A few months ago I finally got around to reading my first Thomas Hardy novel, Two on a Tower (review here). Although many people will see this as a more unusual choice for a first Hardy Read, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, and was inspired to read more from his back catalogue. Having followed this read with the much more iconic Far From the Maddening Crowd, and again loving his work (review to come soon!), my next novel was The Mayor of Casterbridge.
The Mayor of Casterbridge is not a novel I had heard an awful lot about, excluding perhaps two brief mentions of it on BookTube. After reading the blurb, I discovered that the novel centred upon Michael Henchard, a man who, in a drunken rage at a fair, sells both his wife and his child to the highest bidder. Years later, we find the same man has worked his way along the social ladder, and is now the respected Mayor of Casterbridge. As can be expected, Henchard is unable to escape his past, with his estranged wife and matured daughter returning years later, setting off a chain of quite disastrous consequences.
I am not adding anything new by declaring that Hardy is an excellent writer; this is already a well established fact. As I have already mentioned in a previous review, he often reminds me of Charles Dickens, albeit with a much more naturalistic tone. Hardy is able to master the natural environmental with his carefully selected words, and produces passages of pure beauty. Something I found more unusual in this novel, was the pacing. The novel seemed to jump straight into the plot and action, with not as much initial emphasis on the setting/surrounding countryside, and I felt it did not establish the countryside quite as determinedly as I have previously experienced. That is not to say that this is a bad thing – I think it actually makes this book quite a good place to start for new readers wishing to delve into the world of Hardy. Of course, his descriptive passages do come into play, but I felt they were more prominent after the first initial chapters, allowing the plot to gain momentum at a more efficient pace.
The opening scenes of this novel are very quick to establish our main character, Henchard. Travelling to the fair with his wife, the couple keep a careful distance, the idea of a family unit contrasting greatly with their feeling of separation. Once at the fair, and quickly becoming intoxicated, Henchard states something which helps to quickly establish the groundwork of his intoxicated character, producing a bleak, yet almost comedic, tone. He states, ‘I don’t see why men who have got wives, and don’t want ‘em, shouldn’t get rid of ‘em as these gypsy fellows do their old horses’. ‘Why shouldn’t they put ‘em up and sell ‘em by auction . . .?’(p. 9). Unless you are a fan of misogyny, it is extremely hard to view Henchard in any light other than that of a horrible excuse for a man. This allows Hardy to quickly sway the reader’s perception of Henchard, and provides a certain picture of him which contrasts greatly with his later rise to respectability. As an involved reader, this feeling made me wish for the truth of Henchard’s past misdeeds to be revealed.
The novel does contain numerous shocks and twists of varying degrees. Whilst I found the majority of them quite predictable, with the novel being driven in often obvious directions, they were still enjoyable. In many ways, reading this book felt like running hurdles; I would overcome one twist in the plot, just to come face to face with another revelation of some sort. Looking at it in this light, the novel did come across as feeling much more orchestrated than the previous Hardy novels I have read. The end essay in the edition I read (the gorgeous Penguin English Library – no surprises) by Laurence Lerner, actually justified my own opinions. The essay discusses how the novel appeared serially in a newspaper, and that ‘it is clear Hardy realised the episodic nature of his plot, and was embarrassed about it’ (p. 372). Whilst I do not think that he should have necessarily been embarrassed about it, I did feel the writers presence much more in this novel, and it did not quite have the organic feel of the other two Hardy’s I have read. I would say that whilst these surprises and plot twists do help to sustain the plot of the novel, as a whole I experienced this as much more of a study of human nature, and so was able to overlook Hardy’s orchestrating presence.
Something which I have found in all three of Hardy’s novels so far, and I highly respect him for, is the way he does not shy away from regional accents or colloquialisms. Many of his characters are rural workers, and as such they speak with their own, often rough, vocabulary. Yet Hardy writes them as you would except to more or less hear them, providing a welcoming difference to his more eloquent, and socially superior characters. Christopher Coney, an individual of the working class, at one point explained, ‘we be bruckle folk here’. (p. 58). He elaborates, ‘we don’t think about flowers and fair faces, not we – except in the shape o’ cauliflowers and pigs’ chaps’ (p. 58). Not only did this section make me smile, and think warmly of the humbler, yet self aware workers, it also shows brilliantly the contrasting range of characters Hardy is capable of producing.
Hardy is able to paint for us a vivid picture of not only the main characters, but the lesser ones also within the community. Hardy’s view is not narrowed to characters of more reputable natures, and he does not focus his attention solely upon the central figures. Instead, his view encompasses a wide scope, detailing the less prominent characters, as well as imparting unto them various, often crucial roles within the novel. Mixen lane is the epitome of this. Mixen lane is described as the ‘Adullam of all the surrounding villages. It was the hiding place of those who were in distress, and in debt, and trouble of every kind’. (p. 280). Reading the descriptions of Mixen lane, and the clientele who are forced to live and work there, I was strongly reminded of Jacob’s Island, from Dickens’s Oliver Twist. It is interesting to consider that both the thriving, populated city, and the traditionally quieter rural community, both contain this seedy underbelly of the community. Neither writer avoids the unsightly truth, and their novel are the more richer for it.
Whilst I may not have enjoyed this work as much as the other Hardy novels I have read, I still think it is a well written, and entertaining novel. Although there is a plot, and a fast paced one at that, I felt that the novel’s strengths really lay in the idea of how appearances are perceived. Henchard rises to the prominent position of Mayor, yet underneath his respected exterior he hides his shameful past. Lucetta, a newly made lady through inherited wealth, has more to her past than her immaculate clothes and pretty features reveal. Elizabeth-Jane, daughter of the problematic Henchard, is not at all what she may appear. The novel works to explore the ideas and perhaps stereotypes which human nature grants based on appearances, and by doing so produces a novel which makes you question what can really remain hidden behind closed doors and outwards appearances. As ever, Hardy proves himself to be a well versed writer in the art of human nature.
Publisher: Penguin English Library