Thomas Hardy’s Masterpiece, “The Mayor of Casterbridge”

Writers have radically different views on Thomas Hardy.  D. H. Lawrence considered Hardy the best novelist of the 19th century; Stella Gibbons criticized Hardy’s (and Lawrence’s) “loam-and-lovechild” novels and satirized them in Cold Comfort Farm.  Hardy’s fans have their differences:  some prefer his reputed masterpieces,  Tess of the d’Urbervilles (one of my favorites) and Jude the Obscure (too melodramatic even for me), while I dally with The Woodlanders and A Laodicean.

My favorite is The Mayor of Casterbridge, an almost- perfect Greek tragedy set in England in the 19th century.  The prose is exquisite, the plot intricate, and the structure a superb ring composition. 

In this masterpiece, Hardy charts the rise and fall of Michael Henchard, who, as a young man, tragically gets drunk at a fair and sells his wife, Susan, to a sailor, Newson, for five guineas, along with their daughter Elizabeth-Jane.  When Michael sobers up, he searches for them but cannot find them. And so he vows to abstain from alcohol for 20 years, and moves to Casterbridge, where he succeeds as a grain merchant – and becomes the mayor.Years later, Susan and Elizabeth Jane return to the scene of the fair, where Susan tries to find word of Michael, because her other “husband,” Newson, has died.   They find Michael in Casterbridge, and he makes amends by marrying Susan, who is awed by his beautiful house and riches; but he had planned to marry his long-time mistress, Lucetta.  Eventually, Lucetta moves to Casterbridge. 

Ironically, Michael’s marriage to Susan, which raises both Susan and Elizabeth Jane up several classes, is the beginning of Michael’s downfall.  There are many twists:  there is a mystery about the identity of his daughter, not revealed until after Susan’s death.  

But mostly this is a novel about jealousy.  Hot-headed Henchard  becomes jealous of the popularity of a  brilliant young Scotsman, Farfrae, a scientist, whom he once liked, and hired as the manager of his business; he fires him, but then cannot compete with Farfrae as a rival businessman.Farfrae and Elizabeth Jane are interterested in each other, but Henchard forbids him to see her.   Farfrae gradually obtains everything Henchard has or had, including Lucetta.  Henchard thinks Farfrae is deliberately setting out to wreck his life  – and one can see why he thinks it, but Farfrae regrets the loss of their friendship.

 And then there are triangles within triangles within triangles.  We have Michael, Susan, and Newson; Michael, Susan, and Lucetta;  Michael, Farfrae and Lucetta; and Farfrae, Elizabeth-Jane and Lucetta…

I love nothing more than a good wallow in a Hardy novel:  an uncritical enjoyment of his lyrical if occasionally heavy-handed prose (but the style is uniformly elegant in The Mayor), the characters’ tragic love affairs, the descriptions of Wessex (the fictional county where his novels and stories are set),  and the complicated structures of his novels.

However, J. I. M. Stewart (a Hardy scholar, novelist, and  writer of mysteries under the pseudonym Michael Innes) is not as partial to The Mayor of Casterbridge as I am.  In his introduction to the Modern Library edition, he cannot resist applying a certain dry mockery to his criticism. He thinks Hardy’s novel benefited from being written as a weekly serial: “Above all, the quick manipulation of event and character required by his crowded fable keeps Hardy’s hands fully occupied so that he has leisure for but few of those large cosmic gestures which have threatened to become routine with him.”  

And there are more observations in this caustic vein.  He writes, “[The characters] seem resigned to parting or coming together, to dying or bobbing up from the dead, with a precision and punctuality in terms of the proposed exhibition suggestive of a factory in which an advanced state of automation has been achieved.” 

 Very witty, but…   I do at least agree with Stewart when he says that Michael Henchard is one of Hardy’s most memorable male characters – and one of the best in English literature.  

J.I.M. Stewart is a  scholar and the author of Thomas Hardy:  A Critical Biography. I have enjoyed J. I. M. Stewart’s novels, but found his critique of The Mayor of Casterbridge a bit depressing.  It is a mistake for Hardy fans to get mixed up with the critics, I always say.  And I have read this novel so many times –  why did I bother with the introduction?

