Saturday, February 14, 2015

Thomas Hardy's Return Of The Native

If I ever have the chance to visit Britain, I would like to travel through Wessex…  to wander where Bathsheba Everdene walked with Gabriel Oak among the pastures and flocks, where Tess Durbeyfield lived her early simple cottage life and the town of Casterbridge where a mayor’s past catches up with him….

The problem is… there is actually no such place.  

A fictitious area that featured as a setting in all of Hardy’s major novels, Wessex was named after the medieval Anglo-Saxon kingdom that historically did exist in southwest England prior to the Norman Conquest and it was the area that Hardy himself called home. Using this imagined world gave Hardy a feeling of freedom that enabled him to  translate his social concerns into his fictional works whether it related to class inequality issues, the ruination of many rural communities by new industry and technologies or the troubling gender issues that affected all levels of Hardy’s world.

Six of Hardy’s Wessex novels were an achievement of great British literature - Far From The Madding Crowd (1874), The Return Of The Native (1878), The Mayor Of Casterbridge (1886), The Woodlanders (1887), Tess Of The d’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude The Obscure (1895).

The next read for The Jane Austen Tea Society in our current plan of British Victorian Authors is Thomas Hardy’s The Return Of The Native.  

This sixth published novel was originally released in twelve monthly installments in the Belgravia magazine from January to December 1878 and published as a thee-volume novel in November of the same year.  The time span of the novel covers almost exactly a year and a day.

Much about the content of The Return of the Native was disturbing to the prevailing Victorian society.  Thomas Hardy has been termed a Victorian Realist and it is easy to see why, when you consider the many controversial themes included in this work; thwarted desire, the conflicting demands of nature and society and an open acknowledgement of illicit sexual relationships. He felt deeply for the complex inner struggles that humans experience as they wrestle with their destinies. D.H. Lawrence saw The Return Of The Native as a study in the way communities control their misfits - tragic characters struggling against their passions and social circumstances.

Perhaps the most notable character in The Return Of The Native is Egdon Heath. Windswept and lonely - brooding and inquiet with huge overhanging skies with the wide expanse of burnished hues of brown, green and yellow below, the heath affects its inhabitants, their personalities and most probably their fates. 

In the Autumn of 2014 The British National Trust acquired the heathland that is thought to be the inspiration for Egdon Heath in The Return Of The Native.  David Brown, Trust ecologist predicts that Hardy enthusiasts will journey to the heath to experience this landscape so tied with the major Hardy novel and so resembling the characters presented in that work. Brown said; “If you want to get a feeling for the Egdon Heath in The Return Of The Native, this is the place to come.  It has a sensation of wilderness, of vastness and emptiness.  It’s a place to lose yourself in.”

Author Thomas Hardy was born June 2, 1840 in a small hamlet called Higher Bockhampton which is located in the southwestern English county of Dorset. His childhood was filled with a wealth of the deep influences of culture and locale. From their two-story brick and thatch cottage, Thomas Hardy naturally absorbed a love for literature from his mother, who although she had only served as a maidservant and cook, loved to read Latin poets and translated French romances.

His father, a self-employed master mason and building contractor, had descended from an old Dorset family tracing back to the Isle of Jersey in the1400s and was an avid violin player who passed along his love of music to young Hardy.

Thomas Hardy’s childhood very much revolved around literature, music, the local church and life in a rustic rural setting – all of which translated into the body of work that the author became renowned for and for which he was much loved by his devoted readers.

When I was finally able to put aside the college textbooks and night times taken up with study and homework after graduation, I set out on a personal journey to read through the classics… Now that my reading choices were my own I delved into Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and with a particular relish… Thomas Hardy.

I didn’t lose my heart to Hardy the way I did to John Keats but the writing style of Thomas Hardy totally captured my mind. His word-crafting is sublime and the wise reader will keep a dictionary handy if your love of words is equal to your love of story.

Our next book discussion will take place at 11am on Saturday the 18th of April, 2015 at a lively Irish pub in Nashville. 

There is plenty of time to walk the wild & atmospheric path that this book offers. Don’t pass this Thomas Hardy masterpiece by and miss the experience!

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