[I’m reading this novel in sections, mostly in its six Books, and so far I have completed the first and some of the second. I write after I have read each part in turn, so I never know what is coming next.]
4 August 2018
Chapters 1-4 of Book 1, The Three Women
I don’t intend to stop every four chapters, but there’s a lot going on. First comes a long description of Egdon Heath in all its dark moodiness, isolation and sheer timelessness: ‘it had waited thus, unmoved, during so many centuries, through the crises of so many things, that it could only be imagined to await one last crisis—the final overthrow.’ This statement, only a part of a sentence, is typical of the portentous tone. Hardy’s narrator is urging us to take this place, and this story, very seriously indeed.
I can remember how at the beginning of Far from the Madding Crowd, his previous novel, Hardy uses a similar idea. The hill that Gabriel Oak lives on presents ‘a shape approaching the indestructible as nearly as any to be found on earth… which may remain undisturbed on some great day of confusion, when far grander heights and dizzy granite precipices topple down.’ He likes to contrast the timeless, ‘indestructible’ landscapes of his Wessex, a region as much of his own invention as the real counties it’s based on, with the fragile, mutable lives of his characters. The five topographical pages of Chapter 1 of The Return of the Native made me wonder how he is going to people a landscape which will only be deemed beautiful ‘when human souls may find themselves in closer and closer harmony with external things wearing a sombreness distasteful to our race when it was young.’ Yes, thank you, we get it. In the grown-up world, things aren’t all sweetness and light.
We’ve had black, and the white of a road that crosses it like a straight parting through dark hair. Now, in Chapter 2, we get red. I mention it because it seems as deliberate as the bold rectangles of an abstract painting four decades later. (I was thinking of this one.)
Colours become as much a part of Hardy’s visual field as the differing light effects of distant bonfires burning in Chapter 3, or the carefully described chiaroscuro of faces lit by one closer up. It isn’t unborn abstract artists that Hardy enlists to give us poor unseeing readers an idea of the scene, but an earlier one: ‘The brilliant lights and sooty shades … caused their lineaments and general contours to be drawn with Dureresque vigour and dash.’ Sometimes Hardy can seem visually hyperactive.
The bonfires appear in Chapter 3, but there are other, equally bold visual flourishes before that. The startling red I mentioned is seen by an old man on the road, apparently only introduced—we learn nothing of him except he’s clearly a retired naval officer—in order for him to notice it. Up ahead is ‘a spring van, ordinary in shape, but singular in colour, this being a lurid red. The driver walked beside it; and, like his van, he was completely red. One dye of that tincture covered his clothes, the cap upon his head, his boots, his face, and his hands. He was not temporarily overlaid with the colour; it permeated him.’
And there’s this introduction of a female character who, we can be certain, is going to play an important part later on. She, like the red character, is first noticed not by the narrator, but by someone else—the man we now know to be the ‘reddleman’. The sight begins, inevitably, with the landscape: ‘The scene before the reddleman’s eyes was a gradual series of ascents….’ And, a paragraph or so later, ‘the summit, hitherto the highest object in the whole prospect round, was surmounted by something higher. It rose from the semiglobular mound like a spike from a helmet.’ After more outlandish images—the form could almost be that of an ancient Celt rising from the barrow he helped to build—things get cosmic again. The figure is ‘motionless as the hill beneath’—keep that in mind—so that ‘Above the plain rose the hill, above the hill rose the barrow, and above the barrow rose the figure. Above the figure was nothing that could be mapped elsewhere than on a celestial globe.’ When the figure moves, it’s like a perturbation in nature: ‘the discontinuance of immobility in any quarter suggested confusion. [New paragraph.] Yet that is what happened. The figure perceptibly gave up its fixity.’
