Hardy’s literary reputation – his fame and fortune – was based entirely upon his appeal as a novelist. Widespread public acclaim came with his fourth novel Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) – sufficient to allow him to abandon his architectural career in favour of the less certain path of a writer of imaginative fiction. Over the ensuing twenty years he published a further ten novels, variably received at the time. However in his final five novels – a sequence beginning with The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) – he found his mature voice, producing fiction which upset Mrs Grundy and in one case (Jude) was burnt by a bishop but which ensured his place in the premier league of English novelists. Hardy’s professed desire
was to be a poet – and how frequently does the poet’s eye surface within his fiction – stating with typical (and ironic) modesty that he wished no more than to be considered ‘a good hand at a serial’. In accordance of with the habit of the time, his novels first appeared in monthly instalments in magazines before being published in three volume form.
This section contains a description and critical appreciation of each of Hardy’s novels – written by Professor Michael Irwin, distinguished Hardy Scholar and former Chairman of the Thomas Hardy Society.
The complete text of each Hardy novel is available via a link in the Resources section.
Tess of the d'Urbervilles
Tess of the d’Urbervilles first appeared in serialised form in the weekly magazine the Graphic, in the second half of 1891. It was published as a three-volume novel at the end of that year.
It tells the story of Tess Durbeyfield, at sixteen the eldest of several children of a poor family in the village of Marlott. After her feckless father has learnt, by chance, that he is a descendant of the ancient and once powerful d’Urberville line, Tess is persuaded to visit a wealthy old woman of that name, to claim kinship, and thereby perhaps to profit, directly or indirectly.
As it happens the woman is not a genuine d’Urberville: her deceased husband, a successful business-man, adopted the name at random to imply distinguished lineage. Her son Alec, a dissolute young dandy, is attracted to Tess and persuades Mrs d’Urberville to employ her in a humble capacity. The young girl repeatedly rejects his advances, but after some months a situation arises in which he is able to take advantage of her. Having submitted she confusedly assents to being his lover for some little time before leaving him in disgust and returning home.
She gives birth to his child; but the baby soon dies, leaving her crushed by grief and shame. Eventually she rallies, and travels to Talbothays, a dairy-farm, to take up work as a milk-maid, and begin a new life. There she meets Angel Clare, the son of a devout evangelical clergyman. Angel, having lost his religious faith, is gaining experience of agriculture with a view to becoming a farmer. Seeking new values he finds himself increasingly beguiled by the beauties of nature and by what he sees as the innocence and simplicity of country life. He falls in love with Tess partly or largely because she seems the epitome of such qualities. She is dazzled by him, but resists his advances, feeling that her ‘lapse’ with Alec makes her unworthy of him.
Her whole future course of life is determined by the conduct and the competing claims of these two suitors…
As originally submitted the novel was turned down by several editors. It was accepted by the Graphic after Hardy had cut or modified certain episodes that he realised had been felt to be too ‘shocking’ for a popular audience. Some of the material omitted he then published elsewhere ‘as episodic adventures of anonymous personages’. He reassembled the novel as he had first conceived it only when it was published in book form.
The critical response was in general very favourable: there was widespread recognition that Tess was an exceptional achievement. Commercially speaking, too, it proved to be Hardy’s most successful work to date. He was hurt and offended, however, perhaps disproportionately, by one or two reviewers who claimed that the novel was ‘disagreeable’ or immoral. When Jude the Obscure (1895) met with still greater hostility Hardy abandoned fiction and devoted himself to the writing of poetry.
Tessis now generally held to be one of the greatest – perhaps the greatest – of Hardy’s novels. It has been translated into numerous languages, and adapted for both the theatre and the operatic stage. The universality of its appeal was demonstrated in the popular 1979 film version, shot largely in Normandy and Brittany, directed by a Pole, Roman Polanski, and featuring the German actress Natassja Kinski in the title role.
Curiously it is a novel thathas somewhat changed in aspect since it first appeared. It could be, and often has been, approached as belonging to the tradition of social realism. Many another author of the of the period had been concerned with the fate of ‘the fallen woman’. Moreover the scenic descriptions, the strong sense of topography, and the detailed accounts of rural life and work all seemed to locate the story in the real world. But the novel has been increasingly recognised as in fact boldly experimental, even proto-modernist, its apparent realism repeatedly modified by stylisation and metaphor. For example the characterisation is often diagrammatic rather than three-dimensional. As in Jude the Obscure Hardy is writing of ‘a deadly war waged between flesh and spirit’; accordingly Alec d’Urberville, with his moustache and cigar, is a stereotype of the predatory dandy, whereas Angel, as his name suggests, is ‘more spiritual than animal’.
The numerous passages of physical description are frequently charged with metaphor. The death of Prince, the horse, prefigures the effectual ravishment of Tess; the fine weather at Talbothays and the harsh conditions at Flintcomb-Ash are expressionistic accounts of her state of mind. Throughout the novel narrative, in such ways, is enriched by suggestion. In Tess of the d’Urbervilles Hardy is simultaneously novelist and poet: to fully appreciate the work the reader must respond at both levels.
