[I read this novel in sections, writing after each section in turn. As I write, I don’t know what is coming next.]
4 August 2018
Chapters 1-4 of Book 1, The Three Women
There’s a lot going on in just four chapters. 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 by Malevitch, the Russian Constructivist.) 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 of them closer up. It isn’t unborn abstract artists that Hardy enlists to give us poor unseeing readers an idea of the scene, but one who’s long dead: ‘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 workers 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 demonstration of his own 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 and pretend that all went well with the wedding, 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 and died 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 is another author whose characters often strike me as pawns in his game.)
The game is 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, The Arrival, 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.
Book 2, Chapters 5-8
Have I given the impression that I often find Hardy tiresome? It’s been five weeks since I read the first half of Book 2, and absence hasn’t done anything to make me like him more. I left it at the point where Eustacia is about to sail off into the night and, she hopes, her fate… but before any details, I need to try and get the plot straight. I mentioned Hardy’s cast of foolish mortals, a reference to Puck’s speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s hardly new to think of Puck being Shakespeare in disguise, leading the lovers (and everybody else) a merry dance. I suppose that’s what I was thinking of—whilst the plot of The Return of the Native isn’t the same, the unfortunate effects of coincidences, plot twists and misguided love make it seem similar enough. Let me see….
- Diggory Venn loves Thomasin, and when she refuses him he spends two years in the wilderness of reddledom. He finds on his return that she had just been about to marry until a silly mistake prevented the wedding. When he is persuaded that she is still not interested in him, he does such a noble thing that at least one character (Eustacia) cannot comprehend it: he helps to ensure that Wildeve will marry her, and put an end to any more silly talk of scandal.
- Clym Yeobright once thought he might like to marry his cousin Thomasin, but she refused him. We have not been told any of the circumstances of that event, only that it took place two years before. After he has spoken to Eustacia in her Turk’s costume, he might (or might not) be interested in her. All we know about him is that his face shows signs of emotional loss, but we don’t know why. A failed affair in Paris?
- Thomasin clearly has a lot in common with Clym and is as morally unimpeachable as Diggory Venn, but she’s decided she loves—and, at the end of Book 2, finally marries—the womanising Wildeve. She hardly seems ecstatic about this outcome.
- Wildeve has had an affair with Eustacia, and still wants her to elope with him after his first attempt to marry Thomasin ends in a shambles and before the second takes place successfully seven weeks later. His main motive for continuing with the wedding plan, despite not really loving Thomasin, is to score a point against Eustacia. She forgot to turn up to the meeting she herself had arranged, the one where she was supposed to tell him whether she would go to America with him. In fact, she was busy being a Turk, and when she becomes besotted by the idea of Clym and returns all Wildeve’s gifts, he wrongly thinks it’s mere pique on her part.
- Eustacia, the bored outsider, had the affair with Wildeve because he was the best of a bad job amongst the Heath community. After that Hardyesque series of coincidences makes him think that she’s still carrying a torch (or lighting a bonfire) for him even though she thinks he’s just got married, he realises how much more exciting she is than Thomasin. In fact, she was just passing the time, having heard about the non-marriage and assuming Wildeve had changed his mind. Her real reason for finishing with Wildeve is because she’s persuaded herself—Hardy is at pains to explain how this can happen with some women—that Clym is going to be the one for her.
Is that it for hapless lovers in this novel? Two women, three men, and none of them as happy as they would like to be. Clearly, Thomasin has made a big mistake. Surely, Diggory Venn is the one for her—if not Clym, no doubt considered a distant relative in these parts—but only the death of Wildeve could give either of them a chance now. (Of course, much stranger things happen in Hardy novels….) Meanwhile, Eustacia is bad news for any man, and the community would be best served if she became a nun. But that’s not going to happen, so… will there be another ill-advised marriage, between her and Clym? And if so, what good could come of it—and how would Hardy be able to save him then?
Apart from the carefully intermeshing threads of its plot—and there are plenty of little twists and coincidences I haven’t even mentioned—what else is there in this section of Part 2? There’s the easy ride Eustacia has in her project, to start with. The other lads are impressed with her, and promise not to say a word when at least one of them recognises who she is. During the performance, they treat her with almost gentlemanly respect—their all-round salt-of-the-earth qualities are as Hardyesque a feature as the labyrinthine plotting and that constant sense of a mischievous author pulling the strings.
(The respect Hardy shows for his mechanicals is matched by his respect for the architectural vernacular of his little Eden. Details of the parlour in the Yeobright house, from the useful nails everywhere—Fairway would normally have a wide choice of places to hang his hat, except the mistletoe and holly got there first—to the lovingly described ‘Paradise’ between the open fire and the settle, seem to serve no other purpose than to celebrate the marvellously ordinary. There’s no direct comparison with, say, the conscious medievalism of the Arts and Crafts movement but, even more than with the mummers’ play, Hardy acknowledges the value of rural survivals. These people take it for granted but, some decades later, he reminds his readers of the good things that have been there for centuries. There’s nothing fake about his Wessex, no sirree Thomas.)
