Dorchester has much to be proud of in the world of literature. Most famously Thomas Hardy set his novel The Mayor of Casterbridge in Dorchester. The blue plaque commemorating Mayor Henchard’s house is on the wall of Barclays Bank in Cornhill. Max Gate, Hardy’s home which he designed and built is a short distance from the centre of town, and the cottage where he was born is a slightly longer amble across the fields towards Bockhampton. His statue sits at the Top O’Town roundabout.
But Hardy is not the whole story of literary Dorchester. His teacher and mentor William Barnes lived at Came Rectory on the road out beyond Max Gate towards Wareham and Wool and before this he lived in Dorchester itself above what is now an estate agent’s offices in South Street. His statue stands outside St Peter’s Church at the junction of High East and High West Street
The County Museum, next door to Barnes, on High West Street, boasts a treasure trove of Dorset’s literary past including a complete replica of Thomas Hardy’s study at Max Gate. It also houses hundreds, if not thousands of books, photographs and manuscripts relating to him, and to William Barnes and to their predecessor Robert Young, a once famous and now rather overlooked early 19thC Dorset dialect poet.
One of the most famous and legendary literary meetings occurred in Dorchester towards the end of the 19thC, at The King’s Head Hotel, when Robert Louis Stevenson was travelling from Bournemouth to Exmoor in an effort to find better air to improve his ailing health.. He stopped in Dorchester and met up with Hardy, ten years his senior. Hardy was still to publish Tess of the d’Urbervilles (in 1891) which Stevenson found a little too racy for his taste. The two writers were never to meet again. Stevenson died in 1894.
Moving into the 20thC, Dorset in general and Dorchester in particular became a focal point for good literature and is also very well represented in the County Museum. The writers Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland lived nearby the county town (Langton Herring) as did the famous Powys Brothers: T.F., John Cowper and Llewelyn, not to mention Alyse Gregory, the latter’s partner.
Llewelyn Powys’ Dorset Essays is a wonderful evocation of how life in Dorset was lived in the 1920’s and 30’s and one of John Cowper Powys’s most famous works, Maiden Castle, first published in America in 1936 and a year later in England, was written in a room above what is now The Ski Shop in High East Street. Look high up on the wall and you will see the blue plaque.
Of course Hardy’s fame and importance drew many younger writers to Dorchester in his later years; the poets Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden all visited, as did a host of others. Perhaps the most famous frequent visitor to Max Gate was T.E.Lawrence, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, who is buried at Moreton and lived close by at Clouds Hill, until his untimely death from a motor cycle accident in 1935.
To visit Dorchester is to immerse oneself in a proud literary history and we in Dorchester welcome you, as Hardy did through to his death in 1928, knowing, as Hardy showed in his poetry as well as his prose, the importance of sharing the creative experience and a love of Dorset.
Information compiled by Julian Nangle firstname.lastname@example.org