As a young man, working in an architect’s off ice, Hardy aspired to be a poet. Only his failure to get any of his verses published induced him to try his hand at fiction. A first attempt, The Poor Man and the Lady, later described by the author as a ‘socialistic novel’, was also rejected several times, but was acknowledged by those who had read it to be a work of considerable promise. Encouraged, Hardy tried again. Desperate Remedies was published in 1871, though virtually at the author’s own expense.
George Meredith, who had read The Poor Man and the Lady for Chapman & Hall, had advised him to write something less contentious and more strongly plotted. Accordingly Hardy set out to produce a ‘sensation novel’ with a strong mystery element, very much in the vein of Wilkie Collins. It’s impossible to summarise the complicated plot without giving away information that would spoil the enjoyment of the new reader, but it involves concealed identity, unexpected and macabre deaths, cross-country chases and suspected murder.
As a thrillerDesperate Remedies still offers excellent value, even if the machinery of the plot creaks at times. But for all his eagerness to achieve publication Hardy was certainly not content merely to provide an entertainment. Contemporary readers looking for an exciting yarn might well have been put off by the many allusions to Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley and other poets. The extravagant story is made to incorporate a wide variety of ambitious material. He absorbed into his text, in prose form, several of his own as yet unpublished poems. Many of his episodes and descriptions are sufficiently striking in their own right to have graced any of the later Wessex novels. Students of Hardy will see everywhere anticipations of the later work, in terms of style, ideas and technical experiment. For a first novel it is an extraordinarily bold, yeasty, wide-ranging work. To read it is to be at once disabused of the idea that the author started his career as a naïve writer of pastoral. He was already questioning a whole variety of accepted fictional conventions and striking out in new directions of his own devising.
In his autobiography Hardy is dismissive of Desperate Remedies, referring to ‘the powerfully, not to say wildly, melodramatic situations…concocted in a style which was quite against his natural grain…’ It is an odd self-criticism, given that that his later novels were to deal lavishly in just such situations. There is a fairer assessment in his Prefatory Note to the 1889 edition: ‘The following story, the first published by the author, was written nineteen years ago, at a time when he was feeling his way to a method.’ The comparative unseriousness of his plot gave Hardy considerable freedom to experiment. There can be little doubt that he learnt a lot from the writing of Desperate Remedies.
Under the Greenwood Tree
Hardy wrote Under the Greenwood Tree, his second novel to be published, in the summer of 1871, and sent it to Macmillan’s. He took their response to be a rejection – though he later learned that he had misinterpreted it – and accordingly put the story aside. Having previously lost money on his first novel, Desperate Remedies, he was by now sufficiently discouraged to think that he should concentrate on his career as an architect and give up the writing of fiction altogether. However, a chance meeting with his previous publisher, William Tinsley, in the spring of 1872, led him to dig out the discarded manuscript. Tinsley published the story in the May of that year.
It is the shortest of all the Wessex novels, the plot consisting of two slender strands. One concerns the ousting of the Mellstock quire, or church band, in favour of an organist; the other involves the ups and downs of the courtship between Dick Dewy, the son of a ‘tranter’ (or carrier) - both father and son being members of that quire - and Fancy Day, the new village school-teacher, who is the organist in question. The lack of action is implicit in Hardy’s sub-title : ‘A Rural Painting of the Dutch School’: his book is rather rustic idyll than vigorous narrative. The adjective ‘Dutch’ implies the affectionate and knowledgeable realism of Ruysdael or Hobbema, as opposed to pastoral idealisation on the one hand or bucolic grotesquerie on the other. Such ‘story’ as there is serves as an armature for a sketch of village life as it had been in the eighteen-thirties, when Hardy’s father, himself a fiddle-player in the kind of quire described, was a young man. The narrative is divided into five sections, of which the last is a postscript, the first four being named for the seasons, running from winter through to autumn. There is scope for vivid descriptions of scenery, weather and village life, as also for leisurely, humorous dialect conversations with a Shakespearean flavour. This is the most cheerful and unproblematic of all Hardy’s novels.
On publication Under the Greenwood Tree received, in Hardy’s own words, ‘a very kindly and gentle reception’. The subsequent response to the work has in general been similarly appreciative. No doubt because of its calculated simplicity, however, the work has attracted comparatively little critical attention, even though it displays an agreeable humour and contains some striking passages of description. For readers new to Hardy it provides the ideal introduction.
A Pair of Blue Eyes
A Pair of Blue Eyes was the third of Hardy’s novels to be published and the first to be serialised, running in Tinsleys’ Magazine from the September of 1872 until the July of the following year. It appeared in three-volume form in May 1873, a year after the publication of Under the Greenwood Tree.
