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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Hardy on Surviving Toxic Patriarchs

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The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy, 1885

Are you getting tired of Thomas Hardy yet? I’m not!

The Mayor of Casterbridge is Hardy’s take on the Greek tragic hero archetype. I loved Ancient Greek drama in high school and college. At age thirty-something, I found on my first read through that I have no time for an aggressive patriarch whose fits of pique threaten to destroy the lives of everyone he encounters. Gee, I wonder why I’m feeling particularly frustrated by that personality-type?

I couldn’t enjoy the book the first time through, because I was so aggravated by Michael Henchard’s string of selfish, destructive actions. I was too pissed off to have any fun. However, on my second read—I read pretty much every deserving novel at least twice before posting about it—I knew what was coming. No longer shocked and surprised by the protagonist’s behavior, I was free to expend my mental energy on admiring Hardy’s handiwork.

It’s a good’un, folks. I love a twisty, curvy, complicated plot and The Mayor of Casterbridge sure has one. I’ve always found the descriptors “plot driven” and “character driven” too facile. Sure, “plot driven” can be used to mean a novel is all action with weak characterization. However, a story can have a great plot and great characterization. I think Victorian readers would be baffled by that supposed dichotomy, because all good Victorian novels focus heavily on character development AND have compelling plots. The Mayor of Casterbridge takes the reader on quite a ride, plotwise, but every turn is propelled by the beautifully elaborated characters.

I almost don’t want to tell you a single other thing about this book. It’s so great; you should discover everything for yourself. I can’t even describe the relationships between the characters without misleading you or giving something away. After some contemplation I’ve decided to try to tell you a few key things.

Michael Henchard begins as a grumpy man with too little money, too great a fondness for alcohol, a wife and a daughter. He commits a spectacularly strange act that separates him from said wife and child. Many years later, they reappear and discover that he has risen from a lowly hay-trusser to a position of such wealth and influence that he has become the mayor of Casterbridge. Hardy describes this semi-agricultural and semi-urban town so masterfully that I have profound feelings about the bridges, the market days, the villagers who carouse at the secret pub, all of it. I’m not kidding about the bridges. If you read this book, you will have strong emotions about the bridges of Casterbridge.

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Henchard has a foil in the character of Donald Farfrae, a young Scottish fellow he hires to help him manage his grain business. Farfrae is everything Henchard is not: forgiving, reasonable, thoughtful. Henchard soon torpedoes their friendship because of jealousy. That’s all I’m going to say about that. Oops, one more. Hardy establishes that Farfrae is indisputably the better man of the two, yet they both commit the same disastrous mistake: undervaluing Henchard’s daughter, Elizabeth-Jane.

Oh, Elizabeth-Jane. My queen. She’s a steady woman, whose impoverished childhood instilled a keen sense that injustice and suffering are inherent to human existence. Yet, she is compassionate and selfless. She aspires to refine herself, not so that she can make an entrance in society, but to attain a greater degree of personal dignity, something she lacked in her early life. She attempts to do this by reading rigorously. Do you see why I love her? Here is just a snippet of her lovely characterization “Her experience had been of a kind to teach her, rightly or wrongly, that the doubtful honour of a brief transit through a sorry world hardly called for effusiveness […] But her strong sense that neither she nor any human being deserved less than was given, did not blind her to the fact that there were others receiving less who deserved much more.” I could cry. My only criticism of this book is that I could have used so much more Elizabeth-Jane.

There are other actors in the cast, but I won’t go into it further. Just know that Hardy puts them all in such intense and odd, yet plausible situations. If you can get past what a jerk Henchard is, and I think you can, you will enjoy seeing these characters react to their fascinating circumstances.

Just as a bonus, this book contains my favorite Brit Lit trope: someone goes out into the wilds to consult a mystic. Love it. Hardy, of course, describes this character with his typical incisive wit. Ostensibly god-fearing Anglicans, his clients put on a show of not truly believing in his prophetic powers. “Whenever they consulted him they did it ‘for a fancy.’ When they paid him they said ‘Just a trifle for Christmas,’ or ‘Candlemas,’ as the case may be. He would have preferred more honesty in his clients, and less sham ridicule; but fundamental belief consoled him for superficial irony. As stated, he was enabled to live; people supported him with their backs turned. He was sometimes astonished that men could profess so little and believe so much at his house, when at church they professed so much and believed so little.” I cackled at that one. Got ‘em.