This seems to be the way that Hardy’s narrative universe operates. Big things are afoot—I’m guessing, but surely?—and they take their time to make themselves known. We come at everything obliquely, as with our first proper encounter in Chapter 2 with the reddleman we’ve only previously seen in the distance. We aren’t the ones encountering him, but that old naval-looking man who catches up with him on the white road. He, the reddleman, doesn’t want to talk. But the naval man does, and we begin to get a clue about what Hardy might have meant in the chapter title, ‘Humanity Appears upon the Scene, Hand in Hand with Trouble.’ We’re prepared to believe by now that it’s the human condition in this little world to be had in hand with trouble, and the reddleman’s—we won’t know his name until at least Chapter 4—is to do with the woman he’s carrying in his van. When the naval man speculates that she might be his wife—‘“My wife!” said the other bitterly. “She’s above mating with such as I.‘” It’s hard to imagine a more vehement denial… or that there isn’t a lot more to the connection. The reader might begin to wonder whether he might be the native who is returning….
We don’t know. He brings the conversation to an end by claiming his horses are tired—it’s the end of a day in November—and this is when the point of view, always restless, shifts again. The naval man, having performed his part for now, has left the stage, the reddleman becomes the observer, and—and you can see what I mean by a lot going on. Not in terms of action, but in terms of narrative. He sees the figure, now clearly a woman, who moves only to avoid a crowd of people carrying—what? ‘A newcomer, bearing a burden, protruded into the sky on the left side, ascended the tumulus, and deposited the burden on the top. A second followed, then a third, a fourth, a fifth, and ultimately the whole barrow was peopled with burdened figures.’ Don’t expect this narrative to give up its secrets without a wait. The end of Chapter 2 arrives, and we still don’t know who these people are.
I’ve spent so much time on this because, frankly, it’s impossible not to notice the deliberateness of it. This narrator will only let us know things when he’s good and ready—so that while Chapter 3 is less portentous-seeming, we’re still mystified by some of the things these people talk about. We only find out obliquely that this is simply a crowd of locals, on the highest point in order to light a bonfire for Guy Fawkes Night. And by now the narrative has taken on a different visual mode that hadn’t been invented yet, the cinematic. A wide-shot of the scene from the top—the point of view has moved again—approaches the epic: ‘A change took place in the mass of shade which denoted the distant landscape. Red suns and tufts of fire one by one began to arise, flecking the whole country round. … These tinctured the silent bosom of the clouds above them and lit up their ephemeral caves, which seemed thenceforth to become scalding caldrons. Perhaps as many as thirty bonfires could be counted within the whole bounds of the district….’ The camera moves into mid-shots of the group and close-ups of people we don’t know, and we join a conversation about things we know nothing of yet.
And, if we hadn’t recognised it before, soon we couldn’t be anywhere else but a Hardy novel. A group of local country neighbours, furze-cutters and other labourers and tradespeople, reveal their different personalities through their actions, conversational habits and Hardy’s descriptions. Granfer Cantle is the silly old man, as keen to party and sing as an adolescent. His son is the almost terminally shy and timorous Christian, as ashamed of his father as is father is of him. The broad sense of humour of these people emerges through a story Christian tells about why he fears, at the age of 31, he will never marry. Timothy Fairway, a man who likes to take charge of the conversation, tries to encourage him, and Christian tells the company about his most recent attempt at courtship: ‘“Get out of my sight, you slack-twisted, slim-looking maphrotight fool,” was the woman’s words to me.’ It turns into a joke: ‘“Not encouraging, I own,” said Fairway. “‘Get out of my sight, you slack-twisted, slim-looking maphrotight fool,’ is rather a hard way of saying No.”’
Marriage is in the air because somebody got married earlier that day. We piece together that it’s Thomasin Yeobright, and that her supposed husband—we’ve already guessed that something’s gone wrong, as things tend to do with weddings in Hardy novels—was a trained engineer now reduced to keeping a small inn. (It’s called the Quiet Woman, and names have meanings in this universe, like everything else.) Her aunt had disapproved of the wedding and refused the banns at first—Fairway’s description of the scene in the church is a set piece of self-importance—but later relented. The men, want to go and sing to the new bride and groom—cue revealing talk of the spectrum of attitudes to such merry-making—and as they leave, the women present make their ways home.
