Hardy's first use of the term "Wessex" to indicate the southwestern region of England came in chapter 50 of the serialized version of Far from the Madding Crowd. Hardy had already written four and published three novels. In none of those novels had he called Dorset and the surrounding counties Wessex.
Yet so strong was the impression which this semi-real, semi-mythical region left upon his readers, that Hardy took up the term from that point on, and used it more and more frequently in all his future novels and stories. In fact, Wessex appears in the first sentence of Hardy's next novel, The Hand of Ethelberta. When it came time to revise his earlier novels for new editions, Hardy incorporated allusions to Wessex, or to the fictional towns and villages of Wessex, into his revisions. For this reason, when we read Hardy's complete works, we get the sense of a fully-laid out plan, of a fictional universe which was created whole and into which the various characters and their stories merely had to be inserted. When we study the manuscripts and serial versions of the novels, however, we find that Wessex--far from being a complete and organic creation, was a strategy which Hardy employed to secure his place in the literary marketplace.
In his 1895 preface to Far from the Madding Crowd (written more than 20 years after the novel's publication), Hardy writes about his creation of the world of Wessex. He claims that the chief purpose behind "Wessex" was to "lend unity" to the "series of novels" which he projected. Well, in 1874, when Far from the Madding Crowd was published, it is unlikely that Hardy anticipated a series of novels. It was only a year or two before he began writing Far from the Madding Crowd that Hardy had left his career in architecture. As he was writing the novel, he wrote to his editor, Leslie Stephen, that his only goal was to be considered a good hand at a serial--this is hardly the confidence of a young author planning a series of local novels.
What seems far more likely is that in Far from the Madding Crowd, Hardy had discovered something wonderful--that the region, the people, and the customs which he best knew were very little known (and therefore fascinating) to the world outside Dorset. He mentions in that preface that he needed a large canvas for his fictional world, but he also mentions that "the region designated was known but vaguely;" even educated people did not know where it was located. Despite some ups and downs in the next twenty years, Hardy learned to exploit his unique knowledge of a world removed from the fast pace of Victorian England.
Dorset, the actual county which is the center of Hardy's fictional world, was an ideal candidate for mythologizing. Until the middle of the twentieth century, Dorset was one of the least populated counties of England, and also one of the poorest. Although the railroad crossed through Dorset on its way to Cornwall, the first actual railroad stop in Dorset came relatively late, in 1847, when Hardy was a young boy. For this reason, not only did the outside world not know much of Dorset; Dorset knew very little of the outside world. That sense of insularity is seen most clearly in Far from the Madding Crowd and also in Hardy's second novel, Under the Greenwood Tree.
In the very important "General Preface to the Novels and Poems" which Hardy wrote in 1912, he made the parallel between Greek literature and his own work. He wrote "I considered that our magnificent heritage from the Greeks in dramatic literature found sufficient room for a large proportion of its action in an extent of their country not much larger than the half-dozen counties here reunited under the old name of Wessex". So Hardy was creating his own microcosm, a dream world which, among the educated middle classes for whom he was writing, might just as well have been on the moon.
But if Hardy had stopped there, and had continued to write novels which recorded a static, isolated world, he would probably be remembered today as little more than a pastoral novelist. Instead, Hardy used Wessex as a sort of reflector of serious issues affecting and changing the whole of England: the problems of social class, the impact of the modern sciences upon conventional religion and philosophy, the devastation of rural communities by changing technologies, the double sexual standard that was just as pervasive in sleepy Wessex as in the capitals of Europe. It turns out that while Wessex may be "far from the madding crowd," it is neither so innocent nor so peaceful as we may wish it to be. Even in the first few pages of Far from the Madding Crowd, Gabriel's sheep go tumbling over the cliff to their death. That scene is an indicator that Gray's idea of rustics living a sequestered and trouble-free existence is not only patronizing, but simply untrue.
Forces both within and outside Wessex are conspiring to make the sort of stable social context portrayed in Far from the Madding Crowd more and more difficult to sustain. Hardy's readers and reviewers wanted him always to portray the idyllic, gently comic, and beautifully nostalgic world of Weatherbury again and again in each new novel. However, in such later novels as The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Woodlanders, and Tess of the d'Urbervilles, while the beauty remains, the complexity of this world increases. The paradise of Wessex has more than a few snakes lurking about.
-----. The Landscape of Thomas Hardy. Exeter, England: Webb and Bower, 1984.
Lea, Hermann. Thomas Hardy's Wessex. London: Macmillan, 1913 (rpt. 1977).
Rabbetts, John. From Hardy to Faulkner: Wessex to Yoknapatawpha. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.
Squires, Michael. The Pastoral Novel: George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and D. H. Lawrence. Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 1974.
Williams, Merryn. Thomas Hardy and Rural England. London: Macmillan, 1972.