Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved

Thomas Hardy is one of my favorite novelists.  In the last week and a half, I have reread three Wessex novels, The Woodlanders. A Laodicean, and The Well-Beloved.  In our mellow golden autumn, Hardy’s fictitious countryside, Wessex (based on his native Dorset), seems particularly vivid to me.  I do wish I could travel to Wessex,  but, no, I’m more likely to watch the film of The Woodlanders.  (Is it any good?)

I loved two of these books, but, alas!  I have never been able to warm up to The Well-Beloved. Considered one of his lightest novels, it has always struck me as very chilly.  Is  it a novel?  Is it a fable?

Hardy is a passionate writer, and though critics attacked the sexuality and sensuality of Tess of the d’Urbervilles  and Jude the Obscure, somehow The Well-Beloved slipped under the radar.

Perhaps Hardy was influenced by Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey in the conception of this odd little book.  The handsome hero, Jocelyn Pierston, a sculptor, is something of a womanizer for decades.  He is always in love,  but “the Well-Beloved,” as he calls his love of the moment, migrates from one woman’s body to another.  And since the Well-Beloved keeps shifting shape, he does not hold himself responsible for hurting rejected lovers.

He muses,

To his Well-Beloved he had always been faithful; but she had had many embodiments. Each individuality known as Lucy, Jane, Flora, Evangeline, or what-not, had been merely a transient condition of her. He did not recognize this as an excuse or as a defence, but as a fact simply. Essentially she was perhaps of no tangible substance; a spirit, a dream, a frenzy, a conception, an aroma, an epitomized sex, a light of the eye, a parting of the lips. God only knew what she really was; Pierston did not. She was indescribable.

In the course of the book,  Jocelyn falls in love with three identical women of different generations of one family: his childhood friend, Avice Caro; her daughter, Ann Avice; and Ann Avice’s daughter, Avice.  And isn’t that the ultimate male fantasy?

At 20,  Jocelyn visits his father on the “Isle of Slingers” (Portland, Dorset), and falls in love with his childhood friend, Avice.  She is sweet, funny, and well-educated, though Jocelyn doesn’t quite approve of the education.  And it turns out she even recites poetry on a platform at the Street of the Wells.

As always, Hardy’s dialogue is humorous.

‘Recite!’ said he. ‘Who’d have thought anybody or anything could recite down here except the reciter we hear away there—the never speechless sea.’

‘O but we are quite intellectual now. In the winter particularly. But, Jocelyn—don’t come to the recitation, will you? It would spoil my performance if you were there, and I want to be as good as the rest.’

Jocelyn and Avice become engaged, but on the eve of his departure, she writes him a letter canceling their evening rendezvous, because she does not want to “carry out the Island Custom in our courting” (pre-marital sex!), nor does she want anyone to think they have.   Ironically, the cancellation means he meets another woman that night, the beautiful, rich, shallow Marcia.  And so he and Marcia get engaged–and he never sees Avice again.  But he and Marcia break up, too.

Hardy ironically underlines Jocelyn’s faults, and with age the course of love does not run smooth.   At 40, Jocelyn, now a famous sculptor and member of the Royal Academy, returns to the island, still single.  Avice ‘s funeral is in progress, but he glimpses her daughter Ann Avice and falls in love: she looks just like Avice, is even prettier, though, it turns out, is entirely uneducated. The family had fallen on hard times, and Ann Avice works as laundresses. Joceyln rents a castle on the island, and flirts with  Ann Avice when she delivers the linen.  But he has met his match in Ann Avice.  Like Jocelyn, she is always in love, but it never lasts. And when she accompanies him to London to work as a servant….It’s not what you think!

And then twenty years later, when Jocelyn is sixty, he meets the new Avice, the original Avice’s granddaughter.  And it’s so ridiculous I won’t even tell you about it.

Hardy does have a sense of humor.  Jocelyn is not a particularly sympathetic hero.  But this book is so light.   Kind of a male fantasy, except that Hardy undercuts that with his wit and irony.

I’m sure someone out there loves this book.  Alas, it is not for me.

Transported to Wessex: Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders

Thomas Hardy’s cottage

Thomas Hardy is one of my favorite writers.  I frequently reread him and am mentally transported to Wessex, the fictional countryside of his novels based on his native Dorset and other parts of southwestern England.