It is essentially a love-story. Elfride Swancourt, the blue-eyed heroine, lives with her widowed father, a clergyman, in a remote Cornish village. She is wooed successively by Stephen Smith, a young architect of humble birth, and Henry Knight, a successful man of letters, once a mentor to Stephen. In appearance, character and situation Elfride obviously has much in common with the young Emma Gifford, who was to become Hardy’s wife. The circumstances in which she and Smith meet recapitulate pretty exactly Emma’s first encounter with her future husband, when he came to Cornwall in March, 1870, on a church restoration project. In his Life, however, Hardy plays down the correspondences between himself and Smith, claiming that at the relevant time he had been closer in age and character to Knight.
The autobiographical element is in any case of limited interest. A Pair of Blue Eyes is chiefly significant as an experimental work of remarkable boldness and originality. In his Preface of 1895 Hardy was at pains to emphasise the importance of his setting, a remote corner of western England ‘where the wild and tragic features of the coast had long combined in perfect harmony with the crude Gothic art of the ecclesiastical buildings scattered along it’. The emotions of the lovers he is concerned with are ‘not without correspondence with these material circumstances’. He goes on to further description of this ‘region of dream and mystery’: ‘The ghostly birds, the pall-like sea, the frothy wind, the eternal soliloquy of the waters, the bloom of dark purple cast that seems to exhale from the shoreward precipices, in themselves lend to the scene an atmosphere like the twilight of a night vision.’
‘Vision’ is the key word here: A Pair of Blue Eyes is far larger than life. What might have been a realistic account of rivalry in love is translated into a series of extravagant episodes - rendered the stranger by effects of weather, light and landscape - which are made metaphorically expressive of the passions of the protagonists. Some of the happenings and descriptions are closer in spirit to grand opera than to most Victorian fiction in being hyperbolically proportioned to the intensity of the emotions of the characters concerned. In the dizzying central episode, the turning-point of the narrative, where Knight is clinging to a cliff-face in danger of plunging to his death, Hardy is working in multiple dimensions of space and time evoking, as background to the immediate melodramatic situation, a Darwinian vision of past millennia. The result is a scene at once recklessly ambitious yet immediately exhilarating to read.
By way of counterpoint the structure of the novel is artificial, even diagrammatic. Smith and Knight are the two central suitors in a series of four whom Elfride encounters in ascending social order. The contrasting courtships are cross-linked by coincidence, by patterning and by parallels of various kinds, so that the narrative as a whole becomes a dramatized meditation on the author’s favourite theme: the nature and the workings of romantic love.
A Pair of Blue Eyes is essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in Hardy. Not only is it a striking work in its own right: it instantly disposes of any lingering notion that the author was an unsophisticated traditionalist. To read it with understanding is to gain fresh insights into the way in which his apparently more orthodox novels should be read.
Hardy himself retained a fondness for this early work, partly for its personal associations. The poet Coventry Patmore wrote to the author praising its ‘unequalled beauty and power’ while expressing regret that it had not been written as verse. It was Tennyson’s favourite Hardy novel, and was also particularly admired by Marcel Proust.
Far from the Madding Crowd
Far from the Madding Crowd was published as a monthly serial in Cornhill Magazine, in 1874, before coming out in book form in the November of that same year.
The novel conveys a vivid sense of a vanishing tradition of country life and work. The heroine, Bathsheba Everdene, has at an early age to take charge of a farm inherited from an uncle. Being forceful and independent she makes a success of her new role, despite her inexperience. She is soon to be distracted, however, by the attentions of three contrasting suitors. Gabriel Oak had earlier proposed to her and been refused, when he was a rising sheep-farmer. Having lost his entire flock through accident he has by chance come to work for her as a shepherd. He proves a steady and devoted admirer. Boldwood, a wealthy middle-aged farmer, finds himself obsessed with Bathsheba after she has sent him a valentine card on a mischievous whim. Last on the scene comes Sergeant Troy, a dashing soldier and a carefree lady-killer. In broad outline each of the resulting relationships has the simplicity of a folk-ballad; but as in virtually all his fiction Hardy is concerned with minute shifts and surges and idiosyncrasies in the psychology of love.
Fare from the Madding Crowd should be read in the World’s Classics edition, because it restores a number of interesting passages which were deleted from the Cornhill version at the suggestion of Leslie Stephen.
The work marked a turning-point in Hardy’s literary career. His previous novels, Desperate Remedies, Under the Greenwood Tree and A Pair of Blue Eyes, had attracted some admiring attention, but he was still by no means established as an author. It was a great step forward for him to be invited to contribute to the distinguished Cornhill Magazine, edited by Leslie Stephen. Far from the Madding Crowd won him a wider readership, and was well received by the critics. For the first time he found his work fashionable. His improving financial situation enabled him to marry Emma Gifford, in the September of 1874, and to give up his architectural career to concentrate on making a living as a writer. Arguably, however, the novel did him one disservice in that it misleadingly tended to identify him as a naive writer of pastoral stories. A Pair of Blue Eyes should have shown conclusively that he was in fact already a sophisticated experimentalist. As he observes in the Life ‘he had not the slightest intention of writing for ever about sheepfarming, as the reading public was apparently expecting him to do…’
It was in Far from the Madding Crowd that Hardy first used ‘Wessex’ as a name for the area in which his story was set. Later he was to develop the idea and adapt all his novels to it, tantalising his readers with an approximate match between fictitious towns, areas and monuments and their real-life counterparts. The concept, to be expressed in the ambiguous map prefixed to all his novels, was well suited to the creation of what he called ‘a partly real, partly dream-country’. It accommodated the ‘reality’ of his scrupulously authentic record of topography, old customs and agricultural practices, while allowing him to experiment with melodrama and scenes that were metaphorically expressive.Far from the Madding Crowd has remained one of Hardy’s most popular novels. A variety of adaptations have helped to keep the work in the public eye. It has been made into both a play and an opera. John Schlesinger directed a strongly-cast filmed version, in 1967. Posy Simmonds borrowed from Hardy’s story when shaping her graphic novel Tamara Drewe, which was then filmed in its own right. In 1998 there was a notable TV serialisation.