You might enjoy The Mayor of Casterbridge if:

  • you like things that are good

You might not enjoy The Mayor of Casterbridge if:

  • you have no time for stories about toxic patriarchs. Which is how I felt at first, but I realized that the story isn’t just about him. It’s about the way that he fails to destroy anyone but himself. It’s about the way that the people around him endure his toxicity and remain compassionate, giving people. True to themselves to the end. That’s a story worth reading. In these trying times.

Final Thoughts: The more I think about this book, the more I love it. It is considered one of Hardy’s masterpieces for good reason.

My Favorite Novel!

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Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy, 1874

I was nervous the night before I started rereading Far from the Madding Crowd. I felt like a vessel unfit to receive Thomas Hardy’s glorious words. I knew I’d soon be sitting at my computer trying to explain why I love this book so much and I felt unworthy of the task. I’ll try anyway. This is my very favorite book; I must attempt to do it justice.

Hardy’s fourth novel has all the wit, wisdom and cynicism of his later great works, but with more drama and less heartrending tragedy. It’s as if you ordered your insightful literary martini with a dry sense of humor, spiked with a soap opera plot, hold the bitter tears, and add a side order of sweet romance.

The plot concerns a proud, independent young maiden who inherits her uncle’s farm and proceeds to wreak havoc in the neighborhood with her beautiful face. Dear Bathsheba Everdene—yes, her last name was lifted for Katniss Everdeen—doesn’t instigate the havoc. Men just see her face and proceed to destroy their own lives. Hardy loves not a love triangle, but a love square. Three men fall for her: humble shepherd Gabriel Oak, staid middle-aged Farmer Boldwood, and dashing young soldier Frank Troy.

I rate these four characters among the best in the canon. Let me tell you why. But first, just go read it and then come back and see if you agree with me. Discover all this wonder on your own.

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Bathsheba Everdene

I love a proud, independent woman. When she discovers her father’s bailiff stealing from her she dismisses him and instead of hiring another man to run the farm, she decides to do it herself. Shocking! She goes to market. She buys grain and sells sheep. She gets up on the ricks with Gabriel in the middle of the night with lightning flashing all around to protect her harvest from the coming rain.

Bathsheba may be vain, but she is not a flirt. I absolutely love this description of her “From the contours of her figure in its upper part she must have had a beautiful neck and shoulders; but since her infancy nobody had ever seen them. Had she been put into a low dress she would have run and thrust her head into a bush. Yet she was not a shy girl by any means; it was merely her instinct to draw the line dividing the seen from the unseen higher than they do it in the towns.” Early in the progress of the tale Gabriel sees her lay back on her horse with her feet on its neck to avoid a low hanging branch. His infatuation for her began there and so did mine. I dare you to read Hardy’s description of this moment and not fall in love with Bathsheba.

Frank Troy

               This handsome soldier is careless with women. Not a novel character, but one so well described by Hardy that he stands out. He has a changeable nature usually reserved for female characters. He fluctuates from rakish to repentant to rascally and back so easily that he’s quite fascinating.

Farmer Boldwood

               This fucking guy. His progress from steady, predictable bachelor to psychopath is gripping and horrifying. The next farm over is a new place to find a villain. This gentleman farmer slowly turns mad. You pity him and then you loathe him, which is the reverse of how we like to handle psychos these days. What’s most chilling about Boldwood is that you recognize him. He’s every man who feels so entitled to a woman that he’ll wheedle and bully her into being with him out of a sense of obligation. It’s repulsive and compelling to read.

Gabriel Oak

               My favorite. The best. I love him. He does none of the nonsense to Bathsheba that Boldwood does, even though he loves her just as well. His kind, gentle devotion to her is my relationship goal. If you’re drawn to The Office, you might be drawn to Gabriel Oak as a romantic figure. After all, long term love is about making each day easier and better for your partner, not about doing creepy dramatic shit like asking the gravedigger who just opened her grave to put her husband in it to walk away for a bit so you can lay down with her corpse. This is a friendly reminder that Heathcliff is a kidnapper and rapist, not a romantic hero. Gabriel Oak is a romantic hero. Because he takes care of his lady’s sheep. That’s useful and kind. I know, I’m old and practical about love, but whatever. Life happens day by day and so does love. I’d happily spend my days with Gabriel. He can tend my flocks anytime.