This week I reread The Woodlanders, a masterpiece, and A Laodicean, which is quite a page-turner.  (I’ll write about A Laodicean later.)  There is a curious modernity to Hardy’s sharp observations, his sexy characters, and understanding of psychology. (It is easy to see why D. H. Lawrence considered Hardy the only great 19th-century writer.) Hardy’s spare lyricism and modern treatment of classical themes move us in the direction of twentieth-century literature, away from the verbose satire of Dickens  and the Gothicism of  Charlotte Bronte.  Hardy was always being accused of writing too much about sex. Some critics thought Tess of the d’Urbervilles pornography. (I cannot imagine!)

This is my third reading of The Woodlanders, and the first time I’ve loved it.  The language is lyrical, the dialogue lively, and the plot revolves around two inter-class love triangles.   Set in Little Hintock, a tiny woodland village that is fantastically hard for outsiders to find, this brilliant novel is one of Hardy’s best explorations of class struggle.   The upper-class characters, Mr. Fitzpiers, a doctor who comes of an aristocratic, if impecunious, family, and Mrs. Charmond, a rich, self-absorbed widow who lives at the Manor, are charming when they want to be, but also deceptive and promiscuous.

Is the middle class any better?  Well, yes, they have better morals. The  timber merchant,  Mr. Melbury, and his wife are decent people who have worked hard for what they have.  They are proud of their well-educated daughter Grace, just home from boarding school.

And what about the working-class?  Are they the best of all?  Well, not quite; they have too many problems.  Two of Hardy’s most memorable  characters, the clever Marty South, who takes over her father’s work making “wood-spars” for thatch when he becomes ill, and the level-headed Giles Winterborne, a woodsman and smart businessman, should be well-matched but are doomed to unhappiness.  Marty loves  Giles, but Giles prefers  Grace Melbury, whom Mr. Melbury promised to him long ago.  While Grace is educated above her class, Giles loses his property and falls down a few class levels.

I love Hardy’s description of Little Hintock, the tiny woodland village that is so very hard to find:  in the first chapter, Hardy humorously describes Barber Percomb’s arrival near the village after dark and his search for Marty South, so he can buy her beautiful hair for the lady of the manor, Mrs. Charmond, who wants to supplement her thinning locks.  He alights from a van and “plunged towards the umbrageous nook, and paced cautiously over the dead leaves which nearly buried the road or street of the hamlet.”

Life is slow, unbelievably slow, in Little Hintock, but it is  picturesque .

It was one of those sequestered spots outside the gates of the world where may usually be found more meditation than action, and more passivity than meditation; where reasoning proceeds on narrow premises, and results in inferences wildly imaginative; yet where, from time to time, no less than in other places, dramas of a grandeur and unity truly Sophoclean are enacted in the real, by virtue of the concentrated passions and closely knit interdependence of the lives therein.

Though there’s not much action, the character have powerful emotions.   Fitzpiers courts Grace Melbury but thinks nothing of giving a tumble one night to Suke, a voluptuous gal who is happy to make love in a field.  Grace has her doubts about Fitzpiers, but her father thinks he is a good catch.  Anything to elevate Grace’s status!

Oddly, the last time I read this I thought the book was dull and the characters anemic. This time, I  found it very quiet but beautifully-written, and the characters well-drawn.  I very much like thoughtful Grace Melbury, who is kind to Giles when he throws a Christmas party where everything goes wrong:  the Melburys arrive too early, and end up helping make the pies.   Mind you, Grace likes Giles anyway.  But she does doubt that he is her ideal beau.

In the late 19th century, when a marriage falls apart, is divorce possible?  The law did not favor women.  Life would have turned out very differently for several of our characters if the laws were just.

But what about Mary South?  She is a strong character, as likable as Grace, but Hardy gives her short shrift.  She is important in the opening chapters, and then disappears until the end, except  to interfere occasionally when Giles is hurt.  Why doesn’t Marty get Giles?  Or get a man?  Is it because she does sell her hair (like Jo in Little Women) when her father is sick, and her hair is her one beauty?  Would Fitzpiers have loved Mrs. Charmond if she didn’t have Marty’s hair?

One wonders.  Maybe it is that simple.

Notes on Nineteenth-Century Literature: Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge

mayor of casterbridge hardy modern library 41xSvd8PH3LI would love to live in a city in a nineteenth-century novel.