The Hand of Ethelberta
Following the success of Far from the Madding Crowd Hardy was invited to provide another serial for the Cornhill Magazine. Unwilling to be typecast as a writer of pastoral fiction he submitted, in his own words, ‘the beginning of a tale called The Hand of Ethelberta – A Comedy in Chapters which had nothing whatever in common with anything he had written before’. The serialisation began in July, 1875, and the novel was published in two-volume form in April, 1876.
It was an audacious work in several ways. Ethelberta Petherwin, the heroine, is the dominant figure in the narrative: beautiful, enterprising and outspoken, she becomes a social celebrity through her poetry and her performances as an oral story-teller. Her several wealthy admirers do not guess that her father is a butler and that various of her siblings are servants and labourers. She resourcefully assumes responsibility for the entire family, at one point in effect employing a number of them as domestic staff in her London home. The plot of the novel, as so often in Hardy, is eventually shaped by the heroine’s need to choose between competing suitors.
The central situation provides occasion for a good deal of subversive social comment, culminating in the irony of Ethelberta’s lower-class family desperately trying to prevent what they regard as her unsuitable marriage to a lord. Yet the novel is hardly situated in the real world. As Hardy himself later acknowledged in a Preface: ‘A high degree of probability was not attempted in the arrangement of the incidents, and there was expected of the reader a certain lightness of mood,..’. In fact the story is fantastical, and the narrative mode recurrently harks back to the stylised stage comedies of Congreve or Sheridan. Some of the characters actually have names derived from the theatre of manners – Menlove, Ladywell, Tipman, Neigh. Many a conversation is shaped into a exchange of epigrams. Hardy’s mixed medium is only intermittently successful: there is undoubtedly a tension between the sardonic social commentary and the brittle contrivances of the story-telling and some portions of the dialogue. Later, however, in such plays as Pygmalion and Mrs Warren’s Profession, Bernard Shaw was to produce striking social parables in very much this artificial vein. Hardy, perhaps not unreasonably, came to think that The Hand of Ethelberta ‘appeared thirty-five years too soon’.
The limitations of the work, however, have less to do with the problems posed by the mixture of modes than with uncertainties of pace and direction. Hardy has difficulty in holding his multifarious story together. The action can be haphazard: various narrative leads simply expire. Seemingly significant characters disappear for long stretches, or are left with nothing much to do. Others are hustled to and fro apparently at random. Particularly towards the end there is an effect of pure muddle: Hardy seems to be desperately improvising plot developments that will bulk out his novel to the required length and take it over some sort of finishing line.
Altogether The Hand of Ethelberta is an oddity - an intriguing and feisty experiment only intermittently in tune with the author’s talents.
The Return of the Native
The Return of the Native, which Hardy wrote with serial publication in mind, was turned down by both the Cornhill Magazine (which had published his two previous novels) and by Blackwood’s. Eventually accepted by the less distinguished Belgravia it appeared in monthly instalments between January and December 1878. It was published as a three-volume novel in the November of that same year.
Once again Hardy showed his willingness to experiment. His opening chapter is entirely devoted to a meditation on the strange bleakness of Egdon Heath, where the story is to unfold. The eight chapters that immediately follow are essentially set outdoors and at night. The effect is to establish as primary to the novel the dark, brooding environment in which the action takes place. There can be no agricultural work and very little in the way of social context on this desolate terrain of heath and furze. The main characters live in virtual isolation in their widely separated dwellings. Repeatedly they are depicted as solitaries in a sombre landscape.
It is in keeping with this narrative austerity that the notional hero of the novel does not put in appearance till a quarter of the way into the story. The returning native of the title is Clym Yeobright, who gives up well-paid but meretricious employment in Paris in the hope of finding ‘some rational occupation’, probably as a teacher, in the place where he grew up. As he sets about re-immersing himself in the subdued life of Egdon he attracts the love of a passionate local girl, Eustacia Vye. She is excited from the moment she hears of his arrival - ironically because he has come from an exotic place to which she longs to escape from what she feels to be the stifling oppressiveness of the Heath. Central to the story are the fatal misunderstandings, frustrations and disappointments to which this unlucky mismatch gives rise.
