Like so many of Thomas Hardy’s novels, Return of the Native tells a story of illicit love in the English countryside. But in few of his novels does illicit love carry such staggering penalties as here. In Far From the Madding Crowd, the casualty roll is held to a single casulty. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the toll rises to two. The lethal love pentangle in Return of the Native inflicts three.
Sex and violence pleaed the crowds in the 19th century just as they are today, and Return of the Native scored a big commercial success for Hardy. Yet he had difficulties bringing the novel to print, for both publishers and the major magazines flinched from the book’s uneuphemistic treatment of scandalous themes.
Footnote here. The tone and style of 19th century English literature were heavily influenced by the moral strictures imposed by the then-prevailing publishing system.
A typical mid-Victorian novel stretched cost a guinea, at a time when a skilled worker could expect to make a little less than a guinea a week. (The guinea, or sovereign, was a gold coin with a metal content worth about $200 in our modern money.) Obviously, the market for such books was rather small, usually a few hundred copies, most of them purchased by private lending libraries, which sold all-you-can-read memberships for about a guinea a year. To maximize their revenues, the libraries insisted that novels be published in three volumes, so that one book could serve three customers at a time. That practice explains the wordiness and the convoluted subplots of so many Victorian books: the authors had to stretch their story to fill a specified number of pages. The very most popular authors could also serialize their novels in monthly magazines, sometimes for amazing fees.
The serialization-lending library system reduced the economic risk to publishers, who could count on a minimum number of sales. But it imposed severe artistic restraints on writes, who had to conform to a strict standard of propriety. There’s a reason why no mid-Victorain heroine so much as kisses her fiance – and it’s not that no woman ever did so, or no author ever noticed. There’s a reason why prostitution is never mentioned in print at a time when the streets of London teemed with prostitutes.
By the 1880s, however, the growth of a middle-class market with disposable incomes tempted some publishers to sell directly to the public. Magazines also began to experiment with more realistic themes. These changes made possible the career of a writer like Thomas Hardy, author in Far From the Madding Crowd of what I think is the first explicit description of female sexual arousal in English.
Yet Hardy’s psychological realism set the stage for a tragicomic later development.
His willingness to acknowledge sexual passion gained Hardy a prominent place in the English literature curriculum in universities and some academically intense high schools. Here’s the stuff to fasciante young readers! Teachers hoped to excite their students with Tess’ sexual misadventures – only to bump up against the fact that there was one thing that interests Hardy even more than sex: the long slow rhythms of English rural life. And to students familiar who read, say, Cosmpolitan magazine or play Grand Theft Auto, the rural scenes in Hardy are far more unbearable than the sexy scenes are titillating.
Which is why, to speak personally, I long shuddered at the mention of Hardy’s name. I’d suffered through Tess in my senior year of school. Though I discovered Hardy’s poetry in university, and quite liked it, I did not reopen any of his novels until my 40s.
Then in 2005 I bought myself my first iPod at exactly the same time as I ramped up the ferocity and duration of my workout regime. Had you asked me then, I would have listed George Eliot as my favorite Victorian novelist after of course the gigantic Charles Dickens. Listening to her novels in sequence, though, their flaws – mostly Eliot’s Eleanor Roosevelt idealization of underdogs – became much more irritating. Audiobooks compel one to “read” in a very different way. The eye can charitably skip over weak passages. But when you listen, you have to listen equally to everything. You become very conscious of sloppy wordiness. (This means you Anthony Trollope.) You gain a new appreciation of writers whose style is light, clever, and delicate. (I now think of Thackeray as the Mozart of the Victorians.) And Hardy … well maybe you just grow into Hardy.
For all the lurid passion of the story to come, the real protagonist of The Return of the Native is the harsh geography of the setting, Edgon Heath in southwestern England. A heath, for those of you who wonder, is hilly scrubland, no good for farming. Today, they make nice parks (think of Hampton Heath, north of London) – that is when they are not paved over for airports or shopping malls. But in traditional England, they were spooky places: empty, brambly, and poor. The two main industries in Egdon are sheep-rearing and furze-cutting, furze being the local bramblebush that could be used as a cheap fuel for fires.
Precisely because of its poverty, Egdon has preserved the look – and many of the habits – of the most primordial English past. As Hardy describes it:
This obscure, obsolete, superseded country figures in Domesday. Its condition is recorded therein as that of heathy, furzy, briary wildernessÑ”Bruaria.” Then follows the length and breadth in leagues; and, though some uncertainty exists as to the exact extent of this ancient lineal measure, it appears from the figures that the area of Egdon down to the present day has but little diminished. “Turbaria Bruaria”Ñthe right of cutting heath-turfÑoccurs in charters relating to the district. “Overgrown with heth and mosse,” says Leland of the same dark sweep of country.
Here at least were intelligible facts regarding landscapeÑfar-reaching proofs productive of genuine satisfaction. The untameable, Ishmaelitish thing that Egdon now was it always had been. Civilization was its enemy; and ever since the beginning of vegetation its soil had worn the same antique brown dress, the natural and invariable garment of the particular formation. In its venerable one coat lay a certain vein of satire on human vanity in clothes. A person on a heath in raiment of modern cut and colours has more or less an anomalous look. We seem to want the oldest and simplest human clothing where the clothing of the earth is so primitive.