The Moscow of War and Peace, the fictional Bruges of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, the Casterbridge of Thomas Hardy, and the London of Dickens, no, wait, perhaps not the London of Dickens–too bleak.

Try to talk me out of the nineteenth century. It cannot be done.

I am in a heavy-duty 19th-century classics phase.

I have recently become addicted to Thomas Hardy, that Victorian giant who fought Victorian mores.

mayor of casterbridge hardy oxford 3fdd9edb0388d7ce910e5d2d21038443-gI just finished rereading his tenth novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, a masterpiece. The chiastic structure of this brilliant novel (chiasmus refers to an A.B.B.A. pattern, in this case a repetition of various themes and plot elements) is classically balanced.   Hardy, an autodidact, studied Latin at school, but learned Greek largely on his own, as did the hero of his last novel, Jude the Obscure. Hardy rose at 4 am. to read Virgil, Horace, Homer, and Sophocles.  He struggled with Greek dialect, but was a master of writing his own Wessex dialect in his novels.  If I read much more Hardy, I am likely to start talking in  dialect like the Greek chorus-esque rustics  in his fictional pubs.

The Mayor of Casterbridge describes the rise and fall of one of the most memorable characters in literature, Michael Henchard, a hay trusser who gets drunk at a fair and sells his wife, Susan, to a sailor.  You cannot get much more dramatic than that.  He vows to stop drinking for 20 years.  Years later, after the death of Susan’s second “husband,” she and her daughter return to Wessex to find him.  Susan is stunned to learn that he has become the Mayor of Casterbridge.

Thomas Hardy was very classical, and had a strong sense of place.  Place and character reflect the elements of geography and the human passions.   Casterbridge, the dowdy major city of his imaginary Wessex (based on Dorchester), is very much an agricultural town. And it is here that Henchard, a  popular businessman and a dealer in hay and grain, has succeeded.  Henchard could not become the mayor of a larger, more sophisticated city.  Hardy is realistic.

In the Oxford Reader’s Companion to Hardy, edited by Norman Page, we learn that Casterbridge here does not so much resemble Dorchester as is supposed.  It represents in many ways the conservatism of Henchard.

Paramount for Hardy is the necessity of depicting Casterbridge as an isolated, conservative, and thoroughly traditional community, with a social organization belonging to the pre-railway age.

Hardy himself describes it as

… a place deposited in the block upon a cornfield.  There was no suburb in the modern sense, or transitional intermixture of town and down.  It stood, with regard to the wide fertile land adjoining, clean-cut and distinct, like a chess-board on a green table-cloth.  The farmer’s boy could sit under his barley-mow and pitch a stone into the office-window of the town-clerk; reapers at work among the sheaves nodded to acquaintances standing on the pavement-corner…

Michael Henchard is generous, if bipolar (my diagnosis of his ups and downs). He drops his plans to marry his younger, more attractive girlfriend, Lucetta, which has repercussions later. He decides to pretent to court Susan and then marry her. And when he takes a liking to Donald Farfrae, a Scotsman who is on his way to Canada to make a name for himself as a scientist and inventor, he persuades him to stay as his manager. But  Farfrae is more brilliant than Henchard, and soon Henchard finds himself nettled by his superiority and senselessly competing with him.  The competition leads to his downfall.  And there is a queer sense of the repetition of the triangulation at the long-ago fair:  after Susan’s death, Henchard ends up losing both of the women who were close to him, Lucetta and Elizabeth-Jane.  He blames it on Farfrae, but it is largely his own fault.

An illustration by Robert Burns from Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge

An illustration by Robert Barnes from Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge

On the internet, I have looked up Thomas Hardy tours of Dorset. I want to walk on the heath and have a beer in Casterbridge, but do I want to go on a three-day walking tour? Do I want that much of Dorset?

I do really, really love Hardy, though.

Thomas Hardy’s The Hand of Ethelberta

This isn't my copy, but isn't it pretty?

This isn’t my copy, but isn’t it pretty?

Thomas Hardy’s The Hand of Ethelberta (1876) was not commercially successful.

