As it’s summertime, it seemed only right to read another of Thomas Hardy’s novels. I’ve now read the majority of his works, and this is the last of the more well-known Wessex novels for me to tackle, even though it was one of the very early books that he wrote.
Though not usually considered as one of his best in popular circles (that title usually goes to Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Far From The Madding Crowd or Jude The Obscure) but to aficionados of Hardy, this is a perennial favourite. Perhaps some of the reason behind this is that the overall tone is much more optimistic than those more tragic novels. I confess though that the book took me a while to get into. While the very opening was a wonderful description of place, as became typical of Hardy’s later writing, he then launches into a very confused scene.
As a reader, my preference is always for characters to be introduced fairly slowly, one at a time, so you can get to distinguish between them and learn to love or hate their various characteristics. What we have here is a whole choir (sometimes spelled colloquially as quire) who are introduced to us all at once. In such an introduction, I found it very difficult to tell them apart. From there, much of the dialogue in the first half of the book was hard to follow. This is compounded by one of Hardy’s notable features: his writing in the rural vernacular. Though noticeable in his later books, the speech here is particularly impenetrable at times.
The story really only then picks up in the second half, where two main characters emerge out of the crowd: Dick Dewey and Fancy Day. There is a very gentle romance between these two which is very engaging and shows off Hardy’s great talent as a writer of romance. But things in the world of Hardy’s Wessex rarely run without a hitch. Some family objections are thrown into the path of the two lovers, seemingly hindering them from their path to matrimony. Also, though they may seem young and innocent, at least one of the two parties, during the course of their engagement, does not exactly rebuff all advances made their way. As for the ending, I shall leave for you to see who it was that wore the wry smile and why.
I could not say that I agree with those who think this one of Hardy’s best novels. However, as a work of fiction, it is as good, if not much better, than most other works of the 19th century. Though it is very short, the denseness of the language in the first half of the novel should not be underestimated. But if you can find a tree to sit under for a couple of sunny days, then this would find accompaniment to that idyllic scene.