So, Eustacia’s adventure. After a long wait outside—it doesn’t prevent Hardy from evoking country merrymaking by way of the noise made by the old-fashioned instruments and the thud of dancers against the door—the mummers are in. The simple lines of the play—Hardy quotes them at length in all their naivety—and the stock moves don’t give Eustacia a chance to shine, and nobody notices her. She’d welcomed the role of Turk because he’s the one who dies most picturesquely, avoiding a nasty tumble on to the hard floor, but it does her little good. However… Hardy contrives it that she sits on the threshold, at the table set all the way from parlour to pantry, so she can get a good look at Clym playing host in both spaces. Even better, she thinks, he can’t help but notice her… but she can’t help noticing in what close proximity he lives with Thomasin. She isn’t attending the party, but comes down and talks to him—a conversation Eustacia is able to overhear before they move into a more private room. This is bad. There she sits, practically invisible, while the woman she’s always competed with can spend as much time as she likes with the most interesting man for miles around.
And she regrets not having thought it through properly: ‘The power of her face all lost, the charm of her emotions all disguised, the fascinations of her coquetry denied existence, nothing but a voice left to her; she had a sense of the doom of Echo. She had overlooked the fact that … she would be treated as a boy.’ This is when Hardy reads us his lecture on the behaviour of women. ‘To court their own discomfiture by love is a common instinct with certain perfervid women. Conflicting sensations of love, fear, and shame reduced Eustacia to a state of the utmost uneasiness.’
She decides to wait outside—where a kindly authorial god rescues her. As she waits, the door opens behind her. It’s the other mummers at last… except it isn’t. Can you guess who it really is? Of course you can, and Clym soon speaks to her directly. What joy, especially when the reason he’s speaking is to put his mind at rest: ‘Are you a woman—or am I wrong?’ But… it isn’t by any means all good. He doesn’t know her, but tells her he would have invited her if he’d known she wanted to come. She tells him she dressed up to ‘get excitement and shake off depression,’ perhaps not the best conversational gambit. And he leaves before she can tell him the real reason, even though she ‘did not volunteer the reason which he seemed to hope for.’
What game is she playing, exactly? Does she really know? Whatever, the conversation has filled her with ‘fire’, and by now, Hardy must feel he’s done most of the heavy lifting. He’s already told us—doesn’t he just love telling us?—how she goes from being sort of interested to being in proper love: ‘She had loved him partly because he was exceptional in this scene, partly because she had determined to love him, chiefly because she was in desperate need of loving somebody after wearying of Wildeve.’ In case his readers aren’t convinced yet, he brings out some big guns in the very next sentence: ‘Believing that she must love him in spite of herself, she had been influenced after the fashion of the second Lord Lyttleton and other persons….’ Do you believe this for a minute? Whatever, Hardy needs it to happen so that he can get on with all that plot in the rest of Book 2, Maybe some readers are convinced by his presentation of the female psyche, but I’m not buying it.
Enough of her. She’s convinced herself that Clym is the one she needs to go for, casts Wildeve off with a letter helpfully delivered by Diggory Venn—he doesn’t realise how this will end his own hopes of putting an end to Thomasin’s problems by marrying her himself—and triumphantly offers Wildeve the knock-out blow at the wedding (she happens to be passing, so she’s the only witness) when he tries to rub her nose in her loss of him. It’s how Book 2 ends. He ‘had flung towards Eustacia a glance that said plainly, “I have punished you now.” She had replied in a low tone—and he little thought how truly—“You mistake; it gives me sincerest pleasure to see her your wife today.”’
But these chapters aren’t all about Eustacia. Hardy also needs to start fleshing out the character of Clym Yeobright, but decides not to do this from the inside out, as he has with her. He resolutely refuses to do this, opting instead for a teasing description that offers only a hint of some kind of back-story, the one I’ve already started to guess at: ‘it was really one of those faces which convey less the idea of so many years as its age than of so much experience as its store. … The face was well shaped, even excellently. But the mind within was beginning to use it as a mere waste tablet whereon to trace its idiosyncrasies as they developed themselves. The beauty here visible would in no long time be ruthlessly over-run by its parasite, thought, which might just as well have fed upon a plainer exterior where there was nothing it could harm.’ There are some dark ideas here. His face is a ‘waste tablet,’ its beauty would soon come to real harm through the workings of that ‘parasite, thought.’
I might be entirely wrong in thinking that he’s come back to the Heath to escape some wretchedness in Paris. For all we know, he might have wanted to rekindle his old love for Thomasin. He’s home for longer than anybody seems to have realised at first (a fact that causes Eustacia a lot of angst before she tacitly conspires with Diggory Venn and Thomasin’s aunt to get her out of the way by marrying the unsuitable Wildeve), and he goes half a step towards admitting to his mother that there’s still a hint of the old spark, in response to a questioning look she gives him. ‘I once thought of Tamsin as a sweetheart? Yes, I did. How odd boys are! And when I came home and saw her this time she seemed so much more affectionate than usual….’ We know why she’s so affectionate, but he doesn’t—and he doesn’t know that, as far as Thomasin is concerned, it has nothing to do with any change of mind on her part. Of course—and I’m starting to speculate now—maybe the truly star-crossed lovers in this novel are these two, who will need to learn their own true feelings by the end of it. But how would I know?
Anyway, if he’d had anything serious in mind in relation to Thomasin, circumstances have changed. Her marriage to Wildeve takes place while he’s away—Hardy loads her preparations and parting from her aunt with sadness and ill-omen, including self-delusory talk on her part about what a ‘practical woman’ she is now—and… what? Clem has encountered another interesting woman, under rather odd circumstances, and he can’t help but he interested. Hardy needs it for the plot—forgive my cynicism—and Clym obliges.
