Where does the word ‘Wessex’ come from?
Thomas Hardy uses the name ‘Wessex’ for the first time in chapter 50 of Far from the Madding Crowd (1874); it was the name for the Anglo-Saxon kingdom spreading over much of the south of England, but the term fell out of use until the 19th century, when there was a revival of interest in pre-Norman Conquest England. The first documented use of the term in the 19th century is in 1868 by William Barnes, the poet who used Dorset dialect in his work, and who promoted the use of ‘indigenous’ words instead of Romance-language-based words – ‘inwit’ instead of ‘conscience’, for example. Barnes kept a school in Dorchester, close to where Hardy worked as a young architect from 1856-62, and Hardy was helped by Barnes in his study of Latin and Greek.
How does Hardy use the term ‘Wessex’?
Wessex functions as an imagined place based on a real region with actual places which Hardy knew well and observed closely. He creates his own place-names which correspond to actual place-names. Wessex in the novels reaches from the south coast north to Oxford (Christminster), and east from Windsor (Castle Royal) to Taunton (Toneborough) in the west; some natural or antique place-names are retained – Sedgemoor, Stonehenge – while others are altered – Salisbury Plain becomes ‘The Great Plain’, the Isle of Wight becomes ‘The Island’. And some town and city names, such as Southampton and Portsmouth, are retained. In later revisions of the novels consistencies were checked and distances and directions specified. As the popularity of the novels grew, ‘Hardy’s Wessex’ became a place of literary pilgrimage.