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The book is not perfect. The middle is not as strong as the beginning and end. Hardy strays a bit long amid his pleasant rural scenery and his pleasant rustics, but he has almost entirely shed the obnoxious condescension of Under the Greenwood Tree. I don’t mind spending some time on Bathsheba’s farm. Any writer who can make shepherding incidents as dramatic and moving as Hardy can deserves acclaim for his depiction of rural life.

There are so many wonderful quotes in this book. You should read the entire novel, but I will provide this longish quote for your enjoyment.

“At last the eighth day came. The cow had ceased to give milk for that year, and Bathsheba Everdene came up the hill no more. Gabriel had reached a pitch of existence he never could have anticipated a short time before. He liked saying “Bathsheba” as a private enjoyment instead of whistling; turned over his taste to black hair, though he had sworn by brown ever since he was a boy, isolated himself till the space he filled in the public eye was contemptibly small. Love is a possible strength in an actual weakness. Marriage transforms a distraction to a support, the power of which should be, and happily often is, in direct proportion to the imbecility it supplants.”

Hardy would later express a far less positive view of marriage.

You might like Far from the Madding Crowd if:

  • you like a rural story
  • you appreciate wit
  • you appreciate writing aesthetically, but are not opposed to a compelling plot

You might not like Far from the Madding Crowd if:

  • you need your romances a bit more torrid

Final Thoughts: It’s the best book. Go read it! It is fun and beautiful. My favorite.

Star-crossed Astronomers

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I love Thomas Hardy for so many reasons. Lately, I have been particularly admiring the surprising behavior of his female characters. Even in the Late Victorian Era, women in literature are mostly predictable. They obey their fathers and husbands. They almost always do the right thing, and by “right” I mean socially acceptable. When faced with adversity, Hardy’s heroines do not follow convention. Here are some of the surprising things they do:

  • when Bathsheba must fire her steward, she doesn’t hire another man to help her; she runs her farm herself.
  • one young lady marries a rich old aristocrat instead of her handsome, poor, young lover. Instead of pining away of misery when the old bag turns out to be immoral and controlling, she takes charge and reforms him.
  • when Grace’s adulterer husband returns from months away with his mistress, she doesn’t take him back, but runs off to be with her own lover.
  • Lady Constantine, the heroine of the novel I am reviewing today, is abandoned by her husband. She’s lonely and bored. Does she humbly pine away, spending her nights knitting socks for charity? Nope! She finds herself a hot young country lad. When her husband finally croaks, she DOES NOT marry her lover.

Women simply do not behave like this in novels by other authors. I love it! Hardy is the only Victorian author I have found who allows his female characters to act in their own interest without losing his or the reader’s sympathy. He’s the best. Let’s get back to the romance at hand.

These lovers just can’t uncross their stars.

Thomas Hardy starts with a 28-year-old woman whose horrible husband has abandoned her to go on safari. Due to a truly stupid vow he pried from her, she musn’t go into society or have any fun while he’s away. He’s been away for years. Bored out of her skull, Lady Constantine decides she’d like to survey her estate from the top of a column that was built to commemorate her husband’s grandpa who died in “The American War.” Gotcha, Grandpa. Stay on your side of the Atlantic.

Lady Constantine discovers a handsome young astronomer using her column to study the stars. “Hey, boy, hey” says Lady Inconstantine. She falls in love and begins wooing him several months before a letter arrives bearing the news of her husband’s timely death. Gasp! Horrors! An older woman a younger man! How can a young man be expected to love an older woman when her beauty will fade long before his?

Oh wait, before we proceed I must mention that the astronomical cherub’s name is Swithin St Cleeve. Swithin. I didn’t even know that was a name. Thomas Hardy, you champion.

This set up is just fine. Well, perhaps not. I’m here for the abandoned aristocrat finding a young swain on her property and seducing him. Why not? Well, because she’s taking advantage of his inexperience? That is a plausible interpretation of the situation. Hardy goes to some effort to establish that she is the wooer, but that Swithin loves her and consents to the wooing. An eight-year difference in the other direction wouldn’t have been noteworthy. I don’t know. One should not seduce inexperienced young things. True enough.

The other flaw in the design is Hardy’s contrast between the enormity of the universe and the insignificance of earthly romance. He succeeds in making the central tension in the novel seem insignificant.

Next, Hardy unveils a series of ludicrous misadventures. They marry, but the marriage is invalidated, because her husband is not dead! Except he is dead! He just didn’t die before they got married. And a host of other implausible inconveniences and strange mishaps interfere with our two insignificant lovers.