Enough? I could say more about the disappointment of Diggory Venn—Wildeve’s quick rebooting of the wedding plans is to stymie Venn’s chances as much as to irritate Eustacia, and he gets to Thomasin only a few minutes before the rival who has suddenly presented himself as a real contender. But it isn’t Thomasin who answers the door to the carefully spruced-up Venn—she has just accepted Wildeve’s new proposal—it’s her aunt. She now has what she wants, a tying-up of the loose thread of that innocent mistake at the first wedding, the one she fears will ruin her niece’s reputation, so she sends poor old Diggory away. In other words—and this is a huge failure on her part—she puts respectability above Thomasin’s happiness. I wonder how Hardy will make her pay for that.
Book 3, The Fascination, Chapters 1-5
It must have been strange to be Thomas Hardy in the late 1870s, following the success of Far from the Madding Crowd. He can afford to give up his life as an architect and focus instead on… what? On being a popular novelist. So that’s what he does, and he’s going to deal with the pressure of that popularity in his own way. He knows he has an audience, but there are particular things he’s interested in and is determined to share. There’s no dumbing-down in the aspects of culture he focuses on, from classical literature and high art, through the rich vernacular normally considered beneath notice—I’m remembering the interior of the Yeobrights’ parlour—to meditations on what it is to be human in the 19th Century. If I find myself being satirical about his plots with their melodramatic twists and coincidences—and I do, all the time—it might be because he feels himself forced into conforming to narrative strictures that aren’t of his own invention. And which, if he had the choice, he would break from.
I’m speculating. But I always think that Hardy would like to be considered a realist, if only he could deal with the actual workings of adult relationships. Like, what exactly are we supposed to think went on between Eustacia and Wildeve last year? Sophisticated readers might speculate in whatever ways they like, but Hardy isn’t going to spell anything out for us. There was a child born out of wedlock in Far from the Madding Crowd, but poor Fanny’s role in that novel is almost exclusively to provide insights into a different character, Sergeant Troy. There are fallen women in plenty of respectable Victorian novels, but main characters? At this stage of his career—things only change later, with Tess—he can’t suggest Eustacia is anything other than a fascinating woman. Ideas of sex are sublimated, as in those extraordinary moments Charlie spends holding her ungloved hand. What is going through his adolescent heart, or wherever, is left for us to imagine while Eustacia, throughout these strange interludes, is an ice-queen of hauteur. (Interestingly, when Clym and Eustacia’s passion is at its height, on the day he blurts out that they must marry as quickly as possible, we find out that ‘it was a favourite way with them to walk bare hand in bare hand.’ My goodness.)
What I might be saying is that the plot, despite everything, is secondary. What really interests Hardy are the kinds of things we get in that extraordinary opening chapter of the novel, and in the no less extraordinary opening chapter of Book 3. It focuses on Clym Yeobright, and it seems that all my speculations concerning his life in Paris, perhaps with a tragic (or at least harrowing) love affair, were misguided. Maybe Hardy wanted his readers to get it wrong—so that he could let them know, all this time later, that his hero is far more interesting than that. He might be the romantic hero in waiting—not long to wait, in fact—but he’s come away from Paris because it represents everything in society that he hates. He’s in the diamond trade, considered a highly reputable business, and he can’t bear the company it forces him to keep. His mother feels the need to remind him—he’s hating this—that it would bring him great wealth, the respect of the whole world, and any wife he might care to choose.
This becomes one of the drivers of Book 3. Its title might be The Fascination, but it isn’t only about the spell—it’s hard to think of it as anything else—that Eustacia puts on him. It’s also about the disappointment felt by a mother for her bright, successful son who, with the world at his feet, decides he doesn’t like the world after all. When he tells her that he’s set his heart on educating the locals—a project that the narrator presents as a doomed dream of ‘brotherliness with clowns,’ for which the ‘rural world was not ripe’—she is appalled. She hopes he will soon tire of his folly, despite his having brought all his belongings home at Christmas in order to turn his back on his old life. (She asks him what the reader might also be wondering. Why on earth did he not mention his plan for such a long time? His answer is that he didn’t want to worry her—but if there is any plausible justification for it, it’s that he wanted to avoid the inevitable row.)
So, when Hardy manoeuvres things so that he and Eustacia can be thrown together—the plot details really, really don’t matter—and the ‘fascination’ can be put into operation, Mrs Yeobright begins to blame her for turning her son from the true path of respectability. His reminder to her that Eustacia had nothing to do with it makes no difference to her opinion. Hardy always seems to be proud of his insights into the workings of the female mind, and this kind of thing is right up his street. It even gives him the opportunity to show some chivalrous—that is, patronising—respect to her: ‘She had a singular insight into life, considering that she had never mixed with it. … We call it intuition.’ OK. The clever thing is, she’s right. Hardy lets us know that Clym would no doubt have made an attempt to open a little school, but would have come to realise that he was wasting his time and would have moved on to something more rewarding. But Eustacia complicates things and, while taking the plot in the direction he needs, Hardy is able to show us what a wise old bird he is at the same time…
…by which I mean, really, is that while he needs to move his characters into particular positions, he also needs to make the shift psychologically plausible. He’s only dealing with three people in these chapters, Clym, his mother and Eustacia, and what he needs is for the axis of Clym’s affections to move so decisively from one to the other that it causes a catastrophic falling-out. Clym, presented as one of the most rounded and humane people imaginable, needs an almost fatal flaw for this to happen, and Hardy feels confident enough to set in motion a process he presents as having a kind of near-tragic inevitability. Does he succeed? Well… it isn’t complete yet, although looking ahead to the title of Chapter 6, ‘The Breach is Complete’, it’s on its way. For me it’s working, kind of, but (as you know) I can never get the idea of Hardy the puppet-master out of my head. Whatever he presents as realistic psychology, I always read as manipulative.
