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Published: January 27th 2023
Yesterday, January 26th
2023, I finished reading Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge
’ for the fifth or sixth time. I first read it for my English Literature ‘A’ level in 1969. It didn’t make a strong impression on me then, which I find odd, but I became a Hardy fanatic in my twenties, after leaving university, and read all of his major novels. Later on, I discovered his poetry, which I adore.
I've read ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles
’ at least four times and consider it his finest novel - although I must put this opinion to the test by rereading it soon. I've read ‘Jude the Obscure
’ probably three times but will not read it again. Unlike John Arlott, who described reading it as an intensely emotional experience, I think it is deeply flawed. I like ‘The Woodlanders
’, Hardy’s own personal favourite, and have read it twice. That’s enough. I reread ‘The Return of the Native
’ a few years back and was disappointed. Apart from the famous description of Egdon Heath, it is so so. ‘Far From the Madding Crowd
’, however, is excellent, and I plan to reread it at least one more time.
As for ‘The Mayor
has lost none of its appeal, and I will probably reread it again in a few years. There is a lot to be said for rereading a great book; once is not enough. I could read ‘Macbeth’, ‘The Winter’s Tale’, ‘Madame Bovary’, ‘The Quiet American’
and ‘Great Expectations’
Sitting in my favourite chair in Tan Chau, Vietnam, in my favourite spot overlooking the rice fields, I have spent the last three days reacquainting myself with ‘The Mayor
’. The edition I've been reading is a Penguin classic, dated 1978, bought secondhand in Phnom Penh. It is fox-marked and stained, with a 48-page introduction by Martin Seymour-Smith. I remembered almost everything from my previous readings and from watching the BBC dramatization in 1978. Back then I was a boarding master at Old Swinford Hospital School but I did not have a colour TV. My colleague, Lance Naylor, did, so we watched ‘The Mayor
’ episode by weekly episode in his flat. It was a superb dramatization by the great Dennis Potter with an all-star cast. Alan Bates played Michael Henchard, Janet Maw Elizabeth-Jane, Jack Galloway Farfrae and Anna Massey Lucetta. Rereading the book today, I automatically identify the characters with those
There is no point in my writing a full critical analysis of ‘The Mayor
’; that has been done many times by better critics than me. No, what I will do now, fresh after reading the novel, is record my immediate impressions and reflections. It is strange that I have never before written about this, one of my all-time favourite books.
I rate ‘The Mayor
’ Hardy’s second best novel after ‘Tess
’. ‘Far from the Madding Crowd
’ wins the bronze. The opening chapter – where Henchard sells his wife - is a magical piece of story-telling, my favourite opening chapter in all of literature. ‘Bleak House
’ runs it close.
Hardy’s flair for figurative language is immediately apparent on the second page in the brilliant description of Henchard and his dependants: “the atmosphere of stale familiarity which the trio carried along with them like a nimbus
”. Hardy’s sense of history – seeing the past in the present – is apparent in the description of the bird: “a weak bird singing a trite old evening song that might doubtless have been heard on that hill at the same hour, and with the selfsame trills, quavers and breves, at any sunset
of that season for centuries untold.” And Hardy’s expert use of symbolism can be seen in the swallow that flies into the furmity tent before escaping. The swallow may be regarded as a symbol of Susan's entry into the tent and escape with the sailor. The swallow also symbolizes Henchard: if he doesn’t sell his wife, he will be like the bird flying free -
free from guilt; if he sells her, he will be trapped forever – trapped inside guilty feelings.
The swallow symbolism foreshadows the caged bird symbolism at the end of the novel. Henchard buys a caged goldfinch as a wedding gift for Elizabeth-Jane. The bird serves as a metaphor for Henchard himself, the cage representing the self-made prison of his flaws. The bird is a goldfinch, symbolizing the essentially golden nature of Henchard. The newspaper covering the cage represents the public opinion that surrounds Henchard. The death of the goldfinch from starvation is effective, since Henchard himself, becomes sick and is unable to take nourishment. Like the goldfinch, which depends on a human owner for food, Henchard is starved to death for want of Elizabeth-Jane's love.
