Tag Archives: Hardy

Book Review: The Trumpet Major by Thomas Hardy

If you know me well and follow this blog (which narrows it down to about 4 people) you may have noted that I haven’t read that much Thomas Hardy lately. Aside from having other reading to do, I am fairly close to the end of the Hardy canon. Having been hooked by Jude the Obscure quite a few years ago, before this blog started, I have worked my way through his major works and am now going through some of lesser known novels. After this, the only ones I will have left to go are:

  • Two on a Tower
  • The Hand of Ethelberta
  • A Laodicean

After which, I expect to start again with those haven’t been reviewed on this blog. But enough of the future plans, what about this book?

This was the first of the books I received for Christmas. Starting a Hardy novel often takes a little time to tune in, as the cadences of the speech and some archaic words, as well the regional accents spelled phonetically, can confuse the modern reader who is more used to plain English. In this respect, the book’s opening reminded me of a slightly less shambolic start to that which greets us in Under the Greenwood Tree.

Our two main characters which come into sight are the Trumpet-Major himself and Anne, who is quite fond of the arrival of an army regiment in Overcombe in the Wessex downs. Unlike most of Hardy’s novels, set in the latter part of the 19th century, this is set in the early years of that century, particularly against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. Indeed, the reason the regiment take up their post on the south coast is because there is a belief (or is it fear?) that Buonaparte, as he is referred to, may be about to launch an invasion.

There is something of a friendship developed between the man of the army and woman of the village, but their social status is not the primary driver between them. Other suitors are nearby, not least the character of Festus Derriman. To him is afforded the very worst of characteristics. He thinks of himself as a gentleman, but is a misogynist of the ugliest character, with lines such as “Haw, haw; why, I thought your “go away” meant “come on” as it does with so many of the women I meet.” Charming.

The other contender for Anne’s affection is a character called Bob. Here, Hardy’s storytelling skills fall down a little, as it is not until second half of the book that we work out (though it is not a startling revelation, as though it were a plot point) that Bob is in fact the brother of trumpet major, who is sometimes referred to as John, sometimes as Jack. This creates some confusion when a character is then referred to simply by their surname, as the reader cannot immediately tell if it is Bob or John who is being referenced.

As with some of Hardy’s best work, somebody dies and somebody falls in love, though I shan’t disclose here the final outcome. The level of drama ramps up, making the second half of the book much better than the first, not least because some of the background characters drop out of the picture, leaving us with fewer characters to focus on, though I wasn’t overly impressed with the depth of characterisation. The climax of the book was marvelously entertaining and I still wasn’t sure what the final outcome would be right up until the final few pages.

It’s a wonderfully entertaining book that kept me distracted for little over a week, but I can see why it’s not considered part of Hardy’s “core” canon.

Book Review: A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy

If you were to ask the average person on the street to name 5 Thomas Hardy books, I doubt A Pair of Blue Eyes would appear very often in such a list. Being one of Hardy’s lesser known works, I began my reading in a state of perplexity as it has all the makings of as fine a romance as Hardy has written. The main character, Elfride Swancourt, is the owner of the titular eyes and is said to have been based on Hardy’s first wife.

A vicar’s daughter (oh, how I know the dangers thus!), Elfride soon attracts the attention of an architect from London, come to do some restoration on her father’s church building. But the path of love never does run smooth in Wessex and circumstances of family status conspire to confound them. Even an attempted elopement fails when Elfride’s fickle nature gets the better of her and she hastily retreats, though the couple retain their affection for one another while further circumstances ensure that they are physically apart for a while.

Hardy makes some slyly self-deprecating remarks in this book including, “The regular resource of people who don’t go enough into the world to live a novel is to write one.” This advice is offered to Elfride, unbeknownst that she already had and that a copy had made its way to a reviewer, a friend of the architect.

Though Elfride shows some affection to this reviewer, it is not reciprocated. Well, at least not at first…

I could continue but I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. The more I read the more I was puzzled as to why this is not considered one of Hardy’s best works. The only reason I could think of was that there are early shadows of Tess here and that it comes second in a direct comparison between the two. Hardy’s sense of place, societal pressures and the passions of individuals are as strong as ever. It was a delight to read, with the ending leaving me a little choked up and possibly something in my eye too.

Book Review: Desperate Remedies by Thomas Hardy

Those of you with a keen eye on this blog will be aware that I have something of a love for the writings of Thomas Hardy. I’ve read the majority of his novels (though not all of them reviewed on this blog) but this was my first reading of his first published novel (he did write one before this, but it never saw the light of day – I’m still wishing the manuscript will be discovered one day). Prior to reading it, I was led to believe that it was quite un-Hardy-esque in every conceivable aspect. I took this to mean it was quite unlike his other writings in style, themes, use of language and of characterisation, etc.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that this is not a wholly accurate description of Desperate Remedies at all. In fact, it’s really a rather good book with many features in it that readers of Hardy’s more famous works may well recognise.

