Finding yourself in a Thomas Hardy novel

I can almost feel tear drops forming ready to splash down on my keyboard as I contemplate the content of this blog.

Every year our Book Group aims to cover one classic. Last year Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf gave some of our ‘clubbers’ absolute grief to read but all (well most…) agreed it was worth the effort in the end.

This year’s classic has not been named as yet, but Thomas Hardy (you will find much loved Folio Society editions of his books on my bookshelf) remains one of my favorite authors of all time.

Sigh.

You might ask why I love his work so much when it is viewed by most who encounter this prose as being intensely pessimistic?

Hardy, who really considered himself as a poet at heart, wrote about and explored tragic characters who were struggling against their passions and social circumstances.

While I strongly believe I’m an optimist who can find beauty in the minutiae of life, the human condition with all the complexities and idiosyncrasies that Hardy captures in his novels really does resonate with me.

Hardy says ‘The business of the novelist is to show the sorriness underlying the grandest things, and the grandeur underlying the sorriest things’ and this he does with stunning skill.

I have read most of Hardy’s novels at least twice. The first read takes you (or it did me) on that spiral trajectory down to a place of sublime sadness and despair about the world he has chosen to depict.

The second reading has me repeating ‘if only…’ as you encounter each crossroad in the journey of the characters. You already know and feel the pain of each choice made and its consequence. It makes me want to jump through the pages of the book, grab the poor soul about to make the indifferent choice and heed them a warning, ‘don’t do it, don’t do it!’

Fortunately though, for all of his pessimism and his revealing of how flawed humanity is, Hardy writes beautiful prose.

Look, for example, how Hardy writes about his protagonist, Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge:

His measured, springless walk was the walk of the skilled countryman as distinct from the desultory shamble of the general laborer; while in the turn and plant of each foot there was, further, a dogged and cynical indifference personal to himself, showing its presence even in the regularly interchanging fustian folds, now in the left leg, now in the right, as he paced along.

Who’d have thought that you could gain so much insight to a character just from the way his gait is described!

And another example, this time from Hardy’s tale about Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd:

The maltster, after having lain down in his clothes for a few hours, was now sitting beside a three-legged table, breakfasting off bread and bacon. This was eaten on the plateless system, which is performed by placing a slice of bread upon the table, the meat flat upon the bread, a mustard plaster upon the meat, and a pinch of salt upon the whole, then cutting them vertically downwards with a large pocket-knife till wood is reached, when the severed lump is impaled on the knife, elevated, and sent the proper way of food.

Oh, okay, one more–this time from Jude the Obscure:

There was a quiver in his lip now and after opening the well-cover to begin lowering the bucket he paused and leant with his forehead and arms against the framework, his face wearing the fixity of a thoughtful child’s who has felt the pricks of life somewhat before his time.

Powerful prose!

No discussion about Hardy would be complete without reference to his most tragic heroine, Tess of the d’Urbervilles. In this devastating depiction of seduction, love, betrayal, and murder the human condition is laid bare and this is where the tears become BIG, gulping, SOBS!

At the denouement of this harrowing tale Tess asserts:

‘It is as it should be’, she murmured. ‘Angel, I am almost glad–yes, glad! This happiness could not have lasted. It was too much. I have had enough; and now I shall not live for you to despise me!’

She stood up, shook herself, and went forward, neither of the men having moved.

“I am ready’, she said quietly.

Tess, oh Tess, oh Tess, what a morbid sense of resignation.

John Durbeyfield’s epiphany (his suggested family lineage), experienced in the first few pages of this book seemed to set Tess’s fate in motion and lead to her ultimate destruction.

Evil has been the winner, or not?

This is where you can decide if you have found yourself in a Thomas Hardy novel.

Has Hardy passed a non-redemptive sentence on the world by writing of Tess’s demise?

I think not. Hardy has, with subtlety, shown a glimmer of hope:

One of the pair was Angel Clare, the other a tall budding creature–half girl, half woman–a spiritualised image of Tess, slighter than she, but with the same beautiful eyes–Clare’s sister-in-law, ‘Liza-Lu’.

As soon as they had strength they arose, joined hands again, and went on.

Cry, sob and feel Tess’s pain, but only for a scant moment, then perk up and look to the future and all that it promises.

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