This weekend I reread Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Hardy’s six most dazzling Wessex novels, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Woodlanders, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure constitute a beauitfully-crafted chronicle of rural and town life. Hardy’s lyrical style is so elegant that many years ago, when a famous writer asked me who my favorite writer was, I absent-mindedly said Thomas Hardy.
Our grandfathers liked him, he said.
I was mortified. You can’t tell a famous writer you like Thomas Hardy. You have to like William Gass or Georges Perec.
But who writes more beautifully than Hardy?
The Mayor of Casterbridge begins:
One evening of late summer, before the nineteenth century had reached one-third of its span, a young man and woman, the latter carrying a child, were approaching the large village of Weydon-Priors, in Upper Wessex, on foot. They were plainly but not ill clad, though the thick hoar of dust which had accumulated on their shoes and garments from an obviously long journey lent a disadvantageous shabbiness to their appearance just now.
The opening is evocative of a tale, almost of a fairy tale, or a long narrative poem: “”not ill clad” (litotes), “the thick hoar of dust,” “a disadvantageous shabbiness.”
Hardy creates a beautiful ring composition in this exquisite novel about the rise and fall of Michael Henchard. At the beginning, Henchard, a hay-trusser, has come to the large village of Weydon-Priors in Upper Wessex with his wife and child to look for work: he gets drunk and sells his wife, Susan, to a sailor. Many years later, when he has risen in the world as the Mayor of Casterbridge, Susan, widowed, and her daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, come looking for him. Henchard and Susan pretend to be distant relatives and keep the secret of their original parting. They remarry. At the height of his powers, Henchard is a farmer as well as the mayor, but envy is his downfall when his esteemed manager, Donald Farfrae, begins to surpass him. Donald wins the affection of Elizabeth-Jane, and later marries Henchard’s former mistress, Lucetta. By the end, we have seen Henchard working again as a hay-trusser, because he has almost, if not quite, sold his daughter by a lie.
Novels of downfall are not the kind of thing you talk about in the back yard. My cousin the librarian, who recently broke up with her boyfriend, chats by the hour and keeps me from reading novels of downfall. If she can’t find me in the house, she knows I am reading in my chair by the hedge of bridal wreath.
My cousin cannot stand to be alone. She is so talkative that I find it difficult to get anything done: even if I do the dishes she is somehow in the way. She reminds me very slightly of myself during my divorce in my late thirties. I spent a lot of at my friends’ houses, I was very sad, and I couldn’t meet the right men: my friends all had stories about women who’d simply put ads in a local magazine and then married orchestra conductors etc., etc., but I didn’t believe them (nor should I have).
My cousin picked up a new man a few weeks ago, a green construction remodeler. He is charming and sweet, but somehow we all know he is just a date. She needs someone almost manically charming, like the super-fast-talking “internet cloud” czar, as we called him, who kept cheating on her.
“We’re here!” She and the green remodeler have brought fried chicken and coleslaw from the HyVee.
Usually she eats at French restaurants.
We have a little picnic.
Then they bring out the Scrabble game. They play Scrabble for hours. They play words like zuz, an ancient Hebrew coin. They have apparently both swallowed a Scrabble dictionary.
They also change all the values for the Scrabble letters so that everything is worth about a million points. They play for money. Recently I found them playing strip-Scrabble in their underwear.
“For God’s sake get drunk if you have to but you can’t sit around naked in my back yard.”
My cousin begs me to play Scrabble with them.
“Only if you let me use Latin words.” I say this to discourage them.
They’re not wild about that, but I do allow them to double-check them in the Latin dictionary. I practically have to teach them Latin so they will understand that the endings I put on the words are legitimate. I am so bored that I can only stand it for about half an hour.
And then one day it’s over.
He green-remodeled her tiny house.
He wanted to move in.
She said No.
She saw her old boyfriend at the HyVee.
He was charming.
She wonders if she should get back together with him.
I say he doesn’t play Scrabble.
She says she’s sick of Scrabble.
He’s unfaithful, but I can’t say that.
It is difficult to find a good boyfriend. Even Donald Farfrae in The Mayor of Casterbridge rushes off with Lucetta, the mayor’s former mistress; Donald is easily discouraged by an abrupt note from the mayor from walking out with Elizabeth-Jane.
“Maybe you should read some Hardy.” Am I thinking of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, or what?
But then her old boyfriend phones her, and she looks so happy.
TO BE CONTINUED…