Thomas Hardy on Hangmen, Witches, Bootlegging and Bad Marriages

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Wessex Tales, Thomas Hardy, 1888

Honestly, if you are getting tired of reading about Thomas Hardy, you can skip this review. Hardy’s writing is like a resplendent river that smooths the rough rocks in my soul. I can leave no stone unturned in my quest to read all his poetry and prose. There could be a salamander under that rock! But he’s not your favorite author, so you don’t have to read every single review I write about his minor works. And if he is your favorite author: Hi. Let’s be friends.

Wessex Tales is a collection of short stories that were originally published in magazines. Hardy writing short fiction for magazine editors and readers is not the best Hardy. Seeing as how he is my best friend and soulmate even though he died 58 years before I was born, I can tell when he is writing just for the money and not attempting much artistic expression. Wow. The idea that only 58 years separate our lives is mind-bending. What very different worlds we experienced.

My point is that these stories are just ok. Well, it’s Hardy, so just ok by his standard is still pretty darn good, but if you have read any of his five best novels, you won’t be impressed by these little yarns. The original 1888 publication contained:

  • “The Three Strangers” a cute little tale of mistaken identity. Not bad at all.
  • “The Withered Arm” which is quite good. A spooky, sad witch story that hints at Hardy’s fascination with tragic destiny. I think I’ve mentioned at least twice on this blog how much I love when English authors write about visits to mystic healers. That happens in this story to and it is wonderful, of course. British writers can’t help revealing their secret paganism; and I love it. I won’t tell you anything more about the plot of this one, because I’d rather save it for the next time you and I are hanging out around a campfire.
  • “Fellow Townsmen” which is very much about tragic destiny. Hardy had a lot to say during the 1880s about the silly impulses and motivations that lead people to make unwise marriages and the bitter consequences of those marriages.
  • “Interlopers at the Knapp” has a very different plot, but the exact same theme, only less tragic.
  • “The Distracted Preacher” which we need to talk about in more detail below.

 

“The Distracted Preacher” is my favorite, not for the tale but, for the note Hardy added for a later printing of Wessex Tales. The story concerns a preacher temporarily assigned to a seaside town. Of course, he falls in love with the beautiful widow who provides his lodgings. You would fall in love with her too; she’s badass and adorable. The way Hardy writes about characters falling in love is unmatched so far in English literature, in my opinion. Yes, that includes the Brontë’s and Jane Austen! I do not this not make this statement lightly. At any given moment I am desperately in love with three Thomas Hardy characters.

Anyway, it turns out that Lizzy is involved in a smuggling ring, the naughty wench. Predictably, the preacher asks her to desist smuggling liquor for him and for God and for the sake of her poor, dear conscience. She tells him she simply can’t, because she doesn’t know the king and doesn’t care about his coffers, but she does care about keeping herself and her mother fed and comfortable. Also, she simply couldn’t give up smuggling, because “It stirs up one’s dull life at this time o’ the year, and gives excitement, which I have got so used to now that I should hardly know how to do ‘ithout it. At nights, when the wind blows, instead of being dull and stupid, and not noticing whether it do blow or not, your mind is afield, even if you are not afield yourself; and you are wondering how the chaps are getting on; and you walk up and down the room and look out o’ the window, and then you go out yourself and know your way about as well by night as by day, and have hair-breadth escapes from old Latimer and his fellows, who are too stupid ever to really frighten us and only make us a bit nimble.” Yes, Lizzy. Smuggle to your heart’s content. You don’t need this preacher man. Live your wild life. Don’t wed yourself to the judgmental patriarchy. Except of course, she does. Conventional morality must win in the end. This is still the Victorian Era.

Wait! There’s a great little note from Hardy at the end of the tale. “The ending of this story with the marriage of Lizzy and the minister was almost de riguer in an English magazine at the time of writing. But at this late date, thirty years after, it may not be amiss to give the ending that would have been preferred by the writer to the convention used above. Moreover it corresponds more closely with the true incidents of which the tale is a vague and flickering shadow. Lizzy did not, in fact, marry the preacher, but—much to her credit in the author’s opinion—stuck to Jim the smuggler, and emigrated with him after their marriage, an expatrial step rather forced upon him by his adventurous antecedents.” Ugh. Don’t you love that? I think about the writer that Hardy could have been he wasn’t restricted by the Victorian monomania for morality. The tales he might have told. I think about that at least twice a week. Even if you’re not obsessed with wondering what Hardy might have written in another universe, you might enjoy “The Distracted Preacher,” for the humorous hijinks that the townsfolk get up to whilst attempting to evade the excisemen.

For said later printing, Hardy added some stories to Wessex Tales. They are all fairly forgettable, except for “An Imaginative Woman” in which a married woman poet discovers that the seaside lodgings her family rented for the summer belong to a fellow poet that she admires. She discovers some of his verses written on the walls and becomes so obsessed with him that. . .his likeness is imprinted on the fetus in her womb. . .and her baby looks like this poet even though she never met him. Oh, baby. Victorians sure didn’t understand paternity or inheritance; and they came up with some kooky ways for explaining their children’s weird faces. But yes, they really did believe that if a woman became obsessed with a picture of a man, that image could imprint on her womb. Her brain, like a 3D printer supplied with an image of a man’s face, could produce a reproduction of that face in her womb. Wow. I mean. Wow. You have to love that plotline.

Final Thoughts: “The Withered Arm” and “The Distracted Preacher” are worth a read if you have already read these more important works by Hardy: Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Woodlanders, Jude the Obscure, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Return of the Native and The Hand of Ethelberta. I know no one else feels the way I do about The Hand of Ethelberta, but I stand by that book. It’s top notch. Fight me.

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