The slow-motion car-crash of Clym and Eustacia’s burgeoning relationship is fairly straightforward. Both characters, in their own ways, are new to the game. Clym’s only experience of what he seemed to think was love was with the cousin he grew up with. Parisian women seem to have filled him with a kind of disgust—in fact, every aspect of the Parisian society he encountered made him want to head for the hills. Or back to the Heath. His alternative is an unrealistic ideal of serving the community he grew up in, perhaps with the kind of help-meet wife some men fantasise about. Eustacia, on the other hand, has always found it so easy to charm the pants off men (sadly, not literally) she doesn’t need to think about it. We know this first through the Wildeve sub-plot and then through the near-farce of Charlie’s adolescent infatuation. So…
…it’s quite easy for Hardy to offer us a (slightly cruder) version of the Lydgate/Rosamund plot in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, published a few years earlier in the decade. In that novel, the idealistic, highly capable man is manipulated over many, many chapters into marriage with an ambitious, materialistic woman. In Hardy’s, a man of exactly the same type simply becomes besotted by a woman who clearly wants from life exactly the opposite of whatever he wants. He is constantly embarrassed by her wide-eyed questions about the glamour of Paris, and tries to make her see that he will never go back there. She doesn’t get him at all, believing—and why wouldn’t she, given what she must see as her unfailing track record?—that he will see sense eventually. Where she leads, he will follow.
Meanwhile, Hardy has set himself a much trickier task in splitting up a mother/son relationship we are to believe is the most loving imaginable. In order to do that, he needs not only to make her rejection of Eustacia plausible, which is the relatively easy part, but to bring it all to a full-on crisis in the space of three chapters. He has to make Clym not only choose his new love, as he thinks of it, over filial love. He has to make his exasperation with his mother so acute that he can no longer live under the same roof.
And not only that. Clym, whose ideas for his new school have been modified in the meantime through conversations with the (somewhat evasive) Eustacia, had been perfectly content to contemplate deferring any marriage to his new partner in education for a long time. It’s quite easy to believe him to be so unpractised in any of this that he thinks he’s taking entirely rational decisions. But Hardy, who I imagine as a sceptical man of the world in sexual matters, knows better. When Clym finds it impossible to accept his mother’s perfectly reasonable criticisms—helped by the absurd little plot-device of Eustacia having been the object of an unprovoked ‘stocking-needle’ attack by a superstitious mother—he feels he has to make a choice.
Hardy, it seems, feels he’s done enough to put the next part of his plot in place. All he needs is for Clym to leave his mother’s house saying he can’t possibly live there any more, followed by the long, unexpected meeting with Eustacia that follows. Like him, she had expected the meeting to have included his mother, a doomed attempt by Clym to make Mrs Yeobright see reason. Eustacia, who only lives for the moment, seems only piqued by the fact that she hasn’t been able to enjoy the anticipation of some serous hand-holding time with Clym alone. And their conversation, presented verbatim, becomes one of Hardy’s psychological set pieces. He needs to show us, step by ruinous step, how the supposedly sensible and rational Clym can behave so rashly that not only does he make a formal proposal right now—he had always intended to do eventually—but to marry quickly.
This is bad. Hardy had introduced the scene with a baleful description of the fern-filled clearing where they are to meet, ‘ a grove of machine-made foliage, a world of green triangles with saw-edges, and not a single flower.’ And the early chapters of Book 3 have already prepared us for why this meeting is so ill-omened. We know that not only does Clym dislike everything Eustacia likes, especially her obsession with the society he hates—the opposite is also true. He loves absolutely everything about the Heath, including the people, while Eustacia hates it, and them, in equal measure. He’s the ‘Native’ of the title, this is his birth-right and his heritage—to the extent that, in some ways, they are one and the same. Hardy has done everything he can to present the place, in all its rough wildness, as beautiful in its own way. Like Clym—by whose appearance, which Hardy had returned to in the first chapter, the eye was ‘arrested, not by his face as a picture, but by his face as a page; not by what it was, but by what it recorded’—the Heath does not reveal its charms to a superficial glance.
Small wonder, then, that during their first meeting Eustacia’s verdict is so damning: ‘I cannot endure the heath, except in its purple season. The heath is a cruel taskmaster to me.’ Clym, an innocent in matters of the heart, does not see how much this reveals about her. And he still doesn’t get it after he has proposed, and told her that they will need to live in seclusion on the Heath for a while. Under pressure from her—she wants to get to Budmouth, as he’s promised—he puts a time-limit of six months on it. ‘I will guarantee that, if no misfortune happens.” She isn’t very sure: ‘“If no misfortune happens,” she repeated slowly.’ By now, he’s making it up as he goes along: ‘Which is not likely,’ he blithely assures her. Not only does he not know Eustasia. He doesn’t know he’s in a Hardy novel either.
But we do.
