Do they still assign Tess of the D’Urbervilles in high school English? I was required to to read it in the spring of 1978, and loathed it.
I understood even as a student why Thomas Hardy would feature so prominently on the curriculum. Hopeful teachers imagined that Hardy’s disdain for conventional sexual morality and his once-shocking earthiness would captivate their gutter-minded students – and enable teachers then to direct student attention to Hardy’s importance as one of the founders of literary modernism.
But the gambit did not work. Hardy’s sexuality did not titillate the jaded teenagers of the 1970s. It must seem even less exciting to kids who have been watching “Friends” and “America’s Next Top Model” since the age of 11. Meanwhile, the teachers’ real agenda – Hardy’s majestic prose and his fascination with the long slow rhythms of a vanishing rural life – are all but guaranteed to lull teenagers to sleep … or else to send them scurrying to the pages and pages of prewritten Hardy essays available on the Internet. (None of which look like A-calibre material to my eye, but I may be a tougher grader than most.)
It took me a long time to work my way back to Hardy from that senior year Tess debacle. I discovered his poetry in college.
Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.
Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me : yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!
Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?
Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.
There was a time in my life when I could recite that poem from memory. Stilll, it wasn’t enough to prod me to return to the long slow rhythms of Wessex. I used Tess as a research source for a university paper – history, not English. A decade or so later, I packed a copy of The Mayor of Casterbridge - one of the very shortest of Hardy’s novels – on an airplane ride. Never got to it.
This fascinating essay in the New Republic prodded me to try again. I bought The Mayor of Casterbridge as an audiobook (magnificently read by the way by Pamela Garelick) to see whether my 40-something self could enjoy something that had so utterly depressed and disgusted me in my teens and 20s.
And the answer is … overwhelmingly yes. Yowza.
What once seemed tedious now overwhelmed me.
From the arresting opening scene – in which a drunken young journeyman laborer “sells” his wife to another man – there unfolds one of the most stupendous tragedies in the English language, the story of a man of almost superhuman willpower destroyed by his pride, wrath, and bafflement in the face of the onrush of the modern world.
All those rural bits that used to drive me crazy with boredom took on deep meaning and power in this midlife reading. Casterbridge is a Roman settlement, overlooked by Iron Age hill forts. The town is still defined by the line of its medieval walls. This is an
ancient country whose surface never had been stirred to a finger’s depth, save by the scratchings of rabbits, since brushed by the feet of the earliest tribes.
(The text of The Mayor of Casterbridge can be found in searchable form here.)
When the mayor buries his wife,
Mrs. Henchard’s dust mingled with the dust of women who lay ornamented with glass hair-pins and amber necklaces, and men who held in their mouths coins of Hadrian, Posthumus, and the Constantines.
But time is running out for this immemorial place. The railway has reached within just a few miles of the town. It must soon arrive, and the modern world with it.
Soon – but not yet. Hardy poignantly describes the mayor, himself an uneducated man, savagely castigating his intelligent daughter for using rustic words like “bide” rather than “stay” or calling flowers by their local rather than their London names. The mayor’s wealth is destroyed by a failed speculation in which he gambles his entire fortune on a weather forecast by a Wessex shaman. Meanwhile, the mayor’s detested rival is introducing machines, bookkeeping, and scientific techniques for the preservation of grain.
Hardy understood that the vanishing peasant culture he chronicled was one of want, danger and ignorance, not some prelapsarian paradise. Hardy grew up poor in the English countryside himself, a sure inoculation against sentimentalism. Writing from the vantage point of the 1880s, he describes the epoch of The Mayor of Casterbridge, four decades previous, as a time
immediately before foreign competition had revolutionized the trade in grain; when still, as from the earliest ages, the wheat quotations from month to month depended entirely upon the home harvest. A bad harvest, or the prospect of one, would double the price of corn in a few weeks; and the promise of a good yield would lower it as rapidly. Prices were like the roads of the period, steep in gradient, reflecting in their phases the local conditions, without engineering, levellings, or averages.
The farmer’s income was ruled by the wheat-crop within his own horizon, and the wheat-crop by the weather. Thus in person, he became a sort of flesh-barometer, with feelers always directed to the sky and wind around him. The local atmosphere was everything to him; the atmospheres of other countries a matter of indifference. The people, too, who were not farmers, the rural multitude, saw in the god of the weather a more important personage than they do now.
Indeed, the feeling of the peasantry in this matter was so intense as to be almost unrealizable in these equable days. Their impulse was well-nigh to prostrate themselves in lamentation before untimely rains and tempests, which came as the Alastor of those households whose crime it was to be poor.
After midsummer they watched the weather-cocks as men waiting in antechambers watch the lackey. Sun elated them; quiet rain sobered them; weeks of watery tempest stupefied them. That aspect of the sky which they now regard as disagreeable they then beheld as maleficent.
As we get older, we all look back on the world of our youth – which once seemed eternal and indestructible – as a fragile and perishable thing. No surprise then that Hardy, who wearies the young, should become so much more moving and eloquent in later life. His writing style, which once seemed to me so bleak, takes on a stark beauty. And his appallingly grim philosophy of life does eventually come to sound more like an only slightly too blunt description of things as they really are. Or, as the novel concludes, after Hardy has settled his heroine in prosperity and happiness:
Her position was, indeed, to a marked degree one that, in the common phrase, afforded much to be thankful for. That she was not demonstratively thankful was no fault of hers. Her experience had been of a kind to teach her, rightly or wrongly, that the doubtful honour of a brief transmit through a sorry world hardly called for effusiveness, even when the path was suddenly irradiated at some half-way point by daybeams rich as hers. … And in being forced to class herself among the fortunate she did not cease to wonder at the persistence of the unforeseen, when the one to whom such unbroken tranquility had been accorded in the adult stage was she whose youth had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.