The story revolves around the affairs of one Cytheria Graye, whose father dies at the start of the novel and who leaves no inheritance of any value. So her desperate remedy, encouraged by her protective brother, Owen, is to take up residence as a domestic assistant to a middle-aged spinster, Miss Aldclyffe (who seemed to have been somewhat inspired by Miss Haversham from Dickens’ Great Expectations). The opening of the book takes the reader down some tunnels, with sudden twists and turns in the plotline, though with such a tight focus, I will admit that something of the locational scale of Hardy’s later writing was missing.

Eventually, the story settles to a more rural pace and we find ourselves in a story of unrequieted love, foiled affairs and underhanded manipulation of the characters. Mid-way through the book, almost the whole cast of characters are thrown together in a tumultuous event, with the remainder of the book dealing with the fallout thereof. I hesitate to be more specific, lest I spoil the book for anyone. It is only in the resolution that Hardy really goes in a different direction than that which he took with his later novels. Yet one can clearly see early hints here of later writings such as Far From The Madding Crowd, Jude The Obscure and The Return of the Native.

The pace of the book is a little uneven, with turgid, aimless passages suddenly giving way to a flurry of prose of exciting events and vivid imagery. While it may be a little off the beaten track in terms of the Hardy canon, it is by no means the weakest of his writings and I’d encourage you to dive in.

Book Review: The Well-Beloved by Thomas Hardy

Having put a lot of Hardy’s lesser known books on my Christmas wishlist, I received quite a few from my parents. Of these, I still have Under The Greenwood Tree and Desperate Remedies waiting to be read. However, I try not to read them back to back lest I start to get them muddled in my mind.

Yet there is little danger of The Well-Beloved being mixed up with any other novels, as it stands apart as very different from the rest of Hardy’s Wessex novels. Set partly on the Isle of Purbeck, but also with scenes in London and other locations which are namedropped by Hardy in other works, the story follows the life of Jocelyn Pierston. The novel consists of three parts, where he is aged 20, 40 & 60 but in each is described as “a young man.”

When we first meet him he is search of his ideal woman, but not in a conventional manner. He has this strange idea that he pursues an ethereal spirit, named as one point as that of Aphrodite, which he refers to as the Well-Beloved. This spirit rests upon a young woman, imbuing her with an indescribable sense of beauty which Jocelyn perceives. However, the resting place of this spirit of the Well-Beloved is fleeting, and can depart its host as suddenly as it arrives, leaving the woman but a shadow of herself. Yet this is seemingly imperceptible to all but Jocelyn.

As he pursues this ideal, we see how poorly he treats women, losing interest in them and discarding them with little regard to their feelings or circumstances. The modern reader may well, as did I at first, consider this simply an elaborate critique of male fickleness in lust, though I am not convinced that this was Hardy’s intention. Indeed, of all of Hardy’s works that I have read, this seemed to have aged far less well. Though his themes of love foiled by circumstance may be considered timeless, the way in which he approached The Well-Beloved may look quite out of date now.

[Spoiler alert]

Of his various lovers, we are asked especially to take note of Avice. The reason for this is because the rest of the book continues Jocelyn’s love affair with separate generations of Avice. So when he is 40, and the first Avice has died, Jocelyn becomes obsessed with her daughter, also named Avice. Yet just as Jocelyn is on the verge of redeeming his past mistakes with the first Avice, circumstances prevent him from marrying the second Avice.

In the final part of the story, Jocelyn is now 60, the second Avice is still very much with us and we are introduced a third Avice, who it is Jocelyn’s intention to marry. However, just as things did not work out with either her mother or grandmother, so once again Jocelyn is thwarted once more.

[End spoiler]

The book could be read in a number of different ways, especially as viewed through 21st century eyes, which may well be far from what the author intended. In some ways Jocelyn is a figure of great romance, pursuing the ideal for years and years before finally realising what is truly beautiful and which he had considered a great thorn in his side for many years. Yet it is hard to not think of him as a bit of a creep, jumping from girl to girl. I was reminded of the character of Mr Collins from Pride and Prejudice who was able to change the object of his desire from Jane to Elizabeth in the time it took for Mrs Bennett to poke a fire.

With that said, it is still a very good read, though not one of Hardy’s finest. Whereas, in his more famous novels, he evokes a very strong sense of place (probably not better than in The Return of the Native and The Mayor of Casterbridge), this is scaled back in The Well-Beloved. The little turns of phrase which usually evoke such great insight into a person’s character and circumstance are noticeable by their absence.

Definitely an intriguing read, but I wouldn’t recommend it as your introduction to Hardy.