To recline on a stump of thorn in the central valley of Egdon, between afternoon and night, as now, where the eye could reach nothing of the world outside the summits and shoulders of heathland which filled the whole circumference of its glance, and to know that everything around and underneath had been from prehistoric times as unaltered as the stars overhead, gave ballast to the mind adrift on change, and harassed by the irrepressible New. The great inviolate place had an ancient permanence which the sea cannot claim. Who can say of a particular sea that it is old? Distilled by the sun, kneaded by the moon, it is renewed in a year, in a day, or in an hour. The sea changed, the fields changed, the rivers, the villages, and the people changed, yet Egdon remained. Those surfaces were neither so steep as to be destructible by weather, nor so flat as to be the victims of floods and deposits. With the exception of an aged highway, and a still more aged barrow presently to be referred toÑthemselves almost crystallized to natural products by long continuanceÑeven the trifling irregularities were not caused by pickaxe, plough, or spade, but remained as the very finger-touches of the last geological change.
Against this primeval background, the action unfolds.
Damon Wildeve is a local no-goodnik. Having failed in an engineering career, he has bought the local pub, the Quiet Woman, a title that memorializes a gruesome ancient murder. The sign of the pub still depicts a decapitated female body. Despite this obvious symbolic warning, women are intensely attracted to the handsome Wildeve, including the two prettiest girls in the vicinity, Thomasin Yeobright and Eustacia Vye. (Vye as in “vie” – get it?)
Thomasin is the respectable niece of a well-to-do local widow. Eustacia is anything but respectable. Black-haired, beautiful, mistrusted by the local townspeople as a witch, 20-year-old Eustacia is the product of a disastrous mesalliance with an Italian bandmaster, she now lives with her grandfather, a retired naval officer, in a cottage on the heath. Voraciously sexual, she chafes against the boredom and censoriousness of village life. Wildeve has been carrying on a fairly obviously consummated love affair with Eustacia while also courting Thomasin.
The novel opens on Guy Fawkes Day, November 5. The day commemorates the thwarting of a plot by a group of Catholic conspirators to blow up the Parliament buildings during the reign of James I. But the rituals of the day – bonfires on hills, the burning of effigies – preserve customs that extend back to the Druids. And this is how we first meet Eustacia: standing by a burning fire on a hillside, summoning Wildeve.
The day was to have been the day of Wildeve’s wedding to Thomasin, but through a miscommunication of place, the wedding has gone disastrously wrong. Thomasin has been left at the altar. She staggers home feeling utterly abandoned and disgraced. Thomasin now sees through Wildeve, but in order to rescue her standing in the community must now miserably beg for the wedding to be rescheduled. Wildeve is reluctant: At the last minute, his wandering attentions have returned to Eustacia.
At this point, life in the community gets a new interest when Thomasin’s cousin Clement, nick-named Clym, returns to Egdon. Clym has been working in Paris in the diamond trade – about as radical a departure from Egdon as one can imagine.
Eustacia hears of him and connives to meet him. In her imagination, he becomes a vehicle of escape from Egdon to some more glamorous and fulfilling life. So at exactly the same time as Wildeve is jilting Thomasin for Eustacia, Eustacia jilts Wildeve for Clym. On the recoil, Wildeve marries Thomasin after all. A dazzled Clym marries Eustacia.
One person anticipates the utter disastrousness of both marriages: Mrs. Yeobright, Clym’s mother and Thomasin’s aunt. She tries unsuccessfully to prevent the unions, alienating the young people, and thus leaving them alone as troubles gather.
To Eustacia’s disgust, Clym soon reveals that he has no intention of returning to Pars. He dislikes the diamond trade, thinks it a useless vanity. He wants to remain in Egdon and open a school. He begins a period of intense study to prepare. Overwork brings on a fever that ruins his eyesight. Almost blind, forced to postpone his school project, he attempts to eke out his savings by earning money – and the only trade available is furze-cutting, about the lowest status occupation in the vicinity. Eustacia has bet on the wrong man – and to compound her frustration, Wildeve unexpectedly inherits a considerable fortune.
The now wealthy Wildeve resumes his interest in Eustacia. He comes to visit her. It’s the hottest hours of the hottest days of summer. Clym has returned home from his hours of grueling physical labor to collapse in exhaustion. Eustacia entertains her once and would-be lover as her blind husband sleeps. But the visit is interrupted when Clym’s mother knocks on the door.
Clym learns what has happened. His troubled marriage to Eustacia now dies altogether. Damon Wildeve offers to run away with her to Paris. She accepts. The two set off at night. Now it is they who cannot see. They stumble into a weir, are caught in the whirlpool, and drown. The affair that opens with fire ends in water; the woman who yearned only to escape Egdon will remain forever.
Thomasin now reclaims a happy ending. The novel has been haunted by a weird figure, Diggery Venn, once a dairyman (ie, a dealer in the whitest of white goods) who has now taken up the trade of a reddleman (a dealer in the red dye used for marking sheep). The work has turned all his clothes and even his skin red. Diggery Venn is a rejected suitor of Thomasin’s. It was he who ended up driving her home in his van from her abortive wedding. He appears again and again through the novel, almost a supernatural figure, at one point saving Thomasin’s (and Clym’s) inheritance from attempted misappropriation by Wildeve in a spooky midnight gambling match in which Diggery wins every hand.
With Wildeve dead, Venn returns to the dairy trade. His uncanny color fades, and Thomasin accepts him. Clym, still weak in the eyes, does not remarry, but instead takes up a second career as an itinerant (secular) preacher of moral truths, finding an ever growing audience, a teacher after all.
It’s a strange and wonderful story, redolent of Northrop Frye archetypes. The Clym story reminds one of Oedipus (blindness, mourning for a lost mother, atonement). The reddleman is topic for a hundred dissertations.
But for the breakdown of the lending library system, the Victorians would never have had access to this profound, disturbing, and haunting work. We have access. We just ignore it because the opening scenes take a little patience. Don’t be in such a rush. Give Hardy some time. He has earned it. He is worth it.