Just when our heroine selflessly decides to send her young fella away to pursue his career unencumbered by a renewal of their falsified vows, she discovers that she is pregnant. Of course, Hardy could not use such a scandalous word, but he gets his point across. Swithin has wandered beyond the reach of letter or telegram. In her desperation, Lady Constantine marries the pompous bishop who has been courting her and passes the baby off as his. Nothing this shocking has happened in the history of English literature. Thomas Hardy don’t give af. I so very much wish I could read the novels this gent would have written if fully unfettered by what Victorian’s considered printable. As it was Two on a Tower caused quite a stir, particularly because Lady Constantine’s dupe was a bishop.

How dare you impugn the bishopry? 

Thomas Hardy did dare. He wrote a host of implausible circumstances leading to the conception of this child, but many children were conceived out of wedlock and even today women marry men other than the father of their child before the birth of said child. Hardy’s bit of scandal is a bit of realism buried in a surfeit of silliness. I do see hints of the Tragic Destiny that characterizes his later and greatest works. The emotional and moral question of the novel is “how social restrictions can lead an otherwise virtuous woman into shameful circumstances.” This question lies at the heart of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, Hardy’s best works. Well, that’s just as far as I can remember. I haven’t read them in years and I wouldn’t be surprised if Far from the Madding Crowd conquers Tess in my heart. Anyway, the point is:

You may like Two in a Tower if:

  • you’re a cougar

You may not like Two in a Tower if:

  • life is too short for the minor works of major authors

Final Thoughts: This book is just ok. Not bad. Not perfect. The subject matter is certainly unique and scandalous for its time. I can’t say this is Hardy’s best work.

Poor, Sick Thomas Hardy Writes a Real Clunker

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A Laodicean, Thomas Hardy, 1881

I am reading a biography of my favorite author, Thomas Hardy, concurrently with reading his books. Before the author mentions any plot elements, I stop reading the biography and switch to the novel. No spoilers. When I finished reading A Laodicean, I thought “why is this book so bad?” Turns out there’s a very good reason.

After accepting an advance from Harpers to publish his next novel in installments, Thomas Hardy became very ill. He was an invalid for many months. Hardy could not afford to lose the money, so he dictated the novel to his wife from his sickbed. This is why we should not work when we’re sick. Bad novels. No, contagion is why we shouldn’t work when we’re sick, but also A Laodicean.

Laodicean means lukewarm or undecided especially in terms of religion. Our heroine, Paula Power, is first seen by our peeping tom of a hero, George Somerset, when she is about to be baptized into her late father’s Protestant faith. At the last second, she greatly disappoints the minister by refusing to enter the dark pool of baptismal water. This minster later becomes…not important to the plot at all, even though he professes to think of Paula as a daughter. I think Thomas Hardy, in his illness, forgot the poor fellow.

The theme of A Laodicean is less about Paula’s religious doubt and more about her wavering between the old and the new. Her father was a wealthy railroad engineer and designer. Upon his death he left her in possession of a castle formerly owned by the still local De Stancy family. Paula seems to be an independent woman, a representative of modernity. Yet, she yearns for the legitimacy of being an aristocrat. If she were a De Stancy no one would question her actions, such as the renovation of the crumbling castle.

Predictably, given that Hardy trained as an architect, our young hero is an aspiring architect. He falls in love with Paula and pretends to be interested in sketching the castle for professional purposes, wink wink. He is clearly superior to the architect Paula was planning on using for the restoration.

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All seems well.  Our hero will get the gig and enter into close, love-inducing proximity with our girl Paula. Enter a young scamp named Dare. Hardy rarely used his first name and I’ve already forgotten it. Anyway, this mysterious villain thwarts George Somerset at every turn. He’s very clever at it. But why does he want to? Turns out he is the illegitimate son of Captain De Stancy. Gasp! He wants to see his father restored to their ancestral home. More importantly he wants to get his hands on Paula’s fortune.

Paula favors George, but she feels badly about her family taking over the home that the De Stancy’s occupied for hundreds of years. Dare is so good at making other people look bad, that after a long chase across the Continent she renounces George and engages herself to De Stancy. At the last minute the truth of Dare’s deceptions and his identity is revealed to Paula. She calls off the wedding and reverses the Continental chase, pursuing Somerset this time. After a long and tantalizing ordeal, she finds him, they make up and they get married. A resentful Dare burns down castle De Stancy.

