsiders detest it, but Clym Yeobright and his cousin Thomasin feel deeply at home there. Pinion describes it as "more in accord with the outlook of modern man than more beautiful scenes" (314) such as those one finds elsewhere in the backdrops of the Wessex Novels. It is, moreover, an almost Aristotelian setting in that all actions and characters in the story are situated here.
For Eustacia, Egdon is a symbol of destiny to be rebelled against; for Clym, of a life to be endured with hope but not with overweening expectation. For the philosophical Hardy (whose recurrent views coincide with Clym's), it is an expression of almost timeless endurance against which the turmoil of a single man like Clym is a mere insignificance. It can be indifferent or cruel in the storms of winter or the torrid heat of summer. It can be intensely beautiful. It is like life; it reflects the moods and temperaments of individuals. — Pinion, "Egdon Heath," 315.
As Denys Kay-Robinson points out, Hardy developed the unitary notion of Egdon Heath, which is in fact a "multitude of heaths between Stinsford and Bournemouth" (43), and many of the cottages on the heath such as Mistover Knap have since disappeared, leaving the area largely devoid of human population. The 1895 illustration executed by Henry Macbeth-Raeburn at Hardy's behest is likely of Heedless William's Pond, a setting mentioned by name only in the short story "The Fiddler of the Reels." "Here, many years ago, a drunken mail-van driver ran off the highway (not hedged then), overturned his vehicle, and was drowned, so giving his name to Heedless William's Pond" (45). Hardy emphasizes the significance of this setting in both the 1895 preface and the opening chapter:
"The untameable, Ishmaelitish thing that Egdon now was it had always been. Civilization was its enemy: and ever since the beginning of vegetation its soil had worn the same antique brown dress, the natural and invariable garment of the particular formation. . . . The great inviolate place had an ancient permanence which the sea cannot claim." — Book One — The Three Women; Chapter One, "A Face on Which Time Makes but Little Impression," p. 1.
Under the general name of "Egdon Heath,"which has been given to the sombre scene of the story, are united or typified heaths of various real names, to the number of at least a dozen; these being virtually one in character and aspect, though their original unity, or partial unity, is now somewhat disguised by intrusive strips and slices brought under the plough with varying degrees of success, or planted to woodland.
It is pleasant to dream that some spot in the extensive tract whose southwestern quarter is here described, may be the heath of that traditionary King of Wessex— Lear.
[Preface] July, 1895.
Egdon Heath in the Anniversary Edition of the Wessex Novels, 1920
Hardy, Thomas. The Return of the Native. Illustrated by Arthur Hopkins. Belgravia. January—December 1878.
Hardy, Thomas. The Return of the Native. With an illustration by Thomas Hardy. 3 vols. London: Smith, Elder, 1878.
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Last modified 19 January 2017