To the end of Book 3, Chapters 6-8
Sometimes I wonder whether I’m simply not tuned into the effects that Hardy is striving for with his preposterous plot machinations. I have always hated them, as I keep saying, but perhaps he wants us to join him around the gods’ table, so we can laugh along with him at the ridiculous things he’s going to make his foolish mortals do next. Whatever. All I know is that these three chapters are entirely taken up with a single device concerning Mrs Yeobright’s distribution of Clym and Thomasin’s inheritance. Following a series of unfortunate events and mishaps, and some imperfect eavesdropping—i.e. what we always get in a Hardy novel— Book 3 ends with a terrible warning about this same money: ‘it was an error which afterwards helped to cause more misfortune than treble the loss in money value could have done.’
Clym and Thomasin have been left a hundred guineas between them that Mrs Y has been keeping safe upstairs. We find this out because Thomasin has told her aunt that Wildeve, to nobody’s surprise, is not giving her any money for herself and she’s run out of her own meagre savings. She doesn’t know how to ask Wildeve to give her a proper allowance, and this is when the inheritance is mentioned: she has money of her own. But before dipping into it, Mrs Yeobright sends Thomasin away to stand up to him… but she just can’t find the right moment. (Her embarrassment with him happens offstage, presumably because even Hardy can’t make anything of somebody not daring to do something.) She sends her aunt a message, but can’t come to the house to pick up some of the cash. She isn’t feeling too well, it seems—maybe she’s pregnant… but how would we know? So now Mrs Yeobright needs to get some money to her, but how?
So far, so typical. This money has never been mentioned before this chapter but, through a kind of narrative sleight of hand, Hardy makes it seem terribly urgent that all the money gets to Thomasin, now. In fact, it isn’t urgent at all. A single guinea piece would have served for her to be going on with, but Hardy has endowed Mrs Yeobright with a certain impulsiveness and, in his usual way, he’s added another complication to the plot. Wildeve has been to her house and lets it drop that Thomasin had mentioned she had wanted to collect something from her aunt. He offers to take it back for her, but Mrs Yeobright, suspicious of him, pretends it’s nothings and will give it to her when she next sees her. Wildeve thinks this must be some trifling women’s business and leaves. But Mrs Yeobright is uneasy. She can’t imagine that Thomasin would have told him about the money—Hardy loves these uncertainties—but she can’t be sure. She decides to send all the money to her this minute.
I started to have my suspicions now, especially when she hits on the idea of sending it with the childishly timid, superstitious, born-yesterday Christian Cantle. It’s the day of Clym’s wedding, and Thomasin is attending, travelling in the Captain’s carriage. And when Mrs Yeobright comes up with the idea of sending both shares of the money to them at the same time, what could possibly go wrong? She, naturally enough—but it’s also convenient for Hardy’s purposes—has decided not to attend the wedding. If she had, of course, there would have been no jeopardy.
Are you believing any of this? Of course you aren’t—in today’s terms, the 100 guineas she’s sending with Christian would be worth something like £15,000, or over $20,000. And guess what. Unusually, he hears voices on the path between the hamlets, so he does what he always does if he’s carrying any coins. He puts 50 guineas into each of his oversized clod-hopping boots and joins the group, all of whom are locals he recognises. And it’s when Fairway and the others tell him they are going to a raffle in a different part of the Heath, an activity that Christian has managed never to hear about in his life before, that I literally had to put the book down. I knew, with absolute certainty, that by the end of the evening Christian would have lost all the money. I picked the book up again, and I wasn’t wrong. He goes to the raffle, is teased for his naivety, and a few successful bets with his own money makes it easy for the others (including Wildeve, of all people) to persuade him that the dice are lucky for him. He doesn’t gamble any of the Yeobright money. Phew. But he does let slip what he’s carrying and the two people it’s for. And…
…and I was giving up the will to live by now. Out on the Heath again, Wildeve wins all the money off him. He’d only intended to win half of it, Thomasin’s share, but (as Hardy is assiduously careful to persuade us is a plausible turn of events), once he starts winning he just can’t stop. But he tells himself he intends to give Clym his share…. Not that it matters, because Diggory Venn has been lurking about, knows what’s been going on, and decides to play dice with Wildeve. And guess what? However much Hardy might try to enliven his narrative with intrusive wild ponies, glow-worms and a death’s head moth, the outcome is what we always knew it would be. Late at night Wildeve, his pockets now empty, is enraged by his own stupidity. And Diggory, always the model citizen, waits for the carriage that Thomasin is travelling in and gives her the money. Including Clym’s share, which he thinks is hers. How does Hardy’s explanation go? (It’s very wordy.) ‘His mistake had been based upon Wildeve’s words at the opening of the game, when he indignantly denied that the guinea was not his own. It had not been comprehended by the reddleman that at halfway through the performance the game was continued with the money of another person.’
Which is when we get the doom-laden warning about the terrible consequences of the error. I can just picture it now. Thomasin—I’m guessing—won’t realise that she has Clym’s share too, Clym will assume his mother has cut him off from his rightful inheritance and, if Thomasin happens not to mention the existence of the money to her husband… well, you can imagine. Wildeve, already feeling aggrieved about the way Mrs Yeobright hadn’t trusted him, must now be seething with righteous resentment. Add to that a wife who keeps secrets, and it’s like the Uh-oh music at the end of a soap opera. Tune in next time.
OK, if I must.