Now a few more observations about Hardy’s writing
style. There is a huge difference between the style of his novels compared to his poetry. The style of ‘The Mayor
’ is conventionally Victorian – flowing well-turned sentences, highly descriptive, occasionally poetic. However, the diction is not quirky and unconventional like the diction of Hardy's poems. Hardy wrote novels in monthly magazine installments to make money, so he could not afford to be avant-garde. He had to satisfy his conventional readership. After making a lot of money from novel-writing, he stopped completely (‘Jude the Obscure
’, published in 1894, was his last novel) and switched to poetry. In his poems his use of English was unique – very quirky, quite different from other poetry written at that or, indeed, any time. It wasn’t very popular with the reading public or the critics because it was so peculiar. Today, Hardy’s poetry has a stellar rating, some critics regarding him as a better poet than novelist. I am not sure. I have always regarded a novel as a greater achievement than a poem, because it is has so much more substance. While reading ‘The Mayor
’, I was on the lookout for examples of quirky English but, apart from the dialect words, there are
The worst thing about Hardy’s prose style in ‘The Mayor
’, and elsewhere, is its frequent pretentiousness. Hardy cannot resist showing off his knowledge of the Bible, of classical literature and of painting. Here is one out of many instances. In Chapter 9, when describing the Casterbridge shopblinds, Hardy writes: “over the pavement … hung shopblinds so constructed as to give the passenger’s hat a smart buffet off his head, as from the unseen hands of Cranstoun’s Goblin Page celebrated in romantic lore
.” The literary reference – to Walter Scott’s ‘Lay of the Last Minstrel’ – is redundant and clumsy, serving no purpose other than to exhibit Hardy’s book knowledge.
At his best in ‘The Mayor
’, Hardy uses English poetically and powerfully. There are many excellent similes. Every evening in Casterbridge, various clocks could be heard chiming: “a row of tall varnished case-clocks from the interior of a clock-maker’s shop joined in one after another … like a row of actors delivering their final speeches before the fall of the curtain
”. At dusk “the sun was resting on the hill like a drop of blood on an eyelid
”. Casterbridge “stood, with regard to the wide fertile land adjoining,
clean-cut and distinct, like a chessboard on a green table-cloth.”
Hardy has a flair for simple telling phrases. When he meets Susan for the first time in Casterbridge, Henchard opens the conversation with “I don’t drink
.” When the stranger introduces himself as Newson, “Henchard’s face and eyes seemed to die.
” When he sees Newson returning, “Henchard lived a lifetime the moment he saw it
I have picked out miscellaneous verbal felicities, but this does scant justice to the overall power of Hardy’s writing. His ability to describe characters’ feelings and the Casterbridge environment is excellent. There are so many great scenes: Farfrae singing in the Three Mariners Inn, Mother Cuxsom reflecting on Susan Henchard’s death, Henchard visiting Mr Fall (I vividly remember this scene from the BBC drama), Henchard drinking alcohol fo the first time in 21 years and laying a curse on Farfrae. In particular, the opening and the ending of the novel are beautifully written. The ending, when Henchard clings to Elizabeth-Jane for affection and is rejected by her, is most poignant. Interestingly, Elizabeth-Jane, in the Dennis Potter BBC dramatization, calls Henchard “father
” after she learns of her true paternity. A bold departure from the text
by Potter but, in my view, a successful one. This has stuck in my mind for 45 years.
The climax of the novel is Abel Whittle’s account of Henchard’s last days, culminating in Elizabeth-Jane reading Henchard’s will, surely the most memorable will in all of literature: MICHAEL HENCHARD’S WILL That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, or made to grieve on account of me. & that I be not bury’d in consecrated ground. & that no sexton be asked to toll the bell. & that nobody is wished to see my dead body. & that no murners walk behind me at my funeral. & that no flours be planted on my grave. & that no man remember me. To this I put my name. MICHAEL HENCHARD
From start to finish, the novel is dominated by Michael Henchard. Humphrey Lyttelton, in his autobiography, states that Henchard is his favourite literary character. Mine too. I can think of no other fictional character – in Shakespeare, in plays, in novels – who moves me so much. Othello comes close. So do Charles Bovary and Magwitch. The novel’s subtitle, The
Life and Death of a Man of Character, reveals Hardy’s own sympathy for the well-meaning but temperamental hero.