Subtle and not so subtle social hierarchies are emerging. Thomasin’s aunt had clearly not considered an innkeeper of the right social calibre. It isn’t enough for the narrator, when he introduces her, to use a telling adjective. He has to talk it up. She is ‘of a standing which can only be expressed by the word genteel.’ Ok, got it. Again. The widow of a ‘small’ farmer, she had been the daughter of a cleric (only a curate, so we know this is only about snobbery), and ‘had once dreamt of doing better things.’ You bet. The reddleman, too, looks surprisingly sharp for a man plying such a humble trade. He is ‘so near to handsome’ as to make no difference, has blue eyes that shine out from his red face in an ‘attractive’ way, has good clothes despite their having been turned red… and so on. ‘Why,’ asks the narrator, ‘should such a promising being as this have hidden his prepossessing exterior by adopting that singular occupation?’ He’s somehow in the wrong station in life, it seems. What’s his story—and why was he so bitter about the woman in his van?
It starts to come together. In Chapter 4 we come to know that he had been a dairyman called Diggory Venn—what is it with names in this book?—and he has brought Thomasin home. There had been a misunderstanding with the marriage licence, that’s all, but, even if it’s true, contemporary readers might well perceive an ominous echo of what happens when an engaged man and woman, in all innocence, turn up at different churches in Far from the Madding Crowd. What the man decides to do after that is not so innocent at all. Whatever, the rest of Chapter 4 has Venn telling Mrs Yeobright that Thomasin, instead of being married, caught up with him on the road home and asked for a lift. Venn is presented as one of Hardy’s trustworthy characters. The way he averts his gaze from the sleeping Thomasin shows ‘a delicacy which well became him.’ Ah. But Mrs Yeobright isn’t looking at him. She’s only interested in finding out what ‘dreadful thing’ caused the marriage to be cancelled. And after Venn has reluctantly left, his offer of a lift having been politely turned down by Thomasin herself, the older woman lets her niece have it: ‘“Now, Thomasin,” she said sternly, “what’s the meaning of this disgraceful performance?”’
Is there any disgrace in it? We’ll have to wait to find out, because that’s the end of the chapter.
Chapters 5-11—to the end of Book 1
I said at the beginning of Book 1 that there’s a lot going on. I meant in terms of the narrative bag of tricks that Hardy makes use of in order to endow with towering significance a story that might otherwise be little more than a country soap opera. Don’t be fooled, he seems to be saying, into thinking that the stories of these rustic folk are trivial. The title of Chapter 2 implies that they represent the whole of ‘Humanity’.
But if the early chapters are about Hardy setting up the epic scale of the story, the main business of the rest of Book 1 seems to be the setting up of the plot. Hardyesque coincidences and misunderstandings soon have his cast of foolish mortals dancing to his tune. I always imagine him as one of those gods he references in a different novel when he tells us ‘the President of the Immortals, in the Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess.’ He wants his characters to appear as rounded characters, for instance using up the whole of Chapter 7—‘Queen of Night’—in order to persuade us that one of them really is a human being. This is Eustacia Vye, first seen as the spike in the helmet, the highest point beneath the cosmos in Chapter 2. Now it’s as though Hardy, having loaded her up with such emblematic significance both then and now in that chapter title, needs to balance it with a plausible human back-story. It doesn’t work for me, but I’ll come back to that later. To nobody’s surprise, she’s at the centre of the plot, and that’s what I want to deal with first.
How long have you got? Or, what can I remember of how Hardy slots it all together? He’s already started the process, with Diggory’s wistful looks at Thomasin and—a couple of things I forgot to mention earlier—not only Eustacia’s reputation amongst the more superstitious as some sort of enchantress or witch, but also the small but perfectly formed fire she’s lit on the bank near where she lives. It’s where a certain retired sea-captain also lives—she’s his granddaughter—so we can see plot elements coming together before our eyes. Later, because it’s the way that things work in Hardy novels, we’ll come to realise that the captain’s prior knowledge of the failed marriage will have had a particular meaning for her. Could we have guessed? Not really, but Hardy likes to set things up in, say, Chapter 2 whose significance is only revealed in, say, Chapter 6. That’s what happens here, and I’ll come back to it.