Even more than most of Hardy’s novels The Return of the Native is intensely episodic. It returns to the memory less as a developing story than as a sequence of vignettes, many of them nocturnal: the flaring bonfire of the opening chapters, Eustacia peering through the darkness with the aid of a telescope, Venn and Wildeve gambling by the light of glow-worms, Mrs. Yeobright’s walk across the Heath, Wildeve and Eustacia dancing under the moon. The often implausible plot is manipulated to enable such intensities, leaving the narrative connections between them sometimes strained or perfunctory. Despite this waywardness, and perhaps because of it, The Return of the Native contains some of the most powerful scenes in all Hardy’s fiction.
The Trumpet-Major appeared in monthly instalments in the magazine Good Words, running from January to December 1880. In October 1880 it was published by Smith, Elder & Co. in three-volume form.
Hardy was yet again experimenting: this was his first and only historical novel. The subject-matter had long appealed to his imagination. In the Life he describes how, at the age of eight, he found a copy of A History of the Wars, a periodical dating from Napoleonic times: ‘The torn pages of these contemporary numbers with their melodramatic prints of serried ranks, crossed bayonets, huge knapsacks, and dead bodies, were the first to set him on the train of ideas that led to The Trumpet-Major and The Dynasts.’ Clearly the events concerned remained of particular interest to Hardy throughout his life. Several times, on Waterloo day, he visited the Chelsea Hospital to talk to survivors from the war. He remarks in his Preface to The Dynasts on the influence of ‘three accidents of locality’:
It chanced that the writer was familiar with a part of England that lay within hail of the watering-place in which King George the Third had his favourite summer residence during the war with the first Napoléon… Secondly, this district, being also near the coast which had echoed with rumours of invasion in their intensest form while the descent threatened, was formerly animated by memories and traditions of the desperate military preparations for that contingency. Thirdly, the same countryside happened to include the village which was the birthplace of Nelson’s flag-captain at Trafalgar.
The plot of The Trumpet-Major, as often in Hardy, is in essence a simple one, the stuff of a folk-song. Anne Garland, the heroine, is wooed by two brothers, a soldier and a sailor. But since John Loveday – the Trumpet-Major of the title – is eventually to fight against Napoleon in Spain, while Bob Loveday is to take part in the battle of Trafalgar, Hardy has ample scope to meditate on the momentous doings of the period, as viewed from the Wessex coast. The soldiers are seen parading on the downs, and Anne, on Portland Bill, is able to watch the departure of the Victory.
The opening words of the novel are carefully chosen: ‘In the days of high-waisted and muslin-gowned women…’ It is to be, among other things, a costume-drama, an exercise in nostalgia, picturesque and full of colour. Perhaps for that very reason The Trumpet-Major has tended to be critically underrated. It seems to have a lot in common with certain light works of romantic historical fiction, and has therefore often been mistaken for one. But there is a good deal more to the novel than that: its complexity resides not so much in the story as in the telling. Hardy’s chief interest is in the processes of time and the workings of memory. He is looking back to the early years of the nineteenth century, but many of the descriptions he provides hark back to yet earlier times. Each layer of recollection is seen to be superimposed on another. There is an account of a chest contained moth-riddled costumes from a previous century. At Oxwell Hall, a decaying mansion, ‘The iron stanchions inside the windowpanes were eaten away to the size of wires…’ In Miller Loveday’s courtyard ‘were two worn-out mill-stones, made useful again by being let in level with the ground.’ Numerous of the objects and scenes concerned have a life – a past life – of their own, of a kind to have offered Hardy the material for a poem. Revealingly he makes a most uncharacteristic appearance in his own novel, when describing a social gathering at Overcombe Mill:
The present writer, to whom this party has been described times out of number by members of the Loveday family and other aged people now passed away, can never enter the old living-room of Overcombe Mill without beholding the genial scene through the mists of the seventy or eighty years that intervene between then and now.
The affection and the sense of personal engagement are in evidence throughout the novel, giving it a distinctive quality. The characters, though engaging enough, are little more than stereotypes, and the story rather loses direction towards the end, but these limitations were perhaps a price that Hardy was willing to pay in the interest of producing a work of an unusual kind, a meditation on the ways in which the past is preserved and transformed in our recollections of it.
By the October of 1880 Hardy was at work on a new serial for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, to be entitled A Laodicean. With several chapters written and the first instalment already printed he found himself ‘very unwell’. Doctors diagnosed ‘internal bleeding’, and told him that he would have to remain in bed for a considerable period if he was to avoid a serious operation. For the first few weeks he had ‘to lie on an inclined plane with the lower part of his body higher than his head’. From this ‘awkward position’ he stoically set out to dictate the rest of the novel to his wife – who was also his nurse. The limitations of the work, some of which are mentioned below, can surely be attributed largely to the wretched circumstances of composition. Hardy was not able to leave the house on foot until the following May, by which time the novel had been completed in draft form. It was serialised in Harper’s in thirteen instalments, running from December 1880 to December 1881. Sampson Low published a three-volume edition in December 1881.
