Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

“I won't be a slave to the past. I'll love where I choose.”
― Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

I long to visit England…  to one day have the chance to travel through Wessex…  to wander the sweet smelling farm 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.

“Happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.”
― Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

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). 

These Wessex novels are outstanding works that continue to give us a wealth of unforgettable characters - with one of the strongest and most conflicted being Michael Henchard. We follow this memorable character in our next read for The Jane Austen Tea Society  -  The Mayor Of Casterbridge.

“It was part of his nature to extenuate nothing and live on as one of his own worst accusers.”
― Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

This masterful novel first appeared in a serial form concurrently in Graphic Magazine in England  and Harper’s Weekly in the US from January to May of 1886 and was then published in two volumes in book form the same year. Thomas Hardy’s tenth published novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge related a story that Hardy himself described as having taken place “before the 19th century had reached one-third of its span” yet there are many strong Gothic elements that surface during the storyline lending a dark and ominous edge that subtly influences our perceptions.

“Life is an oasis which is submerged in the swirling waves of sorrows and agonies.”
― Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

Set in a place based on the real-life town Dorchester in Dorset  - it is recognizable enough by description in the book that a well-versed guide of today can show you where all of the major events occurred. Hardy did not attempt at all to hide that fact that it was set in the town where he lived and it was possible that his current day readers knew each house that was described and everything down to roads and farms that were set out in the smallest detail.

As the original title - The Life And Death Of The Mayor Of Casterbridge: A Story Of A Man Of Character - implies, this work is a careful study of character and the effect of a person’s actions against each person close to him.  It is a story of the fatal impact possible in our choices and the wayward direction of heart.  This work is a carefully structured novel - possibly the most minutely structured of any Hardy book.  His characters were not idealized as many authors did during his time period - they were real flesh and blood people with faults and passions.  Critics weren’t always appreciative of where Hardy took his characters, but they approved of the masterpiece that Mayor of Casterbridge proved itself to be.

“Though when at home their countenances varied with the seasons, their market faces all the year round were glowing little fires.”
― Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

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.  Hardy had a deep love of poetry and even as a renowned author of novels, primarily thought of himself as a poet.

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.

"Some folks want their luck buttered.”
― Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

In my own life, 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 near the end of July here in Nashville. There is plenty of time to walk the vivid & atmospheric path that this book offers. Don’t pass this Thomas Hardy masterpiece by and miss the experience!

“She had been too early habituated to anxious reasoning to drop the habit suddenly.”
― Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge