To the best of my knowledge this is considered one of Hardy’s better written books, though having not discovered Hardy until my 20s, it doesn’t appear to be one of the most well known. I must confess that I got about 50 pages in, but hadn’t really absorbed much of it given that I found it quite dull and made myself go back and start again. The reason for this is that in the opening scene (which is similar to The Return of the Native) just seems to happen and then bears little relevance to the rest of the start of the book.
The book begins with a lone traveller on the road. The traveller in question is looking for a tiny hamlet called Little Hintock which is the setting for this story. It is buried away in a woodland and out of the way for most people so that it remains unfound to all except to those who seek it out, as this traveller does. When he does reach his destination, the first major dialogue is between himself and a young girl named Marty South.
The trouble is that neither of them play a very big part for most of the rest of the novel. So when I was getting into the rest of it I found myself thinking what had happened to them and didn’t really take notice of the main characters as they are introduced.
The plot, not entirely unlike Far From The Madding Crowd, focuses on the relationship of one woman with more than man. The woman in question is Grace Melbury, a resident of Little Hintock and childhood sweetheart of Giles Winterbourne. Giles’ father was a good friend to Grace’s father and the senior Mr. Melbury had promised that he would allow Grace to marry Giles.
Through circumstances beyond his control Giles ends up as a man of very modest means and Grace’s father decides that his daughter’s marriage to Giles is no longer the best option. Enter onto the scene Dr. Edred Fitzpiers. He is a newcomer to Little Hintock, trying to create a medical practice for himself between two neighbouring towns. He approaches Grace’s father and asks for permission to court and marry Grace. Deciding that the wife of a doctor is a reasonable future for Grace, Mr. Melbury agrees.
However, all is not well in the marriage. Though I shan’t spoil too much, Grace is given cause to become greatly unhappy; news of which reaches her father. Through a sequence of meetings, news comes forth that there may be a legal loophole through which Grace may divorce Fitzpiers and be married to Giles. In Hardy’s time, this would have been most scandalous, and it is a major feature of his writing in general that he challenges what were the socially accepted norms.
Yet again, though, things do not work out well to the say the least. But I would recommend you read the book to find out exactly how.
For much of the first half of the book, I was wondering if it really was one his better written books, as it didn’t seem to come close to the likes of Tess of the D’Urbervilles or my own favourite, The Mayor of Casterbridge. By the end, though, I was brought around to the writing. The reason is that the first half of the book has, as I pointed out, some seemingly disjointed sections which don’t sit well within the narrative. But by about 2/3rds of the way through Hardy starts pulling these threads together and the reader finally gets to the see the whole picture. The main climax to the narrative doesn’t come at the very end, so as I was reading I was wondering how the novel would actually end, given it seemed to be petering out.
Then, at the very last, the final piece of the puzzle is put back in place, which harks back to the opening scene. So I now recognise the brilliance of the writing, though the actual plot itself I felt lacked a little of the richness that his more novels have.