The title of the novel, hardly self-explanatory to the twenty-first century reader, derives from Revelation 3, where the Laodiceans are denounced as being ‘lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot’. Hardy’s heroine, Paula Power, is describable in these terms for several reasons. Early in the novel she is seen turning back, at the last moment, from baptism by immersion – and this in the chapel which her late father, ‘a staunch Baptist’, had provided for his local village. He had made his fortune as a railway contractor, and purchased the ancient castle in which Paula now lives. She is caught between the old world, represented by her home, and the new, as typified by her father’s occupation and her very surname. Her ambivalence is further displayed when she hesitates between two suitors, George Somerset, a rising young architect, and Captain De Stancy, a descendant of the family that once owned her castle.
Theme and situation are promisingly Hardyesque, and precipitate some strong early encounters in the author’s liveliest vein. Gradually, however, the narrative is left becalmed for want of innate momentum. Hardy has repeatedly to prod it back into temporary motion by novelettish contrivances. Much of the second half of the story is taken up by inconsequential wanderings around Europe. Loose ends and improbabilities abound. Paula dwindles from a potentially interesting ‘modern woman’ to a mere coquette. The unfortunate Somerset, reduced from hero to victim, has nothing much to do. The reader is left with the feeling that Hardy, ill as he was, must have been relieved simply to get the novel somehow completed on time, and to the length required by the periodical.
Two on a Tower
Two on a Tower was first seen as a serial, in eight monthly instalments, in the magazine Atlantic Monthly. It ran from the May to the December of 1882. Sampson Low published the novel in three-volume form in the October of the same year.
As had earlier been suggested by the nocturnal description in the second chapter of Far from the Madding Crowd, Hardy had a keen interest in astronomy. Stars feature in every one of his novels and many of his poems. The purpose behind Two on a Tower is set out unambiguously in his 1895 Preface to the work:
This slightly-built romance was the outcome of a wish to set the emotional history of two infinitesimal lives against the stupendous background of the stellar universe, and to impart to readers the sentiment that of these contrasting magnitudes the smaller might be the greater to them as men.
The ‘romance’ concerned involves Lady Viviette Constantine, wife of a wealthy land-owner, and the young astronomer, Swithin St. Cleeve, some ten years her junior, who has been using a tower on her land as an observatory. Viviette, enduring a secluded life while her husband is away in Africa, feels drawn to Swithin and helps him financially with his research. When eventually the two fall in love their relationship is to be alternately constrained, encouraged and re-defined by shifting circumstances.
Early admirers of Hardy who read the first couple of instalments of the serial could well have thought that they were embarking on a masterpiece. The subject was strikingly original, and offered the author an even vaster context than the one he had exploited with such power in The Return of the Native. There were some wonderful accounts of ‘the stars and their interspaces’, and the central romantic situation promised interesting developments. Unfortunately the quality of those opening chapters was not to be fulfilled. Since the night sky, unlike Egdon Heath, could not bear directly upon the action, the astronomical descriptions had gradually to be abandoned in the interests of the story while unfortunately the story itself subsided into confusion. Hardy’s own adjective, ‘slightly-built’ is revealing in this context, perhaps fatally so. After the ambitious start the narrative is carried forward by random short-term crises and melodramatic contrivances of the kind nowadays commonplace in soap opera. The effect is to diminish the novel to a novelette and the lovers from potentially interesting characters to hapless victims.
Hardy’s intended theme is correspondingly undermined. Against ‘the stupendous background of the stellar universe’ is set, not an ‘emotional history’ that might have held its own in terms of perceived magnitude, but a flimsy assemblage of chances, mishaps and coincidences. What might have been a great novella becomes a sadly anti-climactic novel.
The Mayor of Casterbridge
In the June of 1883 Thomas Hardy and his wife, who since their marriage had lived at a variety of addresses in London and Dorset, moved to Dorchester, where they were to remain. Returned to his native town Hardy began work, appropriately enough, on The Mayor of Casterbridge, finishing it in the April of 1885. It came out in weekly instalments in the Graphic, from January to May 1886. Smith, Elder & Co. issued the work in two volumes in May 1886.
It is distinctive in two technical respects, each of which conduces to clarity of focus. As Hardy remarks in his 1895 Preface: ‘The story is more particularly a study of one man’s deeds and character than, perhaps, any other of those included in my Exhibition of Wessex Life.’ His sub-title makes the point explicitly: ‘A story of a Man of Character’. Michael Henchard, the hero of the novel is, for all his faults, energetic, decisive and whole-hearted, ready to take responsibility for his actions and shape his own fate. As the most forceful individual in any of Hardy’s novels he comes closest to the traditional status of ‘tragic hero’.
Also exceptional is the extent to which the action of the novel is confined within a single vividly evoked location - which becomes in effect an arena: the town of Casterbridge, Hardy’s fictionalised Dorchester. With the right guidance it is still possible to trace many of the streets, buildings and landmarks which feature in the novel and help to shape the action.
Both these factors conduced to unity. So also does the tautness of structure. Each of the four main characters – Henchard, Farfrae, Elizabeth-Jane and Lucetta, - is circumstantially and emotionally linked to each of the other three. A shift in any one of these relationships has implications for the others.
