Did Thomas Hardy believe in ghosts? Well, that’s an interesting question.  But before we attempt to answer it, there’s another pressing issue to address: who exactly was Thomas Hardy?

If you’re an English major, you’ve just rolled your eyes and shouted something along the lines of, “Who was Thomas Hardy! He’s only one of the greatest writers in the history of the English language! Haven’t you read Tess of the d’Ubervilles?”

Well, no, actually I haven’t. One of my buddies (a big fan of English literature), warned me to steer clear of the great man from Higher Bockhampton. Hardy, he said, was bleak. At the time, it didn’t occur to me to ask whether that bleakness sometimes incorporated the sort of supernatural turns that would have captured my interest and vindicated that cheerless tone. Bleakness solely for bleakness’ sake wasn’t something I was interested in.  And so, a victim of my own more-or-less willful ignorance, I gave Hardy a wide berth.

Of course, once I discovered (by fortunate chance) that Hardy had been fascinated by the supernatural, I did a little digging.  These lines from “The Shadow on the Stone” were among the first I read: “I went by the Druid stone / That broods in the garden white and lone, / And stopped and looked at the shifting shadows / That at some moments fall thereon / From the tree hard by with a rhythmic swing, / And they shaped in my imagining / To the shade that a well-known head and shoulders / Threw there when she was gardening.” Longing, mystery, melancholy atmosphere, illusion, and (perhaps) a spirit – I immediately realized I should have started reading Hardy a long time ago!

So, who was Thomas Hardy really?  Well, he might have been an Anglican priest. But faced with both a lack of funds and diminishing faith, he turned from the priesthood and instead became apprenticed to an architect.  While working in that demanding field, he somehow found time to pursue his real passion – writing.  His new wife, Emma Gifford (who, it turns out, would be the inspiration for the melancholy lines quoted above) supported Hardy’s writing ambitions and in 1872, he embarked on a career as a full-time author.  After a few successful, though not particularly noteworthy novels, Hardy published the book that would truly launch his career: Far from the Maddening Crowd.  Numerous novels followed, including several that are considered classics: The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the d’Ubervilles and Jude the Obscure.  In all, Hardy published fourteen novels, around a thousand poems (a body of work that rivaled the importance of his novels), and three volumes of short stories.

Virginia Woolf described Hardy as a “gentle and humane soul.” But he couldn’t escape allegations of misanthropy (which persist today), bitterness and degeneracy.  The author’s strongly strong opinions about Victorian attitudes toward class, religion, education, marriage and sexuality appeared in his novels – sometimes subtly, but often overtly.  And so, though he wrote beautifully, he often wrote controversially and, as my friend pointed out, bleakly.  Ironically, his personal darkness and the quarrels he picked during his lifetime, and which may have undermined his popularity among some of his peers, assured that his work would be relevant long after his death.

Speaking of death, there’s a rather Gothic question that’s often asked about this author: Where is Thomas Hardy’s heart buried? At Hardy’s state funeral at Westminster Abbey, his coffin (borne by such luminaries as A. E. Houseman and Rudyard Kipling) contained only ashes. The great man’s heart would be laid to rest in St. Michael’s Churchyard in Stinsford, Dorset (a rumor persisted that it had been eaten by a mischievous cat before it could be interred).

So, now that we know a little bit about the man, let’s return to our original question: did Thomas Hardy believe in ghosts?

“I seriously assure you that I would give ten years of my life – well, perhaps that offer is rather beyond my means – but when I was a younger man, I would cheerfully have given ten years of my life to see a ghost – an authentic, indubitable spectre.” Hardy expressed this wish to his interviewer William Archer in 1901 when Hardy was more than sixty-years-old. “I should think I am cut out by nature for a ghost-seer. My nerves vibrate very readily; people say I am almost morbidly imaginative; my will to believe is perfect. If ever ghost wanted to manifest himself, I am the very man he should apply to.”

Though it seems no ghosts appeared to Hardy, one did pay a visit to his family. “My mother believed that she once saw an apparition. A relative of hers, who had a young child, was ill, and told my mother, who visited her, that she thought she was dying. My mother laughed at the idea; and as a matter of fact she apparently recovered, and my mother went away to her home at some distance. Then one night – lying broad awake, as she declared – my mother saw this lady enter her room and hold out the child to her imploringly. It afterwards appeared (I need scarcely tell you) that she died at that very time . . . .”

One might have expected Hardy, who was fascinated by superstition and folklore, to have embraced this unsettling account. Instead, he viewed it skeptically. “I am most anxious to believe in what, roughly speaking, we may call the supernatural – but I find no evidence for it!” – apparently, not even in the appearance of a distressed soul to his very own mother.

Still, though Hardy may ultimately have doubted the existence of supernatural forces, he nevertheless appreciated their appeal and their power. Indeed, he used supernatural episodes to skillfully explore such themes as fate, obsession, the subconscious, malice, jealousy, guilt, remorse, isolation and consequence.

Each of these concepts plays a role in Hardy’s short story, The Withered Arm, in which a jilted and jealous woman’s malice manifests itself in an astonishing and uncontrollable fashion and with tragic results. For fans of Gothic literature, this story’s an excellent introduction to Hardy’s work.

Stories by Thomas Hardy