Is Thomas Hardy Old-Fashioned?  Tess of the d’Urbervilles 

Not everyone is a  fan of Thomas Hardy. The Southern poet James Dickey found him old-fashioned.

When I briefly met Dickey some years back, he was plotting his escape from a PR woman. She had entrusted him to my care while she took a 15-minute break. During our desultory conversation, he asked if he could come to my house (“No”); he also asked who my favorite writer was.  My mind was blank and I blurted: “Thomas Hardy.”  The Wrong Answer bell immediately chimed on Dickey’s Favorite Writer Quiz Show as he said, “He was our grandfather’s writer.” 

I have encountered many people with similar opinions of Thomas Hardy.  Hardy is out of style: perhaps he was always out of style. Certainly, he struggled against the censorship of critics and many editors, who were severe about his “immoral” descriptions of sex, sexual harassment, rape, and unhappy marriages in the 19th century.

Hardy’s books are serious, usually tragic, but they also crackle with witty dialogue and comic scenes.  He balances considerations of social mores, class, poverty, education, and the nature of love with everyday scenes of life in the setting of his imaginary Wessex area. His graceful style is spare and poetic, exceedingly modern at times.  But I fear that modern readers do not, as a rule,  take to Hardy.  A few years ago a writer at Book Riot said she hated Tess of the D’urbervilles and wanted to tell Tess to “grow a pair.”  I think you will agree with me that Dickey’s designation of Hardy as “our grandfather’s writer” was much sharper and more descriptive.

When I reread Tess of the d’Urbervilles this weekend, I was struck by the lyricism, the realism, and the sheer exhaustion of Tess’s struggles. Doom haunts the characters from the beginning.  Hardy fans will not be surprised that the  plot takes an immediate downward swerve.  The novel opens with a minister’s telling Tess’s father, John Durbeyfield,  that he is the last descendant of the aristocratic d’Urberville family. The wealthy buyers of the d’Urberville estate took the name, but the Durbeyfields have the  blood.  Ironically, this knowledge leads to the downfall of the Durbeyfields and the faux d’Urbervilles.

Through one of Hardy’s classic strokes of fate, the Durbeyfields lose their livelihood.   Tess, pushed by her mother, reluctantly visits the  d’Urbervilles, who offer her the job of looking after the poultry.  The son of the house, Alec d’Urberville, flirts with her, stalks her, and rapes her after a dance.  Tess moves home and has a baby, but after the baby dies she finds a job as a dairymaid miles from home.  Most important, she meets and falls in love with Angel Clare, a minister’s son studying to be a farmer, who is so charming and handsome that all the the young women are smitten,  even Tess’s two roommates. After much resistance, Tess agrees to marry Angel,  but isn’t sure it is moral in the light of her past. When after the wedding he admits he has had sexual relations with a woman,T ess confesses her past, thinking he will empathize.   As soon as he learns her history, he takes off for South America to learn more about farming. He leaves Tess a bit of money, but she struggles to make a living as a laborer on a farm.  Will he be back?

As to who is worse, Alec or Angel, I would say they are on a par. But Tess does encounter Alec again, and he is  concerned about her, as well as in love.  Tess does not want him–she is obsessed with Angel–but Alec looks after her family and saves her from poverty.  Each time I read this, I am more annoyed with Angel.

Since I didn’t expect the struggling Tess to be a modern woman in Manhattan or London, I admired this book very much.  But it has a difficult publication history.   Because the first publisher didn’t read the book until the proofs had been printed, and then found the content offensive, he offered to pay Hardy for the manuscript with the understanding it would not be published.   Hardy, who was well-respected and knew someone would publish it,  suggested they cancel the contract without any payment. The novel went through many revisions, and there were wrangles with publishers. The harsh criticiscm of Tess and then Jude the Obscure depressed Hardy so that he stopped writing fiction. Think of the novels we might have had!

By the way, D. H. Lawrence  wrote that Hardy was the most important novelist of the 19th century (or that was the gist; it’s been a while since I read Lawrence’s essays). Hardy’s influence on Lawrence is apparent.  Lady Chatterley’s Lover is modeled on Hardy’s Two on a Tower.