Sunday, 28 October 2012

A Wessex Tale - in praise of Thomas Hardy

What is it with the Toms (Beef and Tomato and Tom Waits) over the last few posts, a theme perhaps? I’m not sure? But this post will give a fanfare to one of the greatest of authors, I own (to employ a term oft used in his works). Indeed, he evokes a lost Britain in a most humane way and invites the reader to question their own moral judgements and preconceptions to boot. Of course, I am writing of none other but the great Thomas Hardy now so frightfully unfashionable but I feel due a comeback! 

I am sure many have a passing acquaintance with Hardy’s life - especially if like me you did and English Literature A Level -  a born and bred Dorset man trained as an architect who spent most of his adult life as an author and poet recounting the trials and tribulations of a fictitious Wessex (Mainly Dorset, Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire) and its both tragic and eccentric characters. 

Many books have been written about Hardy, including Claire Tomalin’s very comprehensive biography which (whilst very accomplished) could be used as an effective draft excluder it is so thick! On this occasion, I want to concentrate on the fiction itself without exploring too much into the man behind it - you can find this out in the plethora of analysis on his works or Wikipedia if you want it paraphrased. My piece is more a personal praise of a few works which I feel are deserved of their place as classics in the English language. 

I remember disliking Hardy intensely when I first read him as an angry young 16 year-old and attempting to conquer the bleak and draining Tess of the D’Urbevilles. I also remember going back to school the next term and wrongly dismissing him with a string of unfair adjectives which youth is so prone to bring to mind. It was a good four years before I picked up another one of his books, Far from the madding crowd, where I should have started in the first place. Far more light-hearted than the works that followed it gave me a real flavour of a bucolic country and bygone people ever clinging onto the past whilst the future ever encroached more and more on their traditional way of life. 

I once used to sneer at Hardy’s detailed decriptions of the natural world, mistakenly calling it ‘laboured’ prose where really it was more ‘nostalgic’, wistful for a world that the author could see rapidly vanishing. That was the feeling at the beginning of The Woodlanders - to my mind one of his most underrated novels. Telling a story of dissapointment, class ambition and unrequited love set against the backdrop of a woodland community where aspiring middle classes lived hand-in-hand with itinerant labourers - bearing similarities to one of his most famous works Return of the Native. In both books whist he evokes the beauty of the nature, it is destructive, ominous and fickle; driving men and women to the depths of despair as much as it offers them security. 

Having finished reading Return of the Native recently, I was more captivated by the setting of Egdon Heath than the plight of the main characters, for the Heath was written as a character in itself, almost a God-like entity, ever present throughout the tale, unchanging, constant. The characters either praise it or they resent it, much like the woods in The Woodlanders

This is just one side of Hardy, with ensemble casts of characters and vivid natural scenes. His other side focuses on tragic figures slowly ground down by the - pardon me for employing a much overused term - ‘wheel of fate’! Novels like the aforementioned Tess and the groundbreaking Jude the Obscure concentrate on the futility of human existent that makes for very hard, depressing reading. As such this theme brings me to my favourite of the Wessex writer’s works, The Mayor of Casterbridge

I wish I could be impartial about this book, yet it is still one of the best pieces of fiction I have ever read and to me, is certainly one of the best writings on the male psyche I have ever come across. Vaulting ambition (to use another A level taught cliche - thanks Claudius), bitter disappointment and the natural course of fate combine to show the rise and fall of a man who cannot escape the shameful deeds of his past in spite of redemption. I am not ashamed to admit that I shed a few tears for the tragedy of Michael Henchard - even if, in my view,  the current Penguin cover notes give a wholly inaccurate depiction of his character. 

Henchard is certainly an unlovable character yet, I think that every man could see something of himself in the doomed character who carries with him a bizarre degree of dignity which I have only ever found in the works of Turgenev. The book gripped me from start to finish, a page-turner if you will. It was after reading this particular work that I realised that Hardy was a truly great novelist and thoroughly deserved of his place as one of the great writers in English literary history. 

I fear that I have only skittered over the surface in a rather blasé form, but I don’t want to spoil any of these fantastic works for you should you not have read them. Too often do I read reviews that cannot help but spoil the plot, this is is more a mere praise for a favourite author and one whose work never tires. Hopefully this should act as a recommendation to you to pick up some of his works should you have never come across him. Thomas Hardy I salute you! 

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