Thomas Hardy and Sylvia Townsend Warner Study Weekend in Dorchester, 10-11 February 2024

By Jan Montefiore

The study weekend organised jointly by the Thomas Hardy Society and Sylvia Townsend Warner Society, led off on Saturday 10th Feb with a day-long mini-conference in the Learning Room of Dorchester Library (which some members may recall from the AGM we held there in 2018), attended by c. 30 people, including members from Cornwall, Lancaster, Manchester, Cambridge and Canterbury (Judith Bond, Gill Davies, Hannah Berry, Maud Ellmann and John Wilkinson, and myself) as well as Peter Swaab and six students from University College, London. I gave a paper on Hardy and Warner: ‘Affinities and Differences’ concerned both writers’ lives in Dorset, their musicianship and how this played out in their works, and their shared interest in ghosts. There were excellent papers on Hardy from two poet-critics: Mark Ford on ‘Hardy’s Elegies for Emma’ and Peter Robinson on ‘Hardy and Warner Haunting Churchyards’. After the lunch break, Mark Chutter of the Hardy Society spoke interestingly on ‘Warner’s Journals’, and Peter Swaab gave an admirable paper on ‘Hardy, Warner and Life’s Little Ironies’. There were lively questions and discussion after each paper, from members of both societies. There was also a book sale, mostly of Hardy books but also copies of the JSTWS, Mark Ford’s new book Woman Much Missed, and Peter Robinson’s poetry collection Retrieved Attachments, all at bargain prices. 

Max Gate exterior, with sundial under turret on the right

At 4pm, Mark Chutter led a guided tour of ‘Hardy’s Casterbridge’, including the former office of John Hicks, the architect, whose apprentice the teenage Hardy had been, and the grand house of the ‘Mayor of Casterbridge’ (now the Dorchester branch of Barclay’s Bank) together with the less affluent Fordington area. After a short break, most of us reassembled at 6pm in the Casterbridge Room of the now renovated King’s Arms in Dorchester High Street for a group reading of poems by both writers and by those they had influenced (including John Cowper Powys, Seamus Heaney and Bill Manhire, and also Mark Ford and Peter Robinson themselves), chosen by the readers and chaired by Peter Swaab, followed by the conference dinner.

The whole day was as one member said, ‘really fun and educational’. We were lucky with the weather that weekend, and on Sunday Feb 11th, we gathered again at Hardy’s self-designed home Max Gate on the edge of Dorchester on a morning of early spring sunshine. Our guided tour had been arranged by Mark Chutter. Max Gate was officially shut for the winter but especially opened for us. Several furniture items were covered with dust sheets – for which the volunteers apologised, but which I rather liked as the winter arrangements gave the feeling of a lived-in house rather than a museum. I took a photograph of the outside, with the sundial encircled by its strange Latin motto Quid de nocte? ‘What of the night?’, and Sarah Pattison took a better one of the front hall.

Max Gate entrance hall (note the model of Hardy’s terrier Wessex in the easy chair)

After our tour of Max Gate we went to The Sailor’s Return in East Chaldon, where we enjoyed our group pre-booked Sunday lunch. For this we needed two tables, and I found myself at the table of the Hardy Society, and greatly enjoyed meeting several members there as well as seeing old and new friends from the STW Society. Peter Swaab then led a guided tour through East Chaldon to the parish church of St Nicholas, where we admired the lovely appliqué Nativity made by Betty Muntz and the East Chaldon children, with its portraits of Chaldon animals known to the children. Sarah Pattison and I both took photographs of it, neither of which is entirely successful (we had problems with the reflections on the glass in front of it) but both give some idea of its charm.

We then went to the churchyard, and viewed the STW and VA stone with its motto non omnis moriar: ‘I shall not wholly die’.

Beth Carr

We then saw the once sinister building that’s now the red-brick Rectory, in the 1930s an orphanage in which servant girls were notoriously exploited by the Rector’s wife, arousing concern in the village and a petition organised by the writer Llewellyn Powys and signed by Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland. This led to a national scandal and a summons for libel in 1935, whose costs of £1000 were awarded against the three (£1000 in 1935, equivalent to £89,120 in 2024, was a vast sum especially for freelance writers – but the scandal got the orphanage closed: a victory of sorts, however expensive). Lastly we stood outside TF Powys’ house, Beth Car, designed and built by Hardy’s brother – now with a conservatory extension, but still the same red brick villa.

Then the majority of us went home; but because I was staying the Sunday night for an appointment in Dorchester on Monday, I was able to visit the marvellous Elisabeth Frink exhibition in Dorchester Museum. This is on until April 24th and I urge anyone living near enough not to miss it. Here are two items: a photo of a large print, and of her maquette for her 15-foot statue Risen Christ over the porch of Liverpool Cathedral, her last sculpture.