Thomas Hardy and Education:
“Ah, there’s too much of that sending to school in these days! It only does harm. Every gatepost and barn’s door you come to is sure to have some bad word or other chalked upon it by the young rascals: a woman can hardly pass for shame some times. If they’d never been taught how to write they wouldn’t have been able to scribble such villainy. Their fathers couldn’t do it, and the country was all the better for it.”
Captain Vye, ‘The Return of the Native’
There’s a suspicion, well-founded in ‘Jude the Obscure’ that Thomas Hardy grew up resentful of the fact that he never had the opportunity to go to University, and that he suffered an inferiority complex as a result. In ‘The Life’ while he proclaimed that he ‘had no feeling against Oxford in particular’, and, in ‘Jude’, that ‘Intellect at Christminster’ (Oxford) was merely ‘new wine in old bottles’, Hardy was ambivalent about his own education, harbouring misgivings about the value of a formal education and yet also, the cost of doing without. Through ‘Jude’, he rejected the value of double firsts and the narrowness of gown life, yet visits his own aspiration to be able to go to university on Little Father Time. As with other aspects of Hardy’s personality, contradictions abound.
Until he was eight, Thomas received his education at his mother’s knee who, while she had little formal education, was a voracious reader and ambitious for her gifted son. He went to school at Kingston Maurward near Bockhampton where the lady of the manor lavished considerable attention upon him until his mother removed him rather peremptorily and moved him to the Academy for Young Gentlemen in Dorchester where he learned Latin and completed his schooling. University, sadly, was out of the question, and at 16 years of age, Thomas began his apprenticeship with a local architect.
Yet, despite a school career that lasted a mere eight short years, Hardy had learned the most important attributes of all: an innate curiosity, a desire to better himself intellectually and socially. It was outside of school, through the example of local poet William Barnes and the influence of Henry Moule, a classical scholar who befriended Thomas, encouraging him to read various philosophical and religious works, including John Stuart Mills, that his education entered a new phase. While in London in 1865 – 66, Thomas joined a French class at King’s College, read voraciously, including Horace and Swinburne, regularly attended the theatre, devoted considerable time to studying the paintings at the National gallery and even frequented the later readings by Charles Dickens. This avaricious search for knowledge, accompanied Hardy throughout his life and provided him with an education par excellence, even if it did not ever quite satisfy him.
Throughout his novels we come across numerous references to learning and education, some disparaging, some respectful, others as a way of explaining character or social order. But if ever we need an exemplar of the best of all educations being a life-long quest, fuelled by an insatiable curiosity, then Thomas Hardy stands alongside Dickens amongst the great Victorian novelists.