The Early Life of Thomas Hardy


Martha Brown and Tess of the d’Urbervilles

The subject of the execution of Martha Brown is uncomfortable in that it had apparently sexual overtones for Thomas Hardy. The event is, however, often considered as one of the inspirations for his novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Martha Brown, a servant, married a man 20 years her junior. When she found him with another woman, they quarrelled and fought, and she killed him. During her trial she maintained that her husband had been killed by a horse. Her repeated refusal to accept any responsibility for the act cost her any possibility of a reprieve and in August 1856 she was hanged in public. Hardy was a close and willing witness at the execution. Hardy recalled some telling details: the ‘rustle of the thin black gown the woman was wearing’; the white mask, dampened by rain, which made it cling to her features; and the way the body swung round and back.  

The execution of Martha Brown is almost a reverse image of that of Tess, whose death is unseen and undescribed. In the novel only the black flag signifies death; the day is sunny rather than wet, and the flag moves up the flagstaff, unlike the silk dress which was tied down to stop it billowing as the victim fell. 

In 1904 Hardy cut out a newspaper article reporting his interest in the event, keeping it in a scrapbook marked ‘Personal’. He crossed out a sentence which stated he had known Martha Brown. 

Hardy always resisted attempts by critics to find parallels between incidents in the novels and events in his own life. His biography, published after his death under the name of his second wife, Florence Emily Dugdale, glosses over in a mere 20 words the fact of his presence at the execution of Martha Brown.

Full title:
The Early Life of Thomas Hardy, 1840-1891. Compiled largely from contemporary notes, letters, diaries and biographical memoranda, as well as from oral information in conversations, etc.
1928, London
Florence Dugdale, afterwards Hardy
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Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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