But other things need to be put in place. Like… Thomasin and her aunt going into the Quiet Woman Inn so that Mrs Yeobright can confront the man she never liked, Damon Wildeve (I’m not making that name up, although Hardy has) with the potentially scandalous predicament her niece is now in. The engaged couple both try to calm her—it was a genuine mistake, because neither of them had realised that a marriage licence for Budmouth wouldn’t be valid in Anglebury, the quieter town nearby favoured by Thomasin. OK. And, in the real world, they’d go to Budmouth next day and do it properly. But no. Hardy decides a) that when the neighbours arrive to sing to the happy pair, Wildeve will meet them, leaving Thomasin and her aunt in the back room; b) that these three all become subject to a kind of paralysis of the will, so that nothing happens for days, then weeks; and c) that Wildeve will have noticed a certain fire burning, and will be very interested in it. Oh dear.
By way of one of his favourite techniques, Hardy has already made sure that we don’t like this man any more than Mrs Yeobright does: he gives it to us straight. ‘The grace of his movement was singular—it was the pantomimic expression of a lady-killing career. … Altogether he was one in whom no man would have seen anything to admire, and in whom no woman would have seen anything to dislike.’ Ah. So we’re not a bit surprised when the fire turns out to be not just one of many marking Guy Fawkes’ Night. It’s been lit by—guess who—and it’s a signal to him. He’s surprised at her cheek—this is his wedding-night, after all—but he decides he might just go and investigate.
This is when we see the plot business of Eusacia’s grandfather’s prior knowledge coming into play. ‘I came out and got the fire ready because I thought that you had been faithful to me,’ she tells Wildeve. He is ‘astonished,’ and asks, ‘What have you heard to make you think that?’ And Hardy confirms for us what kind of writer he is: ‘“you did not marry her!” she murmured exultingly. “And I knew it was because you loved me best, and couldn’t do it….”’ If there’s one thing this author likes as much as chance encounters and events, it’s characters who jump to conclusions. And he must be hoping that readers will be too taken up with the scandalous encounter—she refers breathlessly to the events of previous summer, and the robust ways they expressed their feelings for one another then—to notice the string of unhappy coincidences. Marriage licence mishap; Diggory Venn’s encounter with the only man on the Heath who might accidentally bring about some real mischief with the information gained; the date, November 5th, the one night in the year when bonfire-lighting is unremarkable; and… what?
And Eustacia’s highly particular tastes and character traits, that’s what. Hardy needs to make her behaviour seem plausible in a community in which original thinking is unheard of. So we get Chapter 7. She’s had a funny sort of life, being the daughter of a regimental band-master—he’s from the Italian community in Corfu, for goodness’ sake—posted to Budmouth, a fashionable resort where he had met his future wife. She died when Eustacia was still a girl, the father took to drink shortly after, and she was sent to live in the back of beyond with her grandfather. Ill-travelled young woman that she is, she had always considered Budmouth the acme of sophistication. There had been society, there had been, compared to the bleakness of her grandfather’s hermit-like existence, life. No wonder she looks for interest and experience wherever she can find it. In Wildeve, we come to realise, she was making the best of a bad job. Without the guidance of a sensible woman—and I don’t think Hardy makes the point explicitly—she uses what she must have learnt in Budmouth about how things operate. In particular, she knows how to charm men.
In Chapter 8, Hardy can get back to the plot. But before I join him…. Are you believing any of this? Hardy loves a tangled web, and he’s weaving it merrily, throwing whatever will help into the mix. What will help to ensnare his hapless characters, I mean—and, meanwhile, he will add circumstantial little details to make it seem at least nominally plausible. (In this, he reminds me of a modern author, Ian McEwan. I remember reading Atonement and becoming exasperated in just the same way: ‘she is led via a series of tortuous coincidences to a position where …. I could start at least three sentences with the words “She just happens to…”.’ McEwan’s another author whose characters often strike me as pawns in his game.)
