Thomas Hardy, of Tess of the D’Urbevilles fame, is also famous for the creation of the fictional region of Wessex to describe the West Country counties of Dorset (primarily), Somerset and Devon, plus Wiltshire, Hampshire and Berkshire. And finally, Cornwall, as Off-Wessex. Hardy took the name from the Anglo Saxon kingdom of Wessex. It was an idea that grew, over the course of his career as a novelist, leaving the legacy of a brand for the south west.
Hardy’s Wessex is part figment and part reality. Real places were given fictional names, allowing him to create a world that’s sometimes bleak, sometimes idealised, but always familiar. For instance, Dorchester is Casterbridge and Taunton becomes Toneborough. Wessex is the embodiment of the rural traditions, under threat from the industrialised world. The figures in Hardy’s novels live within nature, rather than separate from it, making Wessex a place where he can explore the themes of sexuality, religion and modernity versus primitivism.
Wessex was also a handy marketing tool, as Hardy used the appeal of his pastoral idyll to brand various titles as ‘a Wessex novel’. Today, companies, including water utilities, funeral services and taxi companies all borrow the title, Wessex, hoping some of Hardy’s folk romanticism will rub off on them. The popularity of Hardy’s Wessex makes him no stranger to a good BBC costume drama, although he’s been sorely lacking lately – time for a resurgence BBC people.
Despite the cynical marketing ploy, I think Hardy’s Wessex is an interesting example of worldbuilding. The name Wessex, itself, looks to the past, betraying Hardy’s preoccupation with folk traditions, nature and anxiety about progress in the name of the death of these traditions. His place names become Dickensian, in that they betray some character of the place – Barnstaple becomes Downstaple, whilst Oxford is transformed into Christminster. If you don’t want to create a completely fictional world or feel that it’s too overwhelming, you could always go down Hardy’s route. Take familiar places and give them a spin. Look up old place names and see what images they conjure up.
Could you create a Hardy Country of your own and where would it be?
Here are some of Hardy’s fictional names:
|Wessex Name||Actual Name|
|Stancy Castle||Dunster Castle|