Nonetheless, it is one of my favorite books.

hand of ethelberta thomas hardy 51RBEAuMabL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_If this fascinating, addictive novel had been adapted for the BBC, we’d all have read it. The power-hungry heroine, Ethelberta Petherwin, leads a double life:  she is a butler’s daughter who has jumped up a class due to education and marriage.  At 21, she is the widow of a wealthy man. When she publishes a popular book of poetry, her mother-in-law disinherits her.   Ethelberta  moves to London with her invalid mother, brothers, and sisters to establish herself as a professional storyteller who performs for the rich.  But she pretends her relatives are her servants, so she can socialize with the rich without their learning of her class.  And with her “squirrel-colored hair,” dignified demeanor, and wit, she attracts men of all ages.

The novel begins with a disguised meditation on class and a quick precis of Ethelberta’s background.

Young Mrs. Petherwin stepped from the door of an old and well-appointed inn in a Wessex town to take a country walk. By her look and carriage she appeared to belong to that gentle order of society which has no worldly sorrow except when its jewellery gets stolen; but, as a fact not generally known, her claim to distinction was rather one of brains than of blood. She was the daughter of a gentleman who lived in a large house not his own, and began life as a baby christened Ethelberta after an infant of title who does not come into the story at all, having merely furnished Ethelberta’s mother with a subject of contemplation. She became teacher in a school, was praised by examiners, admired by gentlemen, not admired by gentlewomen, was touched up with accomplishments by masters who were coaxed into painstaking by her many graces, and, entering a mansion as governess to the daughter thereof, was stealthily married by the son. He, a minor like herself, died from a chill caught during the wedding tour, and a few weeks later was followed into the grave by Sir Ralph Petherwin, his unforgiving father, who had bequeathed his wealth to his wife absolutely.

Elegantly written, the novel is both comical and suspenseful. (The subtitle is A Comedy in Chapters.) Ethelberta tries in vain to keep her family separate from her wealthy friends.  There is a crisis when she attends a dinner at the house where her father is butler. He pretends not to know her, but her younger sister  Picotee, a junior teacher turned Ethelberta’s maid, visits her father in order to peep at Ethelberta in the dining room in all her splendor;  she has  the misfortune to make acquaintance with a maid who used to work for Ethelberta’s mother-in-law.

Ethelberta’s suitors in London are rich but unworthy.  Her former sweetheart, Mr. Julian, is her intellectual equal, but she will not marry him because she is poor.  (Her sister, Picotee, falls in love with him.)  She does not respect the painter  Mr. Ladywell :  When his painting of Ethelberta, his best work, is hung at the Academy, it is much admired.  In fact, she overhears Mr. Neigh, a rich young man of littler personality, say he wants to marry her.

There is a trademark Hardy morbid scene.  Ethelberta and Picotee take an evening journey by train to the site of Mr. Neigh’s estate to check it out.  At first they find the park beautiful; then they see an enclosure where skeletal horses are collected to be killed for a kennel of dogs. This ends her plan to marry Mr. Neigh.

Grialy illustration of Farnfield.

Grialy illustration by George du Maurier of the two sisters at Farnfield.

Then there is Lord Mountclere, age 65, who is filthy rich.  Ethelberta even loves the staircase in his house.  But is she so greedy?

Although this was not Hardy’s most successful book, I am not alone in my admiration of Ethleberta. It is beautifully-written and entertaining.   According to my handy Oxford Reader’s Companion to Hardy,

R. H. Hutton, in a representative review in the Spectator, declared:  ‘A more entertaining book than The Hand of Ethelberta has not been published for many a year’;he added that no one would read the novel ‘without being aware from the beginning to the end that a very original and a very skillful hand is wielding the pen.’

Hutton’s reference to “a very original and a very skillful hand” is clever: The hand of Ethelberta is skillful in everything she does.

A delightful book!

Thomas Hardy vs. A (Now Dead) White Male Writer & Why I Love Two on a Tower

Thomas Hardy, the poet our grandfathers read, according to James Dickey

Thomas Hardy

“Who is your favorite writer?” a  Famous (Now Dead) White Male Writer asked during an interview on a book tour while I scribbled everything he said in a notebook.

“Thomas Hardy,” I said.

Hardy was my secret love.

“Hardy was our grandfathers’ writer,” he said.

I said nothing.

But I was so humiliated by his condescension that I didn’t read Hardy again until the millennium.

Good God, I think in retrospect. Why let a little embarrassment keep one from reading a great English writer?

Thomas Hardy vs. the Famous (Now Dead) White Male Writer?

Hardy is a surprisingly edgy writer.

two on a tower thomas hardy 41j5mT2XRaLI recently reread Hardy’s ninth novel, Two on a Tower, published in 1882.