Book 4—The Closed Door
In the space of a few weeks… there are more chance encounters and unlucky coincidences than even Hardy usually tries to smuggle past the reader. And somebody dies from a snake-bite, another one suffers such terrible eyestrain he has to give up reading, hopefully not for ever—It’s Clym, and he takes up full-time furze-cutting to keep the housekeeping ticking over—and another unexpectedly inherits £11,000. And, by chance, the young boy who was accompanying Mrs Yeobright… etc. etc. If it was funny—and I have to admit I did laugh out loud at the snake-bite—it would be farce. But some time before the light relief of the adder attack, when somebody has to escape awkwardly through the back door to avoid the person knocking at the front, I was as exasperated as usual. I don’t know why Hardy even bothers to pretend that people’s behaviour is the main driver in his universe, when I can almost see the card index of situations he has to bring about. The main aspect of his characters’ psychology, as far as I can see, is to do with the way they wilfully jump to conclusions, and always get it wrong.
During the first chapter, Thomasin has made sure that Clym has got his share of the legacy, so that’s OK. Except we knew, because Hardy told us, that it was never going to be OK. Christian has kept quiet about not having given the money to each of them at the wedding, so when Thomasin sends a thank-you letter to her aunt (expressing surprise at the amount but, of course, not mentioning exactly how much she’s talking about), Mrs Yeobright wonders why Clym has sent nothing. Is the rift between them so deep and wide? She must find out, mustn’t she? Whatever, Hardy needs to get to the terrible situation he’s already warned us of. But how to work it? Mrs Y is notoriously intemperate, but even she will relent, won’t she? Well, yes, even if she has to speak to (spit) Eustacia. Unluckily—oh, those pesky chance encounters—she meets her on the way. The air is icy with mutual dislike, and when she asks Eustacia if Wildeve has given her any money—she knows by now that he won it from Christian, but doesn’t know that the quietly interfering Diggory won it back from him, believing it to be all Thomasin’s—Eustacia is so mortally wounded by the implication of the question that she vows to Clym she will never speak to her again. Cue the doom-laden words from him that we’ve been waiting for: ‘I would rather have lost them twice over than have had this happen.’ Nailed it.
Next. How to speed up the slow-motion car-crash that is Clym and Eustacia’s marriage? She, we are told, never doubted that she would be able to make him see sense and move back to Paris. She just doesn’t get that while she’s from Hardy’s box labelled Wilful, Clym has Reliable running through him like the words through seaside rock. He’s a different sort of rock, and he isn’t moving. What to do but make Eustacia see sense by working harder than ever, studying his mysterious education books long into the night? We know it’s a doomed project, but Hardy speeds it up by making the idea of ruinous eyestrain fractionally more plausible by mentioning, for the first time, that Clym has had a cold that has made his eyes sensitive. He has to give up his studies, like, now. And you can just imagine how Eustacia takes it when her glamorous Paris beau appears in homely furze-cutting garb. So, nailed it again. Clym is worthy but dull, and Eustacia is tiring very quickly of life with a do-gooder. She needs to get out more. Which she does, once…
…and that’s enough for Hardy to have fate play one of its little tricks on her. She goes to an annual Heath ball—in fact, an open-air country dance in a clearing— mentioned by a woman she had happened to be speaking to. But the woman isn’t there, and Eustacia feels reluctant to crash in among strangers. She’ll leave. Except… isn’t that a familiar voice speaking her name? Isn’t it… Wildeve? He honestly didn’t know she would be there, so it really is chance that’s thrown them together. And…
…and, three chapters in, I’d had enough of Book 4. Through his preposterous plot devices—I’m reminded of those clever videos where a ball has to roll along a outlandish structure of conduits, channels and impossible-seeming manoeuvres to reach the end—Hardy has got Eustacia torturing herself with regret at her choice of husband, has dangled the unavailable Wildeve before her just enough to drive her nearly mad, has had Diggory Venn scaring Wildeve off with what he calls his ‘silent’ deterrence routines, has had Mrs Yeobright decide, at the same time on the same day in late August that Wildeve has decided he will make an innocent unannounced visit to Clym and Eustacia at home—just to clear up any misunderstandings—that she will visit them too. And, when her visit goes wrong—because, with a sort of creaking inevitability, Wildeve is in the house with Eustacia while Clym is taking his customary afternoon nap and she daren’t open the door—she, Mrs Y, decides her son has given up on her. She saw him enter the house, but was resting some way off, exhausted in the heat that Hardy has described at such length it’s like a sauna in here and, when she knocked, saw Eustacia glance through the window and not open the door—in all innocence, because she assumed Clym would answer it while she, Eustacia, was bundling Wildeve out the back, all the time telling him they must never, ever meet again.
