Recently, inspired by a passing reference to Jude the Obscure in Kate Summerscale’s excellent The Wicked Boy, I returned to reading Thomas Hardy after a long time away from Wessex. I haven’t properly re-read Hardy since devouring the greater part of his catalogue in my teenage years, in part through worry that in returning I would be disappointed by what I found compared to my vivid memories of reading his bucolic tales on long summer evenings in the garden at home.
I didn’t return to Jude, even on reading it originally I found it moving and infuriating in equal measure as the two protagonists seemed to will themselves through each unhappy stage of their lives. Instead I turned to the Hardy story that I first fell in love with, Far from the Madding Crowd, the novel which first made his name and whose classic John Schlesinger directed Julie Christie, Alan Bates film adaptation still draws new fans to Hardy. Far from… was everything I remembered it be, a story about all the brutality of rural existence in 19th century England and a modern tale about a woman making it in a man’s world. Even in one of Hardy’s happier novels the full gamut of human emotion and experience are on display, from the young Fanny Robin led astray and left destitute to die in the workhouse to the rich but lonely and obsessive Mr Boldwood driven mad by love.
If 19th century critics were sniffy about Hardy at times, considering him inferior to the more fashionable and cosmopolitan Henry James, so modern critics have also had a tendency to view him as a safe, even conservative writer. A teller of simple tales about simple people. Yet, that criticism misses the point, the very beauty and simplicity of the lifestyle of the people of Wessex serves only to heighten the intensity of the emotion and highlight the political elements of Hardy’s writing. In a time when women were still decades from achieving the vote Hardy consistently portrays strong heroines in control of their destinies as much as the men around them, from Far From’s Bathsheeba to Paula Power in A Laodicean to the eponymous Tess of the D’Urbervilles. He doesn’t shy away from subjects such as rape, murder, divorce, suicide, bankruptcy, even, famously, wife-selling.
If there is a criticism of Hardy that is fair and sticks it is that his output was uneven, and most reviewers over time have fallen into the practice of classing some novels as lesser Hardy’s, but even amongst these neglected works there is much to admire. Two on a Tower is as great a love story as Hardy ever told, especially with its unconventional older woman-younger man dynamic, whilst A Laodicean is a modern thriller worthy of Wilkie Collins and The Well-Beloved a haunting tale of man’s pursuit of individual fulfillment, a rather 20th century theme.
Of course part of the attraction of Hardy is undoubtedly the setting, who can forget the extraordinary descriptive opening chapter of The Return of the Native – a love letter to the heath of Hardy’s childhood. In Wessex Hardy was describing an England already lost to his urban late Victorian audience, a pastoral idyll and way of life that had existed for centuries now a vanished idea to a 21st century reader. Anyone who has read the recollections of one of England’s last shepherds, Mont Abbott, in Lifting the Latch can understand the cruelty and beauty of Hardy’s Wessex world was all too common in agrarian life. If the 21st century reader is engaging in escapist fantasy by delving into the land of Casterbridge and Christminster they also recognise the continuity of the human condition Hardy presents them with.
If I had to pick a favourite Hardy it would be The Mayor of Casterbridge, an epic tale of the fallbility of man, but Hardy’s own personal favourite, The Woodlanders, would run it a close second.