Altogether, then, The Mayor of Casterbridge is the most tightly-knit of all the Wessex novels. The author’s comment on it in the Life is therefore surprising:
It was a story which Hardy fancied he had damaged more recklessly as an artistic whole, in the interest of the newspaper in which it appeared serially, than perhaps any other of his novels, his aiming to get an incident into almost every week’s part causing him in his own judgement to add events to the narrative somewhat too freely.
There are plenty of ‘incidents’, but in most cases they are generated more plausibly from the evolving central situation than is usual in Hardy’s fiction. The author himself goes on to admit that the novel is ‘quite coherent and organic’.
The relative topographical confinement of the setting does not deny Hardy the larger perspective that he so often seeks. Here it is supplied by time:
Casterbridge announced old Rome in every street, alley, and precinct. It looked Roman, bespoke the art of Rome, concealed dead men of Rome. It was impossible to dig more than a foot or two deep about the town fields and gardens without coming upon some tall soldier or other of the Empire…
The reader is recurrently reminded that the story being told is but one among thousands that have been enacted over the centuries on this same plot of land. Casterbridge, as Hardy depicts it, is on the cusp of change: Soon agriculture will be mechanised, and traditional practices will give way to new methods; soon the Corn Laws will be passed and the market will change. The town is subject to endless evolution.
According to the Life Hardy had the idea for ‘a woodland story’ as early as 1875. Not for another ten years, however, was this conception developed into a novel. He completed The Woodlanders in February 1887. It was serialised in monthly instalments in Macmillan’s Magazine, running from May 1886 to April 1887. Macmillan published a three-volume version in March 1887.
Once again Hardy created a striking and defining context: his characters live, and in many cases work, in a remote area of woodland, centred on Little Hintock. Their lives and their various struggles are tacitly inter-connected with those of the trees in whose shadow they pass their days. In The Return of the Native Clym Yeobright is troubled by the ‘oppressive horizontality’ of the landscape. In The Woodlanders it is as though ‘oppressive verticality’ can have a comparable effect. The relationship between man and trees is a recurrent theme in Hardy’s work: variations on it appear in such poems as ‘The Ivy-Wife’, ‘Logs on the Hearth’ and ‘In a Wood’. In his Preface, however, the author chooses to put the emphasis on ‘matrimonial divergence, the immortal puzzle – given the man and woman, how to find a basis for their sexual relation…’ The lovers he writes of are mismatched and at cross-purposes – not surprisingly, since they are an oddly mixed group. Giles Winterbourne and Marty South are the only true ‘woodlanders’, natives of the region, who actually work with trees. Grace Melbury has grown up in that environment, but has since been to private school and stayed on for a time as a governess. Felice Charmond, a cosmopolitan beauty, lives a solitary life at Hintock House, and Dr. Fitzpiers has quixotically elected to set up a practice in this remote woodland village. Their lives become as entangled and mutually destructive as those of the surrounding plant life, among which ‘the lichen ate the vigour of the stalk, and the ivy slowly strangled to death the promising sapling’.
Hardy’s curious title, The Woodlanders, seems to define his human characters as fellow inhabitants with the trees. The concept provides occasion for some of his most strikingly expressive episodes and vignettes, showing man and nature symbiotically linked. But there is a price paid for these intensities in terms of the degree of realism necessary to sustain his story. Little Hintock is unimaginable as a village: the reader is made aware only of people and trees. On occasion it can seem that Hardy is actually impatient with the requirements of ‘story’ in the conventional sense. There are inconsistencies of time and distance and motivation. Even major characters can disappear from the narrative for long spells without explanation. In short The Woodlanders is a hybrid, part stylised vision, part contemporary novel. Occasional incongruities are inevitable.
The novel met with a mixed reception, but criticism tended to relate to what now seems the minor issue of the author’s failure to punish vice and reward merit as contemporary convention required. Hardy himself thought well of the work: ‘In after years he often said that in some respects The Woodlanders was his best novel.’
The most unlikely ‘woodlander’ is undoubtedly Fitzpiers, doctor and scientist, who quotes Shelley and Spinoza, and claims to know several languages. As an ‘intellectual’ he is a forerunner of Angel Clare, Jude Fawley and Sue Bridehead, characters who deal explicitly in ideas, and are therefore not easily assimilated into Hardy’s well-practised mode of metaphorical suggestion.
Jude the Obscure
The Simpletons or, as it was entitled after the first instalment, Hearts Insurgent, was serialised in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in twelve instalments, running from December 1894 to November 1895. Hardy had been obliged by the editor to bowdlerise his text lest the readership should be offended. He undid most of these enforced alterations for the publication of the work in book form, by Osgood, McIlvaine, in November 1895, under the title Jude the Obscure.