George sanguinely suggests that this is a good thing. Now they can build a new home with modern amenities. His bride agrees for two seconds before proclaiming “but I wish I had my castle and I wish you were a De Stancy.”

I can see the makings of a good concept swirling around in there. I’m sure Hardy was going to make a brilliant point about the tension between progress and tradition. Technology and the newly rich may be taking over, but social status does not come so swiftly. My American brain is dumbfounded by the insistent clinging of the British people to the oppressive tradition of aristocracy. Why don’t they just get rid of their royals? Because everyone wants to dream about being a princess, I guess. Paula Power lives in a castle. She can buy anything she wants and marry whomever she pleases. Hardy was perhaps too ill to illustrate what more Paula could attain as a member of the gentry, so it seems like she’s hankering after nothing more than words and ideas. The point falls a bit flat.

Dare is an interesting character. He is smart, but corrupt and ruthless. He feels entitled to better treatment as the last of the De Stancy line, and he manipulates everyone around him to achieve this aim, including his own unowned father. The tricks he pulls on Somerset are entertaining and heartrending to read. The iniquity!

I could tell that this book was published serially and written for money. It seems that Hardy did not have the wherewithal to develop the side characters, subplots and depth of meaning that typify his better novels. I quickly grew tired of the repetition of a small set of ideas. He was dragging out a scanty creative effort in order to get that paycheck from Harpers. Poor thing.

Ultimately, book centers on the wooing of Paula by Somerset and De Stancy. He wallows in the minutiae of their attempts to win her. It gets quite dull. Often their efforts are manipulative and icky. Both suitors use guilt freely. This is a type of courtship that is not fun to read about and Hardy spends at least one hundred too many pages detailing it.

Final Thoughts: I’m so grateful for modern medicine. Hardy suffered for months from a urinary tract infection. I wish I could go back in time and give him some anti-biotics. Then maybe this would have been a good book.

Thomas Hardy Takes a Stab at Napoleon

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The Trumpet Major, Thomas Hardy, 1880

In 1880 our boy Thomas Hardy attempted a historical novel. As much as I love a romanticized historical setting, Hardy’s Regency Era novel is a big fat fail for me. The story concerns the denizens of a mill, which is a good start, because who doesn’t love a literary miller? The miller has two sons. A sailor named Bob and soldier named John. I knew from the names alone that Hardy didn’t put his thinking cap on for this one. This is the man who created Cytherea Gray, Bathsheba Everdeen and Gabriel Oak. He named the brothers Bob and John. And guess who both brothers are in love with? Anne Garland. No offense intended to the many Anne’s I love in this world, but Hardy sure didn’t strain his creative faculties for this novel.

Anne lives at the mill with her widowed mother. The miller also lost his spouse and decided to rent out part of the mill house to pretty, little Anne and her brainless mother. Of course, both his sons take a fancy to the maiden. Thomas Hardy is too cool for triangles; he loves a love square. So, the local aristocrat also falls for Anne. Anne. Come on now. At least the squire-ling is named Festus Derriman. That’s a name worth hearing. Apart from his appellation, Festus is worthless. He’s a big hulking bro who constantly attempts to or threatens to assault dear little Anne. It’s terrifying. To add another layer of horror, Anne remains silent about Derriman’s persecution, because she doesn’t want to interrupt trade between the manor and the mill. What’s more important than women’s safety in a capitalist society? Everything.

The reader is meant to admire steady, loyal John the soldier and look down on Bob the fickle sailor. However, the characters are so thin and bland, that I couldn’t work up any emotion. The great question of the book is who will Anne marry, but Anne is boring and so are her suitors. My only investment was hoping she didn’t chose Derriman for the sake of increasing her social status. It’s unclear to me why Hardy bothered with the Regency setting when it functions only as a background for his typical love square scenario. Unlike Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, the war is incidental to the action of The Trumpet-Major and not fully utilized.

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This book is light, frivolous and unlike Hardy’s other novels, free from any point of view. Yet, I can’t quite bring myself to hate it. It’s not a strong novel, but it’s still Thomas freaking Hardy we’re talking about. He’s my favorite writer. Even when he has nothing to say, he says it well. The style of his writing pleases me. Always. I think Hardy wanted an excuse to interview his aged neighbors about their memories of the Napoleonic Wars. That exercise did not result in an excellent novel, but I like to think he enjoyed the process. I still enjoyed reading it more than I’ve enjoyed anything by Henry James so far. Pick up your game, Henry James.