In this lyrical, gorgeous, rather weird novel, he relates the  story of the tragic love affair of a beautiful, depressed woman and a brilliant young astronomer.

Two on a Tower is a predecessor of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  Both center on clandestine love affairs between a sensitive lady and an intelligent man of a lower class.   The heroines have similar names:  Hardy’s  is Lady Viviette Constantine, and Lawrence’s is Lady Constance Chatterley.

The atmospheric first few pages of Two on a Tower not only set the scene but establish Hardy as a stunning poet.

On an early winter afternoon, clear but not cold, when the vegetable world was a weird multitude of skeletons through whose ribs the sun shone freely, a gleaming landau came to a pause on the crest of a hill in Wessex.  The spot was where the old Melchester Road, which the carriage had hitherto followed, was joined by a drive that led round into a park at no great distance off.

What Gothic imagery!  I especially like “the vegetable world was a weird multitude of skeletons…”

The heroine, Lady Vivette Constantine, is fascinated by the view of the tall tower on top of the hill.  A few months later, when the weather is more clement, she walks across the fields and climbs to the top of the tower. There she meets Swithin St. Cleeve, a handsome young astronomer who is using the tower as an observatory.  Swithin is the orphaned son of a curate-turned-farmer and a farmer’s daughter.

And thus the constant Viviette falls in love, though she constantly feels guilty.  She is ten years older than he, and she is terrified of gossip.

two on a tower hardy penguin 763039She becomes fascinated by astronomy–she has had nothing to do–and buys equipment for his observatory.  Her husband, Sir Blount, has been absent for three years on a hunting expedition in Africa.  Before he left, he demanded that she “not so behave towards other men as to bring the name of Constantine into suspicion…”  And when she asks the rector, Mr. Torkingham, whether she need continue to refuse social invitations and “live like a cloistered nun in his absence,” he advises her to keep her word.

thomas hardy two-on-a-towerThere is much irony in the narrative.  Swithin does ground-breaking research only to find that someone has just published the same results.  Viviette hears rumors about Sir Blount’s whereabouts:  first, that he is in London; then, that he is dead. Even after they hear that he is dead, the class-conscious Viviette and poverty-stricken Swithin marry secretly because of Viviette’s social position:  she is tormented by fear of scandal over different class and age and the need to conform.   On the day of the wedding,  Swithin receives a letter saying that his uncle has left him 600 pounds a year on the condition that he not marry till he is twenty-five. He sacrifices the legacy for the marriage and does not tell Viviette about it.  There are many ripple effects of the secret marriage. They deceive Viviette’s brother and the Bishop about their relationship.  Then their marriage turns out to be invalid because the rumor of Sir Blount’s death had been false and  he had died after the date of their wedding.

When Two on a Tower was published in 1882, it disturbed critics nearly as much as Lawrence’s much more graphic Lady Chatterley’s Lover did in 1928. The biographer Carl Weber reported that reviewers described Hardy’s novel as “’hazardous,’ ‘repulsive,’ ‘little short of revolting,’ [and] ‘a studied and gratuitous insult.’”

Hardy wrote in a letter to Edmund Gosse on Dec. 10, 1882 (Purdy and Millgate 110): “I get most extraordinary criticisms of T. on a T. Eminent critics write & tell me in private that it is the most original thing I have done…while other eminent critics (I wonder if they are the same) print the most cutting rebukes you can conceive–show me (to my amazement) that I am quite an immoral person…”

Different times, different mores.

Lo-Mein & Hardy-Lite

It is hard to write about books.

Hardy-lite!

Hardy-lite!

Especially after you’ve eaten Vegetable Lo Mein at the supermarket.

I’ve been a vegetarian since September and suddenly could not bear the thought of any more broccoli-cheese soup.

Let’s go to the Hy-Vee and eat salad! I said.

I was sure the salad bar had crab or lobster, or at least fake crab or fake lobster.  I wanted protein.

No, it was just a bunch of lettuce, broccoli, and pasta salad.

So I went for the Chinese Express.

Did they have anything vegetarian?

Only Vegetable Lo Mein. The noodles hid some cabbage and onion, no other vegetables.   I “borrowed” broccoli from my mate’s plate of Chicken with Broccoli.

And now I am full of carbohydrates and inspired to let you know what I’ve been reading.

I’ve fallen a little behind.

