Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 125 pages; 2007.
Ahh, Thomas Hardy, how I love thee! It has been far too long since I last read anything by you. I think it was probably Jude the Obscure, way back in 1996, after I had seen the heartbreaking Michael Winterbottom film Jude. But I also have fond memories of Tess of the d’Urbervilles read during my final year at school as part of my HSC (Higher School Certificate) back in 1987.
More recently, I have seen the church you helped to restore in north-eastern Cornwall and the Hardy Tree in St Pancras Old Church, a short walk from King’s Cross tube station, so I have to confess that part of me is intrigued by your life (and loves). I tend to feel guilty that I have not read more of your work, and so when I discovered A Mere Interlude in Penguin’s Great Loves collection I had a chance to rectify this a little.
I am so glad I read this slim volume — as a short story writer you are so very skilled. All three stories presented here — A Mere Interlude, An Imaginative Woman and The Withered Arm — are so very tragic. Perhaps this is why Penguin has billed this particular book as “love can be heartbreaking”.
What is it that happened in your life that allowed you to render the female heart so realistically?
In the first story I could feel the pain of the protagonist, Baptista, who is travelling home to marry her parents’ old neighbour. Enroute she bumps into her long lost lover and elopes with him. But then tragedy strikes and he dies unexpectedly. Under any circumstances this would be devastating, but Baptista has to pick herself up, dust herself off and return home as if nothing has happened. She marries the old man she has been betrothed to and then spends an inordinate amount of time worrying that someone somewhere will discover her tragic secret…
The second story is as equally disturbing, in that a young married woman falls in love with a poet she has never met. Pretending to be a male poet, she strikes up a correspondence with her heart’s desire, only to discover this form of communication is no substitute for the real thing. She tries to engineer a meeting with him, but tragedy strikes before the pair can meet face to face.
The third and final story is the closest thing to a Gothic horror story that I have read for a long time. When a local farmer marries a young woman, one of the older milkmaids feels she has been usurped. Then the milkmaid has a disturbing and incredibly realistic dream in which she grabs the arm of the farmer’s wife and “whirled it backwards to the floor” so violently that she awakes in a cold sweat. On the morning after the milkmaid’s dream the farmer’s wife discovers strange and painful marks on her arm which will not go away. Over the course of time her limb begins to slowly wither away and there seems little that can be done to stop this, until she visits a local witchdoctor who suggests a rather creepy solution…
Thank-you, Mr Hardy, for these truly memorable stories that got stuck in my brain and will no doubt stay there for a long, long time to come. I enjoyed reading them and found myself admiring — not for the first time — your talent, your skill and your imagination.