The plot. And, now I think about it, the way Hardy has his characters themselves tighten the web for him. It’s started with Wildeve and Eustacia yielding, according to type, both to self-flattering interpretations of events and the temptations these lead to—the promise of an illicit affair for him, and of relief from the tedium of her life for her. Soon it’s the turn of more or less well-meaning characters. Diggory Venn genuinely wants Thomasin to be happy, and thinks she will be best served if Wildeve and Eustacia forget about one another. He knows about their schemes to rekindle their affair because, after overhearing the beginning of one of their secret conversations—another favourite trope—he disguises himself as grassland so he can hear the rest. Honest. There are piles of cut turves nearby, and he pulls two over ‘till one covered his head and shoulders, the other his back and legs. … the turves, standing upon him with the heather upwards, looked precisely as if they were growing. He crept along….’
What’s an honest, well-meaning lover to do? Eventually—and I have to confess to being a little vague about some of the intervening steps—in a chapter entitled ‘A desperate attempt at Persuasion’ he tries a three-pronged attack on Eustacia’s better nature. Hah. He tries the subtle approach, playing on her sympathy: the interest of ‘another woman in the case’ is causing a lot of distress in the Yeobright household…. Could she dissuade this other person? Nope. His ‘second argument’ is to flatter her into persuading Wildeve: ‘Your comeliness is law,’ he tells her, and ‘you could twist him to your will like withywind’ and get him to marry Thomasin, no question. But this gets nowhere either….
He has to bring out his big guns in his ‘third attempt.’ He tells her he knows about her and Wildeve, understands why she’d be interested in him in such a small place—but he has the means to convey her to Budmouth and a much more interesting life as the companion to a lady he has heard about. ‘Budmouth is a wonderful place—wonderful—a great salt sheening sea bending into the land like a bow….’ But his eloquence is wasted on her. She is no country girl to be impressed by what she already takes for granted—and the idea of having to earn her keep, however light he describes her duties as being, is revolting to her. ‘It is to wear myself out to please her! and I won’t go. O, if I could live in a gay town as a lady should….’ That’s our Eustacia.
So he’ll go to see Wildeve—an idea that another character, as out of her depth as he is, has also had. This is Mrs Yeobright, and they meet. He tells her he’s feeling pessimistic about Wildeve, and tries to soothe her feelings, and relieve her of worry about the potential scandal—and put himself into the frame again—by telling her about the proposal he had made two years before. He doesn’t tell her how forthright Thomasin had been in her refusal, and Mrs Yeobright decides it’s a real way out. When she goes to see Wildeve she presents the other suitor as having received a not unfavourable response—she’s sure Thomasin will come to accept him ‘in time’—and Wildeve is now the one to feel undermined. He goes to see Eustacia sooner than they had agreed—he’d offered to take her away from Egdon, all the way to America, and she’d said she needed time to think about it—and now tells her that things have moved on.
It’s yet another attempt to disentangle a complicated problem that has the opposite effect. As soon as she hears Wildeve presenting himself as free from any obligation to Thomasin because of this other suitor, she feels only annoyance. He’s only come running back to her because his first choice has had a better offer. His stock has suddenly plummeted: ‘“You are in the awkward position of an official who is no longer wanted,” she said in a changed tone.’ And she makes him plead with her. Yes, she will consider his offer, but ‘“If it could be London, or even Budmouth, instead of America,” she murmured languidly. “Well, I will think. It is too great a thing for me to decide offhand.”’
We’re reaching the end of Book 1 now, and that might have been that. They could have gone away, leaving the Egdon folk to sort it out amongst themselves…. But where would the fun be in that? There’s another ingredient that’s soon to be dropped into the mix, in the form of the native whose return this novel is really about. This is Thomasin’s cousin, Mrs Yeobright’s son Clym. We’ve had some inkling that there had once been, or might have been, something between him and Thomasin. Whatever, Book 1 ends when Eustacia’s grandfather, whose tastes are the exact opposite of hers, tells her of his imminent return. And where has he been living? “In that rookery of pomp and vanity, Paris, I believe.”
Oh dear, again.
