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by : Ray
Published 15 March 2009

Some Thomas Hardy Books

Far From the Madding Crowd (1874) [1]

This novel was the first of Thomas Hardy’s major works, and this Penguin Classics edition is the first time it has ever been published in its original manuscript form, without the zillion cuts and corrections made by the editor of the original serialized magazine version to the many parts that were considered in those straight-laced times to be too suggestive or irreligious.

As the title (from Grey’s Elegy - but not from its beginning, as the editor of this edition, a Yale professor, bizarrely states in the Introduction) suggests, it is set in a pastoral setting where the central positive figure, an ex-farmer now a simple shepherd, pines away for most of the book for the lively and independent farm-owner heroine Bethsheeba. The story is pretty melodramatic but it has a huge amount of local colour with a full set of country characters whose vernacular and often quite comical conversations and doings take up a considerable amount of the story, and the countryside dramas (a fire in the hay ricks, a violent crop-threatening storm, a sheep catastrophe when a whole herd falls over a cliff, a servant girl getting into trouble, and others) do indeed tend to get the reader away from the maddening metropolitan mobs to sort of look up to the stars and wonder a bit more than usual about the big picture and our little place in it.

Both readers and writers of the day must have been particularly receptive to and interested in this type of setting, as all of Hardy’s novels as well as most of those of his contemporary George Elliot (two very sophisticated and cultivated authors with wide interests indeed) were set almost exclusively in the countryside. George Elliot has a big reputation as a heavyweight intellectual, but I found that there are easily as many references in Far From The Madding Crowd to classical mythology and literature and biblical scenes as in Eliot’s somewhat more sedate works. So there are lots of good things here, especially the dialogues and that magnificent storm scene, even though the most powerfully-drawn character is the villainous ex-soldier and fallen aristocrat who tries so hard to ruin both the heroine’s happiness and the hopes of the hero.

The Return of the Native (1878) [2]

This was the second of Hardy’s major novels, set again - one might almost say "of course" - in a rural community in a region of unfarmed and sparsely-populated semi-wild heaths in the south-west of England baptised «Wessex» by Hardy, closely resembling his own native Dorsetshire where he had been raised and where he had returned to settle down shortly before undertaking this deeply-felt novel of the intense inter-relationships and tensions between a man and his mother, between three men and the two women they are attracted to, between the wild beauty of the untamed Nature that surrounds them and the winds of change blowing in from the prosperous towns on the sea-coast, between the call of the senses and the constraints imposed by a society with an almost-infinite scale of social hierarchies and codes, between the appeal of a pastoral way of life hardly changed for centuries and the glitter of big-city sophistication epitomized by Paris, where Clym, the «male lead» has been living and where Eustacia, the «female lead» would very much prefer to be.

Hardy succeeds in elevating the tone of this tale of pastoral passion by an impressive and always-pertinent array of biblical, mythological and classical references, that reinforce his sedate but smooth-flowing prose to add significance and substance to this story of people living in wide-open spaces who are as hemmed in and constrained by their pulsions as if they were enclosed in a prison, a story which Hardy succeeds in infusing with considerable intensity.

The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) [3]

The most striking scene in this novel is right at its beginning, where the then-20-year-old central character and future mayor gets drunk in a tavern and - get this - sells his wife and baby daughter to a passing sailor! We then follow his ups and downs, especially the latter, twenty years later when his past starts catching up with him after he has become mayor and one of the town’s leading merchants. Set in the south-east region of «Wessex», the background and indeed the secondary theme of every single one of the fifteen novels written by Hardy, England’s premier regional novelist, the fall from grace of the increasingly surly soon-to-be-ex mayor is described at length as he takes up his bad old habits and lashes about him trying to vent his mixed-up feelings of resentment and incomprehension on one and all.

Although we are in an agricultural milieu - Mayor Henchard has made his mint dealing in hay and corn - the story takes place in an urban milieu (Casterbridge being a carbon copy of the town of Dorchester where Hardy had settled when he was writing the book, with only the street and place setting of names changed), which better suits the sombre theme of emotional and social bankruptcy and the ever-increasing atmosphere of despair than the completely rural setting of his preceding novels Far From the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native.

There is undeniably a certain psychological complexity in this novel as Hardy traces the conflicting impulses and motives that mould the erratic actions of the Mayor fighting against his fate, but I confess to finding him a good deal too basic and too much the solitary wounded animal biting the hands trying to help him to be particularly moved by his inevitably sombre fate.