 

You might like The Trumpet-Major if:

  • you have a thing for stories about brothers squabbling over the same lady
  • you have a thing for novels about the Napoleonic Wars
  • you want to read a decently written novel that doesn’t require much thought

You might not like The Trumpet-Major if:

  • you only have time for the best works by the best writers

Final thoughts: It’s still better than Under the Greenwood Tree. Thomas Hardy’s second worst novel so far. We have at least two truly spectacular novels to go, y’all. Have faith in our boy.

A Forgotten Gem by Thomas Hardy

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This novel is about a young society lady whose father is a butler and I got my father to pose for the picture. Cute, right?

The Hand of Ethelberta, Thomas Hardy, 1876

Did you know that if you stand before a mirror in a dark room and say Ethelberta Petherwin three times fast, a strong, ingeniously resourceful and kind literary heroine will appear?
I will let Thomas Hardy introduce dear Berta. He’s better at these things. An apparently refined and elegant young lady spots a hawk chasing a duck. “Ethelberta impulsively started off in a rapid run that would have made a little dog bark with delight and run after, her object being, if possible, to see the end of this desperate struggle for a life so small and unheard-of. Her stateliness went away, and it could be forgiven for not remaining: for her feet suddenly became as quick as fingers, and she raced along over the uneven ground with such force of tread that, being a woman slightly heavier than gossamer, her patent heels punched little D’s in the soil with unerring accuracy wherever it was bare, crippled the heather where it was not, and sucked the swampy places with a sound of quick kisses.”
Just look at all Hardy is able to do in one little paragraph. We love our girl already, because we understand her impulse to scurry after the birds. We relate to her, because we too want to know the duck’s fate. We are curious. How did such an elegant lady acquire this agility? He has already established a contrast between her fancy garb, genteel appearance and some lovable coarseness in her inner nature. That prose! The images of the delighted dog and the swampy kisses from her little heel. So good. Hardy is a champion and so is Ethelberta.

ethelberta
Our heroine is a country girl, whose father sends money from his London job as a butler. E begins her long career of trying to support her many siblings and invalid mother, by becoming a governess. Don’t worry, I will spoil nothing, this is all background info. Being lovely, she of course elopes with the young aristocratic son. Soon thereafter her husband and his parents die. The elder Lady Petherwin dies last and leaves young Lady Petherwin nothing but a two year lease on an upscale London apartment. Determined to use her new social position to improve her family’s status, Berta comes up with some very creative ways of saving and making money, including:
• Writing light verse
• Becoming a celebrated performer/ storyteller
• Bringing her whole family to live with her under the pretense that they are her servants
• Ultimately deciding that she must marry, because she will not be able to hide the secret of her birth forever
As you can imagine, pretending that your siblings are your servants is a situation ripe for comedy. You have to admire the audaciousness of Ethelberta’s scheme. Hardy tops his usual love square in this book. Four men try for The Hand of Ethelberta, two of whom are loved by other women. We have a love pentagon with two love triangles branching off. Add in the tension between E and her reforming brothers, who worry that she’ll be burned as a blueblood in the coming revolution. Add her own inner tension; she constantly wonders if she’d be happier discarding her deceitful lifestyle and the trappings of wealth to become a rural school mistress. Not to mention Hardy’s bitter commentary on the scornful way servants are regarded. His mother was a servant and he does an excellent job of inverting the popular Victorian and Gothic trope of the bumbling, ludicrous, idiotic, superstitious servants.
Ethelberta is a truly unique character, with an admirable capacity for sacrifice and creativity. I love her for consulting books of philosophy in a crisis. What other Victorian heroine does that? I love her for other reasons, but I’m leaving plenty of detail out, because I really think you should read this one. The prose has all the elements of Hardy’s greatness, including such wisdom as:

“A half knowledge of another’s life usually does injustice to the life half known.”
And
“between continually wanting to love, to escape the blank lives of those who do not, and wanting not to love, to keep out the miseries of those that do, I get foolishly warm and foolishly cold by turns.”

You might like The Hand of Ethelberta if:

  • you enjoy a strong heroine with a surfeit of love interests
  • you like unexpected endings
  • you wish the women in Period Pieces had more gumption

You might not like The Hand of Ethelberta if:

  • I dunno…you’re more into Cormac McCarthy than Jane Austen

Final thoughts: The critics didn’t love this one, but we are not Victorian literary critics. For me, this is one of Hardy’s better books and certainly worth your time. There is a very good recording on Librivox, if you’d prefer an audiobook.