Things, surely, have gone has wrong as they possibly could? Don’t be ridiculous. Clym, who has slept longer than usual, decides not to go back to work but, having thought he heard his mother call him in a dream—how the gods laugh!—to visit her instead. What are the chances? (Don’t ask.) Eustacia begs him not to, because she thinks Mrs Yeobright will cast her in a poor light, but they make a compromise. He will go, and they will all meet the next day to clear the air if they need to. But, meanwhile, Mrs Y is becoming more and more overcome by the heat as she makes her slow way home. A young lad joins her for a while, realising she isn’t feeling too good, and even gets her some water from a nearby pool. We know this isn’t going to be insignificant, any more than any other chance meeting is, and later we’re proved right. She tells him how she has been cast off by her son and drops dark hints about how there is nothing for her to look forward to now but death. The boy, who is only young, leaves her to it. She tries to struggle on, but can’t. And, some time later, Clym finds her in a state of collapse and manages to get her to a rough shelter. He runs to fetch the locals—Fairway et al—and she complains of a sore foot. She’s been bitten by an adder! Get a doctor! Fry some snakes! (The fat from other adders is the sure-fire country remedy.) But it’s all too late. She dies. End of Book 4…
…except no: ‘a small old-fashioned child’ comes into the shelter, and he has something to say. ‘That woman asleep there walked along with me today; and she said I was to say that I had seed her, and she was a broken-hearted woman and cast off by her son, and then I came on home.’ You couldn’t make it up. Oh, and while I’m on that subject, this was also the day that Wildeve, for it is he, discovers that a long-lost relative has left him that £11,000. Eustacia is fine about it. As if—especially when, in all innocence (again), he tells her he might do a grand tour and then live in Paris for a while. Nailed it? Hardy’s knocking in so many nails that neither Eustacia nor Clym will ever get out. And in case we haven’t got it, the title of the last chapter but one had contained the word ‘tragic.’ He let us know at the very start of the novel that we’d better take him seriously.
Book 5, The Discovery—Chapter 1
I’ve paused because I think I get where Hardy is going with this now. I mentioned the T-word at the end of Book 4—the ‘Tragic Meeting’ in the title of Chapter 7 is the one that brings Clym and his mother together, too late—and now it looks as though he is about to achieve full tragic hero status. For that, of course, he needs to be in the presence of death. Clym is drowning in it, obsessing over his mother’s, three weeks ago now. ‘I cannot help feeling that I did my best to kill her,’ he says, and our helpful narrator tells us how ‘he longed for death as a field labourer longs for the shade.’
OK, got it—not that Hardy leaves it at that. But there’s other talk of killing too, and this is what lets us know that Hardy is raising the stakes. Clym is so beside himself—most of this chapter consists of him telling Eustacia or Thomasin, or of them talking about it—that Eustacia becomes fearful. She knows what really led to Mrs Yeobright’s desperate retreat over the sun-baked Heath, and she talks about the quandary she’s in, to the only other person in the world who knows her secret. ‘O, I want to tell him; and yet I am afraid. If he finds it out he must surely kill me, for nothing else will be in proportion to his feelings now.’ Wildeve—who else?—tries to talk her through it. ‘Well, wait till he is better, and trust to chance. And when you tell, you must only tell part—for his own sake.’ Guess which part she mustn’t tell. In ‘a low tone’ he states the obvious. ‘That I was in the house at the time.’
Is Eustacia just being melodramatic with those fears of hers? Clym, desperate as he is, is simply not the kind of man to commit murder. Or is he? Hardy likes to sow the seeds of doubt, and he does it through Eustacia herself, just before she and Wildeve decide not to mention he was in the house that day. ‘“Beware the fury of a patient man” sounds day by day in my ears as I watch him.’ She might be right. And now Hardy has added one of his favourite ingredients into the mix, the secret. They could explain why he was there if they thought about it—he arrived not knowing Clym would be sleeping—but, by keeping it a secret, well… just imagine the consequences when it comes out. By giving Book 5 the title The Discovery, Hardy is surely letting us know that it will. And when it does, whatever will the patient man do?
The rest of Book 5
People make rash decisions. Or people take care to make the right decisions, but they’ll wait before acting on them. And not only is it possible, lost in a King Lear-strength night-time storm on the blasted Heath, to happen upon Diggory’s notoriously peripatetic caravan—he spends the early chapters of Book 5 being impossible to find—but, when you glimpse the light from the window, he’s gone out because he heard somebody weeping outside not five minutes before. That somebody had been Eustacia, although it’s Thomasin who has accidentally spotted the light in the distance because Diggory has just lit it, having been woken by the sound of sobs, and of a silk dress brushing past. He explains this to Thomasin when he gets back, having lost Eustacia and found the only woman he’s ever loved seeking shelter. It’s like Piccadilly Circus on the Heath tonight. She, Eustacia, is weeping because she’s absolutely desperate. She must think that Wildeve—who’s lost track of the time, the idiot—isn’t coming to pick her up, despite the signal he gave, as agreed last night when he came to see what the bonfire was all about, the one Charley the stable-lad lit because it’s Bonfire Night again and he thought she’d like it. She hadn’t been seeking Wildeve out, obviously, but she’s put up with enough ostracism from Clym Yeobright to last her a lifetime, has gone to live with her father again, and has suffered all the terrible emotions in existence for so long she’s worn them all out.
If only Clym would make some sign of reconciliation! But he doesn’t although, as we know, he’s been through a swirling emotional vortex of his own which has left him ready to draw a line under past difficulties—ready, even, to believe that although she didn’t open the door to his mother, and although, as she confirms in the huge row this leads to, she expected it would be OK to leave it to the sleeping Clym to wake up to open the door because there was another man, innocently enough but it would have looked terrible, in the house with her at the time. He knows it’s Wildeve, but there’s never been any evidence that she has committed adultery and he really, really doesn’t think she would do such a thing.
