Monday, November 21, 2011
The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
If you haven't read it, here's the setup: the story begins with Michael Henchard and his wife walking down a country lane with their baby, in England circa 1830 (if I've gotten the dates wrong, I apologize). Anyhow, he's an itinerant farm worker, looking to find a job gathering hay. They wander into a town where an auction is going on, and stop for something to eat called furmity, which is some kind of porridge. The old hag serving up the furmity laces Michael's bowl with rum (which sounds disgusting -- who puts rum in a savory dinner dish? It should be reserved for tropical drinks served with an umbrella). The upshot is that Michael gets drunk and angry because he's young and poor, and starts complaining about being saddled with a wife and child. He threatens to sell them to the highest bidder, just like at the nearby auction. The other drunkards go along with this, thinking it's a big joke, but a sailor passing through takes him up on his offer. The wife, who's had enough of his bad behavior, decides she's better off without him and leaves with this complete stranger. Michael must have been a pretty poor husband.
Later, he sobers up and realizes what he's done, but it's too late, and he swears off drinking. Years later, the wife and grown daughter show up looking for him, and by now he's sober and respectable, and he's a wealthy upstanding citizen; in fact, he's the town Mayor. And this is where things start to get interesting, because he feels obligated to this wife and child, but he doesn't want anyone to know about the terrible thing he's done in the past. If you've read Hardy, you know this will all end badly.
I've read quite a few classics books that I like to think of as fascinating train wrecks -- if you've followed my blog, you'll know they include some of my favorite classics, like Madam Bovary, The House of Mirth, and pretty much the entire oeuvre of Emile Zola -- you know, people on downward spirals. They're not always very nice characters, yet I can't stop reading about them. The Mayor of Casterbridge had the potential to fall into this category, but sadly, I didn't find it so fascinating. It was an easy read, but somehow, I didn't find the characters all that compelling. I just really didn't care about any of them.
This the second novel I've read by Hardy. My first was Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which I read several years ago for an online book group. I remember distinctly that after it was nominated, one of the members posted a comment that said (and I paraphrase) that he'd rather poke himself in the eye with a sharp stick than discuss Tess again. I don't know if he was sick to death of it, or he hated it, or he was just being a jerk, but that's all I could think about when it came time to read Casterbridge. I didn't hate Tess, but boy, it took forever for anything to happen. Having seen the movie years ago, I was familiar with the plot, and it really seemed like endless description of farm life in England. Tess was forever digging up turnips or haying or milking cows, et cetera. (To be fair, I probably shouldn't have been reading it while on vacation in Costa Rica -- really, it was geographically inappropriate. Hard to get excited about rural England while enjoying a gorgeous vista of banana plants and coffee trees.)
I love Victorian novels, but I'm having a tough time with Hardy. How is it his books are both readable and slow at the same time? His books aren't densely written, like Dickens and Eliot can be, but sometimes it takes forever for stuff to happen. I'm getting a kinda frustrated with Hardy. Amanda from Ramblings has sworn to me that Jude the Obscure is much better, and I have promised to read Return of the Native, which she loved. If things don't improve, I'm going to delete his books from my to-read list.
Has anyone else read Hardy? What did you think? Should I give up or give him another try?