Book 2, Chapters 1-4
These chapters are nearly all from Eustacia’s point of view, and they are about what Hardy allows her to pretend is a ‘freak’, a whim. In fact, it’s exactly that, brought about by the fact, which Hardy constantly has her remind herself and us about, that she has nothing in her life to interest her. Wildeve doesn’t appear except, in his absence, in a single conversation we’re allowed to witness between Thomasin and her aunt. The almost exclusive topic is the imminent arrival of Clym Yeobright, and the preparations to make the house festive for Christmas. It’s confirmed for us—I don’t think it had been made explicit before—that Clym had once wanted to pay court to Thomasin, but that she had refused him. Which means that she refused two men at around the same time, because Clym had gone to Paris after that, and it was two years ago. Eustacia’s project, after having heard at the end of Book 1 where he’s been living, is to bring about a meeting with such an exotic creature. As we might have guessed, she is not at all as sophisticated as she thinks she is.
And yes, I did say Christmas. I’ve mentioned the collective paralysis of will affecting the main characters—but, in fact, Hardy has simply allowed seven weeks to slide by since the opening of the novel as though hoping that readers won’t notice how bizarre this is. No decisions have been made and here are the mummers, getting ready for their Christmas performance. But it’s worth remembering that the novel was originally published in monthly instalments and, I suppose, the first mention of the season must be towards the end of the third. (In Book 1 I do remember the passing of a month being mentioned.) Whatever. Who’s going to notice that time seems to have stood still for the characters when, suddenly, so much seems to be going on?
I’ve mentioned Thomasin and her hope that she and Wildeve will marry soon, once he’s sorted his head out. (I’m paraphrasing.) But the main interest is Eustacia’s project. She just happens to be taking the air that night when Clym arrives, walking along the road with his mother and cousin. It’s dark and, as they pass her all she gets is a ‘Goodnight’ in a voice she doesn’t recognise. But it’s enough—the chapter title is ‘How a Little Sound Produced a Great Dream’—because, as we know, there’s nothing else for her to think about. She has an extraordinary dream of a figure whose face she never gets to see—and she starts to behave like a giddy girl. Five times she walks out on the Heath between their houses over the next two or three days (Hardy counts them), whatever the weather. Just to see him would be something—but mightn’t she even meet him accidentally?
Don’t be ridiculous. Things don’t happen like that in this universe… but what does happen is that one of those pesky gods (Hardy himself, in other words) decides to throw her a titbit. She’s ready to give up, until—how does it go?—‘Providence is nothing if not coquettish; and no sooner had Eustacia formed this resolve than the opportunity came which, while sought, had been entirely withholden.’ Of course. Hardy must have read War and Peace, published and translated into English nearly ten years earlier, because he lifts an episode from it almost wholesale. In that novel, romance is in the air one Christmas, and the bright young things decide to be mummers at the big house in the region where they are spending the season. One of them, Sonya, dresses as a ‘Curassian’, and another character finds this incredibly sexy.
So what does Hardy do? He has Eustacia discovering that the mummers, who happen to meet for rehearsals in her grandfather’s outbuildings because it’s so centrally located, will be performing—what could be more natural?—at the Yeobrights’ festivities to which Eustacia and her grandfather have not been invited. (Having added this ingredient into the mix, Hardy persuades us that at the time the novel is set, some decades before the cynical 1870s, such survivals of the old customs really did exist. It’s not like one of those bogus recent revivals, and this allows him one of his mercifully rare jokes. ‘A traditional pastime is to be distinguished from a mere revival in no more striking feature than in this, that while in the revival all is excitement and fervour, the survival is carried on with a stolidity and absence of stir which sets one wondering why a thing that is done so perfunctorily should be kept up at all.’)
Eustacia hates the custom—she hates everything about Egdon—but… can you guess what she decides to do? Of course you can. She knows one lad in the group, who is going to be a Turk, dressed in an elaborate dress with ribbons over his face representing his visor. Normally she’s of a ‘languid’ disposition, but with the right fire in her belly we’re to believe she can be very different. She hatches a cunning plan in which, when they meet at her house next night, she will pretend she’s sent him on a job suddenly, and someone he knows is going to take his part. Chapter 4 ends with him taking his reward—money wouldn’t suffice for him, it has to be fifteen minutes of hand-holding, agreed after hard bargaining on both sides—and Eustacia having tried on the costume. Which is how Chapter 4 ends. How exciting.