For instance, my book journal tells me I finished Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders on August 27.  The writing is gorgeous and lyrical,  but this is not Hardy at his best, and so I never wrote about it.

It’s Hardy-lite.

Hardy-lite is better than most writers at their deepest and darkest, but I cannot recommend that you read this unless you have first read Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Return of the Native, Far from the Madding Crowd and Jude the Obscure.

The Woodlanders simply lacks the passion of most of his work.

The usual themes are there.  Class matters.  And inter-class love does not work.  Somebody is bound to die.

The Woodlanders rambles: it is not architecturally structured like Hardy’s best.  There is a bit of a wobble.

We are introduced early in the novel to Marty South, a young woman who supports her ailing father by making wood spars for thatch–this involves working with  something called “a bill-hook” and “straight, smooth sticks called spar-gads”–and other things with wood.  At first we believe she is the heroine.  A barber pursues her from town; he wants to buy her hair for a lady in the neighborhood whose hair is the same shade.

Marty is not beautiful, and that should have told me she was not the heroine.

Her face had the usual fulness of expression which is developed by a life of solitude….In years she was no more than nineteen or twenty, but the necessity of taking thought at a too early period of life had forced the provisional curves of her childhood’s face to a premature finality.  thus she had but little pretension to beauty, save in one prominent particular–her hair.  Its abundance made it almost unmanageable; is color was, roughly speaking, and as seen here by firelight, brown, but careful notice, or an observation by day, would have revealed that its true shade was a rare and beautiful approximation to chestnut.

She reluctantly sells her hair,  like Jo in Little Women (remember that scene?), because she needs the money.

And then Hardy almost drops her from the plot, except when she emerges to write  some choice graffiti regarding Giles Winterborne.  She doesn’t have the hair, so, by Jove, she’s not the hair-o-win.

Poor Marty.  She is in love with Giles Winterborne, a woodsman, and certainly he is kind to her, but he  has long been in love with Grace Melbury, the daughter of George Melbury, the rich timber dealer.

George wants his daughter to marry Giles because he wronged Giles’ father long ago.  But when Grace comes home from finishing school, she is so well-educated, well-dressed, and glowing that she no longer really belongs in Little Hintock.   And when Fitzpiers, a handsome, heartless doctor courts her, she is flattered.

They marry, but soon wish for divorce.  Felice Charmond, the lady of the manor, knew Fitzpiers long ago.  They have an affair.

The characters, unfortunately, are not very well-drawn.  They’re likable, but anemic.  We don’t get terribly excited about what happens.  Hardy has written The Woodlanders elsewhere better.

This is definitely a grade “B” book.  Read it if, like me,  you’ve read all of Hardy’s other books.

Caveat Emptor!  Or should I say, Caveat Lector!

Thomas Hardy & the Apocalyptic Romance

Return of the Native by hardy penguin Here is why you should read Thomas Hardy.

The novel is dead, e-books outsell real books, the famous Prairie Lights bookstore has ceased to carry Loeb classics, Apple has been declared guilty of e-book price-fixing conspiracy, the critic Lee Siegel claims studying literature doesn’t matter, and some Americans are wearing Google internet-connected glasses that take photos with a wink.

I turn to the pastoral novels of Thomas Hardy.

A few weeks ago I reread The Mayor of Casterbridge, a beautifully-written novel set in his fictional Wessex, and one of the most dazzling novels of his intricate multi-novel chronicle of town and rural life.  (I wrote about it here.)

The Return of the Native, another stunning Wessex novel, is an intense apocalyptic Victorian romance modeled on Greek tragedy, set against the gloomy, cataclysmic background of Egdon Heath.  If you are a fan of Twilight or Sophocles, of the Brontes or Death of a Salesman, you will admire Hardy’s lyrical prose and what D. H. Lawrence in his Study of Thomas Hardy calls “a constant revelation in Hardy’s novels:  that there exists a great background, vital and vivid, which matters more than the people who move upon it.”