The Woodlanders (1887) [4]

I might be wrong but I have the impression that this middle-period work is not one of the best-known or most-read of his major novels – quite possibly because of the extraordinarily restricted scope of the woodland world of the title, where the central figure of the title ekes out a living processing trees in the time-honoured ways of his forefathers in a trade that had already been an anachronism in Britain for decades when this book was published. But there is tension between the time-honoured ways of Giles Winterborne and the winds of inevitable change ushered in by the return to her home country of a would-be fiancée, and above all we almost surprisingly become quite intensely interested in the things that interest Giles, not just the rapidly-disappearing old way of doing things in an isolated rural woodland community, but their way of talking and thinking, their mores, and their knowledge too, of surprisingly interest to the modern ecologically-conscious reader, of woodland lore and sensitivity to the natural world that dominate their existence.

Hardy’s style can be heavyish and slow-moving, but the writing is never banal or boring and I found myself enjoying the story and as interested in the framework in which the story evolves as much as in any of his other novels, so in spite of the relative lack of scope inherent in the almost oppressively-restricted atmosphere of the marginal microcosm that Hardy portrays, I can only say that this should really be one of his best-known books.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) [5]

This is Hardy’s penultimate and probably his best-known work, first published four years before his final and equally scandalous novel Jude the Obscure. Here, the angle that grated the most with his contemporary public and critics - Victorian morals and rules were then at the peak of their sway over the English-speaking world’s mindset - was the wanton way whereby the female heroine Jude gets herself into trouble by foolishly falling to the spiel of a local socially and physically desirable sportsman, and especially by the way in which the harsh and hypocritical moral standards of the day are seen as preventing her from properly coming to grips with her dilemma to lead a normal and what-could-have-been-happy life with another – but poorer – suitor.

No doubt like many readers, and I suspect somewhat contrary to Hardy’s intentions, I found myself increasingly irritated as the story unfolds by Jude’s stubbornness and her insistence on making the wrong decisions at the critical moments, but it is a tribute to Hardy’s art that the interest and tension built up by the unfolding and almost surprisingly dramatic plot never lost its hold for a moment. Still I couldn’t help but feeling that there was something almost claustrophobic about Hardy’s concentration on the regional specifics and characteristics of his partly-imagined «Wessex» (West Sussex?) setting in the south-west of England that rightly or wrongly, for me, prevent the novel from attaining the heights which it was most certainly aiming at.

Hardy does write nicely and there is much linguistic interest in his regional-tainted dialogues and homely down-to-earth local atmosphere, but his prose doesn’t quite flow with the sparkle and maestria of other Victorian-era masters, notably Trollope and Thackeray, whose masterpieces are, I find, a notch up on this undeniably important and even fascinating opus. It somehow lacks, albeit perhaps not by much, the scope and impact and literary genius of Barchester Towers and Vanity Fair, although it is undeniably a worthy contender for top marks.

This is a major new edition of Hardy’s masterpiece, based on the original 1891 edition and not on the version that Hardy considerably modified when he published his collected works in 1912, and which had previously been the only version available to the general public.

Jude the Obscure (1895) [6]

Hardy’s last novel, a quite wide-ranging overview of the social foibles of the late Victorian society (we are in the 1880s in the south of England and in Oxford) as Hardy saw them, notably:
- the class barriers preventing labouring-class young people from being admitted into institutions of higher learning;
- the rigidity of the marriage institution, whereby people are forced by law and by intense social pressures to live out the rest of the days with what often turns out to be an unsuitable not to say worse kind of person;
- the intolerance of society in general and organized religion in particular towards extramarital sex and towards children born out of wedlock.

The generally-unfavourable reaction provoked at the time by this iconoclastic view of Victorian social mores, not to mention his own wife’s reaction to this outspoken denunciation of the marriage institution, caused Hardy to renounce novel writing (he was fifty-five years old, in the prime of his creative life) and to publish only poetry for the remaining 33 years of his long life.

Notes

[1Penguin Classics, ed. R. Morgan 2000, 416 p.

[2Penguin Classics, ed. T. Slade 1999, 479 p.

[3Penguin Classics, ed. K. Wilson 1997, 389 p.

[4Penguin Classics, ed. P. Ingham 1998, 450 p.

[5Penguin Classics, ed. T. Dolan 1998, 568 p.

[6Penguin Classics, ed. D. Taylor 1998, 510 p.