Me and Thomas Hardy have a bit of a history. Way back in school I had one of those inspirational English teachers – thank you, John Pearce – who had spent time in the US. Enthused by his experiences there he adopted the bright-eyed bow-tie look of American academe and their formal Book Report system. The time soon came when there was no escape – we had to choose a ‘classic’ for our report; I picked Hardy’s Under the greenwood tree because it was the shortest I could find, so that was the first ‘classic’ I ever read. I seem to recall I was pleasantly surprised but little else.
A few years later the 1967 John Schlesinger film of Far from the madding crowd loomed large in my personal filmography (and I still invariably feel compelled to watch it to the end if I happen upon it channel hopping). I think I may even have seen it with a certain somebody but subsequent events caused me to cast myself in the Alan Bates Gabriel role in relation to Julie Christie’s Bathsheba. (What a bastard, that Terence Stamp.) Fine film; never felt like reading the book because I liked the film so well. About the same time, one of those small things that stick in the mind – the extraordinary Roma Gill performing Hardy’s poem The goldfinch with its unfortunate and later suppressed last verse in an EngLit lecture at uni. (I’ve posted about this elsewhere – it’s the last item there.)
Fast forward a decade or four and I’m shouting at the television screen, more specifically at Tess of Tess of the bloody d’Urbervilles. Come on girl, do wise up why don’t you? Talk about miserablism and victim culture. Someone recently told me they’d actually thrown Jude the Obscure across the room in frustration at the same sort of thing. Glass half empty doesn’t seem to enter into it.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached this month’s book club book, The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), or to give it the grandeur of its full title – which the cheap skate free download text I used some of the time to its great discredit did not (never mind the typos) – The life and death of the Mayor of Casterbridge: a story of a man of character. I needn’t have worried. I liked it a lot and that word grandeur I used just now was not intended ironically, let alone sarcastically. Michael Henchard’s tale is a full-blown searing tragedy, its denouement all the more touching for its lack of Shakespearian violence (though I’ll admit some will say, not totally without cause, melodrama). Here is a driven man, touched by folly and a notion to honour soured by bad faith, blown this way and that by circumstance (and coincidence, but never mind).
Reading the first couple of chapters I was struck by just how much Hardy’s prose gives screen adapters, how easy he makes their jobs. I thought, I know all this, because I’d seen the 2003 tv production with Ciaran Hinds as Henchard and they hadn’t had to do a thing except put the prose onto film literally, so powerfully and vividly described are the events leading to Henchard’s getting pissed on rum-laced furmity and auctioning off his wife. The main action of the novel picks up 20 years on with his swearing off the booze and achieving mayoral respectability. The bustle and nuances of the town and the timeless yet changing landscapes of Wessex are finely drawn throughout. The marital morality that is one of the plot drivers is odd, of course, but par for the time, I guess, and it does keep things going (though you do want to give Elizabeth-Jane a kick every now and again). There’s even humour to be found. Mostly in the pub, true, but I was surprised to find it at all, not least in the particularly fine passage where the furmity seller, now on very hard times indeed, is up before the magistrates (again) and reveals Henchard’s big secret at the end of her trial, a very neat stroke. I’ll not be going on a Hardy binge or anything soon, but I am glad I had the pleasure of The Mayor of Casterbridge.
On the question of Thomas Hardy‘s miserablism I was impressed by his sturdy defence of his position against his critics in his General Preface to the Wessex Edition of his works published in 1912:
One word on what has been called the present writer’s philosophy of life […] Positive views on the Whence and Wherefore of things have never been advanced by this pen as a consistent philosophy. Nor is it likely, indeed, that imaginative writings extending over more than forty years would exhibit a coherent scientific theory of the universe even if it had been attempted […] But such objectless consistency never has been attempted, and the sentiments of the following pages have been stated truly to be mere impressions of the moment, and not convictions or arguments.
That these impressions have been condemned as ‘pessimistic’ – as if that were a very wicked adjective – shows a curious muddle-mindedness. It must be obvious that there is a higher characteristic of philosophy than pessimism, or than meliorism, or even the optimism of these critics – which is truth. Existence is either ordered in a certain way, or it is not so ordered, and conjectures which harmonize best with experience are removed above all comparison with other conjectures which do not so harmonize. So that to say one view is worse than other views without proving it erroneous implies the possibility of a false view being better or more expedient than a true view […].
It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to. But then there’s this gem, from Thomas the Fiddler – Hardy came from a family of decent musicians and was no mean fiddler himself – which is taken from Under the greenwood tree:
Your brass man is a rafting dog, well and good,
Your reed man is dab hand at stirring ye, well and good,
Your drum man is a rare bowel shaker, good again,
But I don’t care who hears me say it
Nothing can spake to your heart with the sweetness of a man of strings.
And finally, apropos of nothing that has gone before, Hardy was one of the authors whose names graced the sides of the last express steam locomotives built in the UK, the Standard Class 7s, known as Britannias. 70034 Thomas Hardy was built at Crewe in 1952 and barely lasted 15 years before it was scrapped just a few months before the film of Far from the madding crowd was released. Shame it was never garrisoned in Wessex; it served most of its time on East Anglian expresses with a swan song in the north-west.