Book review: The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

I make no apology for the fact that I am a big Thomas Hardy fan. My intention is to finish reading all of his Wessex novels. The return of the native is the last of the “major” novels for me to have got through (the others being Far From the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure).

The setting for the story is the region of Egdon Heath. The Heath itself is almost a character in itself, and a very dark and malevolent one at that. The ‘native’ of the title is Clym Yeobright, a young man who has spent several years away from the heath where he grew up in order to live and work in Paris, though, having grown disillusioned with that life he chooses to return and train as a schoolmaster.

The early part of the novel, though, doesn’t feature Clym at all. Instead, the first part of the story sets us up my meeting who I would really regard as the main character of the novel: Eustacia Vye. In terms of the evolution of Hardy’s women, Eustacia is most similar to Bathsheba Everdene from Far From The Madding Crowd, only for all that Bathsheba had in naïve innocence, Eustacia has in scheming selfishness.

Eustacia’s character is given its introduction by her attitude towards Mr Wildeve, who has just postponed his wedding because he may still have feelings for Eustacia. This first part I felt wasn’t Hardy’s best opening as many of the male characters are given inadequate introductions, with the exception of Diggory Venn (the reddleman). It’s only in the second main section of the book that we learn who the main characters are as other drift into the background.

It is quite a classic Hardy novel in that the central theme is that of love in a fatalistic setting. As ever, his use of the English language is exquisite, which makes every paragreaph a pleasure to read. Because some of Hardy’s characters seem to be very similar to those in his other writings, one may consider criticising him for not being original in his character creation; I would not, though. All of his main characters are realistic and readily identifiable in people I know, have known, and in some cases there are characteristics that I see in myself. In this book, I found myself identifying much with Diggory Venn, as I have identified with Michael Henchard in Mayor and with Gabriel Oak in Far. As for Eustacia, it’s fair to say I’ve met one or two in the past, and am careful to steer clear of them in the future.

As the novel progresses, each of the characters, driven by their own desires of betterment, drive themselves to the point of destructive obsession. While the book is most similar to Far From The Madding Crowd in terms of the ‘love polygons’ that Hardy creates, by this time in his writing career, Hardy was not afraid of a tragic ending. Indeed here, there is a tragic end for at least one of the characters, though the very very end of the book does contain a positive note which I actually felt spoiled it a little. Hardy himself does actually include a small footnote to say that this “additional” ending was somewhat forced upon him by the fact that book was originally published as a serial.

While maybe not as good as Tess or Mayor, this is still one of the best novels I have ever read and would heartily recommend it to you.

Book Review: Tess of the D’urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

This is probably Hardy’s most famous novel, centred around one of the most well-known characters in all of 19th century literature. At a basic level of reading, this is the tale of a girl who has been wronged and her struggle to find for herself something resembling a normal life. There are some similarities with Hardy’s earlier work, The Mayor of Casterbridge, only where Michael Henchard was the perpetrator who later had his past catch up with him, Tess is very much the victim but who, in the eyes of the society she inhabits, is a pariah for what has happened to her.

One of the main themes of the book is forgiveness, but it is also a comment on Victorian moralism and pietist hegemony in the quasi-religious society at the time. The key question posed is whether or not Tess really did anything wrong that required forgiveness. In the end, she only committed one wrongful act and paid the price for that. More than that, there is also the tale of discovery and redemption for Angel Clare, who discovers that his unforgiveness towards Tess is unfounded and that his love for her can conquer any obstruction in their way.

The book is beautifully written and captures the spirit of the age perfectly. Over a hundred years since it was written, it still stands as one of the greatest works of literature in the English language.

Book Review: Wessex Tales by Thomas Hardy

This collection of short stories is by no means Hardy’s best work, but it is nonetheless a worthwhile read. I won’t review each an every story here, but I will bring your attention to what I believe are the two best. They are The Three Strangers and The Distracted Preacher, which bookend the collection of tales.

The Three Strangers is an oddly comic tale, quite uncharacteristic from some of Hardy’s more fatalistic tragedies. It is a well-constructed tale, although the ‘twist’ is rather obvious. But that does not diminish from my enjoyment of the story.

The Distracted Preacher is far and away the best story of the lot. It is very much in the mould of Hardy’s more famous novels, where love is thwarted by circumstances and by social and moral standards that must be seen to be maintained. The setting is reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, though it has to be noted that Hardy’s tale was written several decades earlier, raising the interesting question as to whether or not Jamaica Inn was influenced by The Distracted Preacher.

The rest of the stories are OK, but to me, they didn’t really stand out and I was left with a feeling of just plain indifference towards them. They weren’t especially bad, but they weren’t especially good either; certainly not compared to the two highlighted tales here or to Hardy’s more famous novels.

In conclusion, I would recommend this, though not as a book to read cover to cover. Rather, it is better to take each story individually and not start one as soon as you have finished another.