For once in his life, he’s right, but the gods aren’t playing his game. They’re playing their own, and in their universe it isn’t too much of a coincidence for him to write a conciliatory letter to her on Bonfire Night, at exactly the same time that she, contrary to what she thought had been her own intentions, is making a no-strings deal with Wildeve that he would get her to Budmouth and let her sail to France alone. No coincidence is too far-fetched for the gods—they can do what they like—so we mustn’t consider it mind-bogglingly implausible for Clym to decide to delay sending the letter, just in case she comes knocking on the door next day. Just one more day, what harm could it do after all these weeks? And would it be too much of a coincidence for Fairway to forget to give it to Eustacia’s father until the evening, and for the father to let her sleep when he realises her light is off, and leave it for her to read in the morning, even though she isn’t asleep, just waiting until midnight to meet Wildeve? And, when he hears her leaving the house—he’s disturbed by an uncharacteristic sound on the stair—is it just too, too unlucky that she’s vanished into the tempest before he can tell her about the letter, which appears to be from her husband? (OK, Hardy tells us—he hasn’t given up on telling us stuff—that even if she read it she’d probably go through with the plan that an interminably long day of emotional roller-coastering has made to seem like a vision of calm good sense. I’m paraphrasing.)
Is it just me? When I’m watching, say, a James Bond or Marvel action movie, do I keep bleating on about how none of it could happen? No I don’t, and I’m sure plenty of readers are as ready to suspend their disbelief through all this as they are when, say, Lear meets all those people on his own blasted heath, the one that’s clearly the prototype for this one. Why don’t I just go with the flow, as Clym tries to do when he launches into the whirlpool, literally this time, that is in danger of claiming the life of the only woman he ever loved?
Because, reader, she’s only gone and got herself mixed up with that pesky weir at the edge of the Heath. You know, the one Hardy seems to have forgotten to mention before, the one he has to describe in all its Industrial Revolution-strength detail with its ‘large circular pool, fifty feet in diameter, into which the water flowed through ten huge hatches, raised and lowered by a winch and cogs,’ because he’s giving it an awful lot of work to do. He needs it to provide him with his denouement. Don’t get me wrong, he can describe a scene like this brilliantly—but come on. Like the whole of the rest of Book 5, the situation is so close to pastiche I only wish it were a Buster Keaton film and not a melodrama that Hardy keeps telling us is high tragedy. (Earlier, Clym’s face, not a bit like Keaton’s, ‘had passed into the phase more or less imaginatively rendered in studies of Oedipus,’ and, as Thomasin waits, ‘the storm without … breathed into the chimney strange low utterances that seemed to be the prologue to some tragedy.’ Thanks, Thomas, we get it.)
That denouement. Eustacia is drowned, her corpse a beaten-up ruin of bruised flesh and broken bones. Only joking—in death, she’s never looked more beautiful. The gods can play that game too when they want: ‘death … eclipsed all her living phases. Pallor did not include all the quality of her complexion, which seemed more than whiteness; it was almost light. The expression of her finely carved mouth was pleasant, as if a sense of dignity had just compelled her to leave off speaking….’ Wildeve, who jumped in to save her, is also drowned, despite his attempt to save himself by hanging on to Clym, almost drowning him too in the process. Almost, but not quite—so now he can lament his fate a bit more, which is always edifying. With ‘a wild smile’ he cries out, ‘She is the second woman I have killed this year. I was a great cause of my mother’s death, and I am the chief cause of hers…. It is I who ought to have drowned myself…. But I cannot die. Those who ought to have lived lie dead; and here am I alive!’
Did I mention that I’m never going to read any more Thomas Hardy novels, ever? I’ve been saying it to people whenever I’ve mentioned I’m reading this one, and I’m saying it now. There’s just the (mercifully short) Book 6 left to read, and then I’m finished for good.
Well, no impossible coincidences, no disasters, no sounds of gods laughing at the follies of mortals. That’s because nothing happens at all. Except Clym becomes a harmless itinerant preacher, all passion spent—’he had nothing more of that supreme quality left to bestow’ after Eustacia—having briefly considered marrying Thomasin from a wrong-headed belief that it had been his mother’s wish. And, in a footnote to the third chapter (of four) Hardy tells us he planned not to have the perfunctorily happy ending of a wedding between Diggory and Thomasin, he wanted Venn to have ‘disappeared mysteriously from the heath,’ his work done. How does it go? ‘But certain circumstances of serial publication led to a change of intent.’ That’s the most exciting thing about Book 6: Hardy turns to the reader and says, this is what seems to be expected. He goes on with the biggest cop-out imaginable: ‘Readers can therefore choose between the endings, and those with an austere artistic code can assume the more consistent conclusion to be the true one.’ This is tantamount to a big fat ‘Don’t blame me.’
Other writers have offered more considered versions of this idea—and ones in which they don’t bleat on about a ‘more consistent’ approach than they’ve been allowed. My favourite comes in a novel published in the 1850s. (This one, if you’re interested.) In the final chapter, a terrible event seems to have brought about the end to any hope of happiness for the narrator, but—and it chimes perfectly with everything we know about her self-concealing nature—she pretends it might not be that way. It’s with a sort of gruesome tact that she presents the reader with a get-out clause, offering no excuses and clearly seeking to avoid any tug of sympathy: ‘Here pause: pause at once. There is enough said. Trouble no quiet, kind heart; leave sunny imaginations hope. Let it be theirs to conceive the delight of joy born again fresh out of great terror, the rapture of rescue from peril, the wondrous reprieve from dread, the fruition of return. Let them picture union and a happy succeeding life.’ It’s brilliant because the author has achieved exactly what the narrator was seeking to avoid: the reader’s sincere pity. It’s no get-out clause for the author—it’s a master-stroke. And not a bit like Hardy’s little gripe.
I’m done here.