Mastodon The Writing Desk: Writing habits: Thomas Hardy

18 March 2011

Writing habits: Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy was born in 1840 in the tiny hamlet of Higher Bockhampton, Dorset. His father was a bricklayer and it was his mother who was well educated and encouraged his interest in literature. One of my favourite novels of all time is Tess of the d'Urbervilles, which Hardy wrote when he was about the same age as I am now, so as a new novelist I am very interested in how he wrote. 

Hardy’s daily writing routine

Each morning at about nine Hardy would have a cup of tea and a breakfast of bacon with brown sugar sprinkled over it.  Then he would read The Times newspaper and go for a short walk.

At almost exactly ten in the morning he would sit at the simple desk in his study and write.  His study was at the back of the house and rarely cleaned, as he would not let his cleaner touch his papers.   He used a dipping pen with an inkwell and had on his desk a calendar that was always showing Monday 7 March – the date he met his first wife Emma, who died in 1912.

He would continue to work through the day and was quoted as saying his best work was done before he had his dinner.

Dorset writing trousers

Thomas Hardy always wore an old pair of trousers when he wrote, that eventually became so worn that he repaired them with string. In the colder weather he wore an old shawl over his shoulders.  His study had a coal fire for heating but was usually warm as it was over the kitchen - but his cottage never had gas or electricity or even a telephone to distract him.

Hardy’s notebook sketches

In the same way that artists make sketches, capturing details of light and colour for future reference, Hardy’s surviving notebooks show he recorded in great detail the things he saw around him, the sound and sensations of a thunderstorm, the colours of a Dorset sunset. 

He has always wanted to be a poet and his notes suggesst this influenced his observation of the world. He also wrote about particular details of his life.  For example, he wrote several pages of notes on the mail coach guard from London to Dorchester, including as much detail as he could about the man’s uniform and his life.

Working with an Editor

As he developed as a writer, Hardy would send each section of writing he completed to his editor, Leslie Stephen, for comment and review.  Stephen was the editor of the influential Victorian Cornhill literary magazine and extremely well connected in the Victorian literary world. He did however encourage Hardy to spend less time describing Dorset life and encouraged him to get to the action more quickly!

Failure and success

In 1867 Hardy’s first novel The Poor Man and the Lady, was rejected by publishers and he was so discouraged he went back to working as an architect. His first attempt at a novel was harshly described as a ‘story with no plot' so he re-wrote it as Desperate Remedies, which was in turn criticised for being all plot - a ‘series of accidents, coincidences and improbabilities’.

Desperate Remedies was published, but the publisher William Tinsley demanded Hardy pay £75 (a small fortune at the time) to be repaid out of any profits.  Hardy lost his money as his subjects were considered too controversial for Victorian sensitivities.

Tess was commissioned in 1889 by Tillotson’s Fiction Bureau who then rejected it, describing the book as 'blasphemous and obscene'. Hardy did his best to interest other publishers but was rejected by them all. 

It wasn’t until Tess of the d’Urbervilles was serialised in the Graphic illustrated magazine that he finally saw success.  Even then, the editor of the Graphic, Arthur Locker, demanded that the seduction of Tess and other scenes considered unsuitable for his readers were removed.

Lessons for new authors?

This is the briefest account of how Thomas Hardy worked but there are clear lessons that remain very true today about persevering in the face of rejection.  Time to put on my writing trousers!

Tony Riches

Other posts about the habits of famous writers:

Stephen King's Writing Habits 


  1. Very interesting! I'm not particularly a fan of Hardy, but I always like to learn about how good writers work - even if they aren't my particular cup of tea! :D

  2. Interesting read. I've often thought about writers from older days who had to write with pen and ink. How I appreciate my word processor! It was also harder for them to publicize. We have social media, which is huge for us. Interesting website.

  3. Where can I find the sources that you got this information from?

    1. Hi Sophia I have several good biographies of Hardy and recommend Thomas Hardy: The Time-torn Man, by Claire Tomalin


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