Henchard’s foil is Farfrae. When I first read the novel, I saw nothing wrong with Farfrae, but subsequent readings have revealed Hardy’s distaste for the canny Scot. Farfrae’s insincerity about missing his native Scotland is first commented on by Christopher Coney. Henchard criticizes Farfrae for charging entrance money to his dancing pavilion: “just like a Sctchman!
” Elizabeth-Jane is attractive to Farfrae because she is “thrifty
”. Farfrae tells Elizabeth-Jane that “a man must live where his money is made
”. When Farfrae takes over Henchard’s business, he pays the workers “a shilling a week less
”. When the search for Henchard is proving fruitless, Farfrae wants to return to Casterbridge, because carrying on the search "will make a hole in a sovereign
". Hardy’s feelings for Farfrae are given full sarcastic vent when Henchard hears Farfrae singing at his wedding party: “his voice … giving strong expression to a song of his dear native country that he loved so well as never to have revisited it.
Next to Henchard, Elizabeth-Jane is the most sympathetically drawn character, but her correctness in all things makes her
A few words now about the publication of ‘The Mayor
’. Like all of Hardy’s novels, it was first published in installments in a magazine – in the UK in The Graphic,
in the US in Harper's Weekly
. Hardy himself felt that in his efforts to get an incident into almost every weekly installment to satisfy his readership he had added events to the narrative somewhat too freely. However, he was deeply affected, telling a friend that the novel was the only tragedy that made him weep while writing it.
Certainly, the novel is marred by melodrama and improbable coincidences. The first improbable coincidence is Henchard’s opening of the letter from the dead Susan telling him of Elizabeth-Jane’s true parentage. This is minutes after he tells Elizabeth-Jane that he, not Newson, is her father. The furmity-woman’s public denunciation of Henchard, Henchard reading Lucetta’s letters aloud to Farfrae as Lucetta eavesdrops, the two returns of Newson, the incident with the bull, Lucetta’s secret marriage to Farfrae, the wrestling match, Lucetta’s epileptic fit and miscarriage and death – all of these are dramatic tending towards melodramatic. The skimmington-ride is made possible only by Henchard trusting Jopp to deliver Lucetta’s love
letters unread. This is surely ridiculous. Why would Henchard delegate such a crucial delivery to a blackguard like Jopp? Hardy probably realized this but wanted to add spice to the narrative to please his readers.
In spite of the melodrama, ‘The Mayor
’ is a rich and satisfying read. As I said in my second paragraph, ‘Tess
’ is probably Hardy’s finest novel, but Henchard rivals Tess as someone to be admired and pitied. And, on a very personal note, I see something of myself in the rise and fall of Michael Henchard.
Two fun facts. My father had never read ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge
’ but knew the story. My research tells me this can only be because he watched the silent movie of it, made in 1921 with Hardy’s collaboration. My father was born in 1905 and died in 1976. According to the internet, there were no radio adaptations before 1994. In the 1970s I made a pilgrimage to Hardy Country and visited the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester, where the manuscript of ‘The Mayor
’ is on display.
One final reflection: it was a travesty of justice that Hardy never won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The prize was first awarded in 1901, three years after Hardy’s debut as a poet. Hardy died in 1928 and had by then published seven volumes of poetry. As I said earlier, his poetry was not appreciated during his lifetime. And the Nobel committee no doubt considered his novels and short stories as lightweight entertainments. Today, however, Hardy is deemed a literary giant, one of the very few writers who excelled in both prose and poetry. Rudyard Kipling was another one, and he received the Nobel in 1907. Unlike Kipling, whose popularity has nosedived, Hardy’s has soared.
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