"All that remained of Eustacia Vye," illustration by Arthur Hopkins

“All that remained of Eustacia Vye,” illustration by Arthur Hopkins

In The Return of the Native, the unhappy wild characters who roam wild Egdon Heath and long for a glamorous unobtainable urban life meet their deaths, while the tame characters survive to rebuild and recivilize the post-wild society. There are five main characters of marriageable age:  two wild, two tame, and one outsider, balanced  between both states.   The wild, wretched, passionate Eustacia Vye and Wildeve (don’t you love the repetition of Vs, Vye/Eve?) long for what they can’t have and no longer want it when they have it.  Fast-forward to their apocalypse:  the two plan to run away, but drown in the river during a tumultuous storm, leaving their tame and mild spouses in desolate anguish:  Clym, a former diamond salesman who returned to Egdon Heath to teach but lost his sight after marrying Eustacia, and Clym’s practical cousin Thomasin, who married Wildeve with misgivings after he jilted her, grieve and gradually realign themselves with nature.

The outsider, Diggory Venn, a reddleman (he sells a dye called reddle for marking sheep, which has turned his skin red), is a minor god of nature, meddling in the lives of humans with varying results.  Unlike Pan or  other nature gods of myth, this former farmer, who is in love with Thomasin, is highly moral and just.  After the death of Eustacia and Wildeve, he gives up the reddle trade, buys a farm, and becomes a strong, buoyant figure in the reconstruction of Egdon Heath society.*

The motif of disguise is used but not overused (one can almost say that Venn is in disguise, because people only see the red skin and assume he is lower-class).  Disguise appeals to but is almost too exciting for Eustacia, a beautiful orphan who lives with her grandfather and longs for romance.  She takes long walks on the heath, intensely hates its remoteness from society, and lights bonfires to call her former lover, Wildeve, to rendezvous. When she hears Clym Yeobright has returned from Paris, she disguises herself as a boy so she can go with the mummers to perform a Christmas play at the Yeobrights’ party. She is exhilarated when Clym pays attention to her at the party,

…and yet not to her but to some imaginary person, by the first man she had ever been inclined to adore, complicated her emotions indescribably.  She had loved him partly because he was exceptional in this scene, partly because she had determined to love him, chiefly because she was in desperate need of loving somebody after wearying of Wildeve.  Believing that she must love him in spite of herself, she had been influenced after the fashion of the second Lord Lyttleton and other persons, who have dreamed that they were to die on a certain day, and by stress of a morbid imagination have actually brought about that event.  Once let a maiden admit the possibility of her being stricken with love for some one at a certain hour and place, and the thing is as good as done.

When Clym realizes she is a woman among the mummers, he is intrigued.

They talk about depression.

What depressed you?”

“Life.”

“That’s a cause of depression a good many have to put up with.”

Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy

Perhaps it is not the most romantic conversation but when you are in the middle of Hardy, you don’t question it.

They marry against Clym’s mother’s wishes (so did his cousin, Thomasin).  Initially he and Eustacia are very happy. But when his eyes fail him and he can no longer study to be a teacher, he goes out to earn money as a furze-cutter.  She is appalled.  She feels degraded.  She has wanted above all to escape the heath, and longed to go with him to Paris, even though he said he wasn’t going back.

Egdon Heath is one of the main characters of the novel. In D. H. Lawrence’s Study of Thomas Hardy, he describes the importance of the background of Egdon Heath which produces the wild

What is the real stuff of tragedy in the book?  It is the Heath.  It is the primitive, primal earth, where the instinctive life heaves up.  There, in the deep, rude stirring of the instincts, there was the reality that worked the tragedy.  Close to the body of things, there can be heard the stir that makes us and destroys us.  The heath heaved with raw instinct.  Egdon, whose dark oil was strong and crude and organic as the body of a beast.   Out of the body of this crude earth are born Eustacia, Wildeve, Mistress Yeobright, Clym, and all the others.  They are one year’s accidental crop.  What matters is some are drowned or dead, and others preaching or married:  what matter, any more than the withering heath, the reddening berries, the seedy, furze, and the dead fern of one autumn of Egdon?  The Heath persists.

The structure of The Return of the Novel is a classical ring composition, with scenes in the first part repeated or balanced by similar scenes in the latter part.  The novel opens with Diggory Venn’s giving the humiliated, jilted Thomasin a ride home in his van. (The marriage certificate was wrong, and Wildeve isn’t sure he wants to go through with the marriage.)  Later in the novel, when Thomasin is carrying her baby in the rain, desperately thinking her husband Wildeve has run off with Eustacia, she again runs into Venn’s van, and he saves what can be saved.

Really a beautiful book.

*Hardy did not intend for Diggory Venn, the reddleman, to play a big part in the ending, but his editor wanted a happy ending.