In the Life Hardy identifies the probable ‘germ’ of the novel in a note recorded in April 1888: ‘A short story of a young man – “who could not go to Oxford” – His struggles and ultimate failure. Suicide.’ Jude’s career could be said to match all but the last word of this summary. In his Preface to the novel, however, the author proposes a different, or a further emphasis. He is writing about ‘a deadly war waged between flesh and spirit’. Jude, a self-educated young man from a humble rural background, cannot gain admission to Christminster (the fictionalised Oxford), but he has in any case been temporarily distracted from his educational ambitions by the claims of the flesh, as represented by the sensual Arabella. Later he falls in love with his cousin, Sue Bridehead, educated and daring, a ‘new woman’, but with a sexual instinct, in Hardy’s words ‘unusually weak and fastidious’. The situation, in short, is a mirror-image of that in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, with the man, in this case, caught between contrasting kinds of love. The plot is accordingly, as the author remarked in a letter to a friend ‘almost geometrically constructed’.
Jude differs from most of the Wessex novels in several essential respects: Hardy chooses not to make use of some of his characteristic strengths. So far from there being a presiding context, such as Casterbridge or Egdon Heath, the characters are shown to be constantly on the move. The titles of the various ‘Parts’ make this clear: ‘At Marygreen’, ‘At Christminster’, ‘At Melchester’ and so on. In consequence there is relatively little description of physical background. Nor does work feature: Jude is a stone-mason, but we are told nothing about his training or his professional capabilities.
Jude and his cousin Sue have both been well educated, if by different routes, and both are in general terms emancipated and progressive: Jude observes near the close that ‘our ideas were fifty years too soon to be any good to us’. Hardy’s concern is with the modern consciousness, which he explores partly through direct debate between troubled characters, and partly by bluntly expressionistic episodes and details. Incidental authorial comments make it clear that he shares the pessimism of his main characters. He remarks, as early as the second chapter, that Jude’s tender-heartedness means that he is set to be ‘the sort of man who was born to ache a good deal before the fall of the curtain upon his unnecessary life should signify that all was well with him again’. After this defining observation few readers will expect a happy ending. The interest is to lie in the ways in which the lives of Jude and Sue can go wrong, and the arguments, the protestations and the defeats that their misfortunes are to precipitate.
When it was first published the novel aroused a storm of protest on the grounds of its alleged indecency. The Bishop of Wakefield announced that he had burned his copy. Hardy claimed in his 1812 Preface to the work that this furore ‘completely [cured] me of further interest in novel-writing’.
A filmed version of the novel, directed by Michael Winterbottom, appeared in 1996, starring Christopher Eccleston and Kate Winslet as Jude and Sue.
The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved was serialised in weekly instalments in the Illustrated London News, from October to December 1892. It was not published in book form, however, until January 1897, thus becoming technically the last of Hardy’s novels to appear. He had not only abbreviated the title, but re-written his text substantially, in particular fashioning a radically different ending.
The author rather ponderously observes, in his 1912 Preface, that the story differs from the other Wessex novels ‘in that the interest aimed at is of an ideal or subjective nature, and frankly imaginative, verisimilitude in the sequence of events [being] subordinated to the said aim.’ In other words it is a deliberately stylised work, a poetic parable. There are at least three substantial and interconnected ideas in play. One is quoted in the Life as a note made on February 19th, 1889:
The story of a face which goes through three generations or more, would make a fine novel or poem of the passage of Time. The differences in personality to be ignored. [This idea was to some extent carried out in the novel The Well-Beloved…]
Certainly that work features three generations of the same family, as the hero, Jocelyn Pierston, fall successively in love (at 20, at 40 and at 60) with a mother, her daughter and her grand-daughter. Hardy’s sub-title, however, ‘A Sketch of a Temperament’ seems to put the emphasis on the personality of the hero. In a letter to the poet Swinburne he describes The Well-Beloved as ‘a fanciful exhibition of the artistic nature’ – and Pierston is a sculptor. His art is animated by his persistent pursuit of his elusive ‘well-beloved’: ‘a spirit, a dream, a frenzy, a conception’. Yet the author also suggests in his Preface that Pierston’s quest for an ideal beauty, his ‘delicate dream’, may be ‘in a vaguer form…more or less common to all men, and is by no means new to Platonic philosophers.’ His theme may therefore be – alternatively or alternately – ‘the family face’, the artistic temperament or (as ever) the workings of romantic love. In the poem which bears the same title as the novel the unfortunate visionary is merely a lover, not an artist.
All this may sound forbiddingly abstract, but The Well-Beloved offers an entertaining read, featuring, as it does, some melodramatic episodes and lavish scenic descriptions in the author’s liveliest vein. It is also a salutary corrective to naïve realist readings of Hardy’s fiction in general, displaying in near-skeletal form the boldness of his experimentation. Elsewhere a seemingly straightforward story will from time to time precipitate a powerful metaphorical episode, as when Henchard sees his own effigy floating in the river below him, or John South fancies that his life is threatened by the tree in front of his house. In The Well-Beloved the method is reversed: the explicitly metaphorical story is only intermittently brought to full narrative life.
Hardy was later to note that Marcel Proust seemed to have endorsed and developed ‘the theory exhibited in The Well-Beloved’. He quotes Proust’s claim that when we fall in love it is essentially with a figment of our own invention.