‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ by Thomas Hardy

Mayor-of-Casterbridge

Fiction – Kindle edition; Public Domain Books; 400 pages; 1994.

When it comes to pre-20th century classics, Thomas Hardy is my man. Years before I started this blog I read and loved Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. More recently I very much enjoyed A Mere Interlude, published as part of Penguin’s Great Loves collection. Now I can safely add The Mayor of Casterbridge to my list of affections.

The novel, first published in 1886, is a sweeping drama about the life and death of a poor hay trusser, Michael Henchard, who rises to become a rich grain merchant and well respected mayor in the fictional town of Casterbridge before falling into poverty once again.

Henchard is a fascinating character, deeply flawed, who looks at the world in a glass-half-full kind of way. He’s besieged by petty jealousies and makes terribly rash decisions, which ultimately bring about his downfall. He also has a foul temper that he finds difficult to control.

The book’s opening gives us a pretty good picture of what this character is really like. He gets drunk and then sells his wife, Susan, and their young daughter to a passing sailor. Once they are gone and he sobers up, Henchard realises the horrible deed he has done. Full of remorse, he takes himself to the nearest church and makes a personal oath that he will never touch a drop of alcohol for 21 years, which is as many years as he has lived.

The story then jumps ahead by 19 years, and when we meet Henchard again he has reinvented himself as a grain merchant with a strong work ethic and financial acumen. Indeed, he’s rolling in money and is so busy that he hires a manager, a young Scotsman called Donald Farfrae, to help strengthen and build up his empire.

Henchard is also mayor of the town, and while he’s generally not well liked, the locals do respect him for the hard work he does on their behalf. What they don’t realise is his secret history, and they simply assume he is a widower. Henchard never clarifies the situation — and why should he? Life is going swimmingly and he’s learnt from his mistake — or has he?

When his wife and grown daughter reappear on the scene you know there is trouble up ahead. And when Henchard’s vow of sobriety comes to an end, you also know that his reacquaintence with alcohol is not going to go down well.

I’m not going to say anything else about the plot, except it’s a jolly good one, full of ups and downs and family feuds, business rivalries and romantic heartache. The characterisation is, as usual, superb, and despite Henchard’s incredible selfishness and mean-spirited nature, you can’t help but feel for him. Much of the time I wanted to reach into the pages of this book, grab him by the scruff of the neck and tell him to stop being so bloody stupid and impulsive!

At 400 pages, this is not a short book. But its epic scope and its fast-paced narrative makes it a real page turner. And it has certainly confirmed Thomas Hardy as my favourite 19th Century writer.

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28 thoughts on “‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ by Thomas Hardy

  1. Very interesting! I’ve only read TESS and JUDE THE OBSCURE, so I really should get onto this one. I’m also interested you read it in Kindle edition. I’m thinking of getting one, mostly for older classics (ie. free books!) Did you find this easy to download and read?

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  2. You’ve convinced me that I need to give Hardy a try! I have labored over Far From the Madding Crowd several times but never made it very far… perhaps I need to try something else to get into the zone?

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  3. Hi Sarah, this is a great, quick read. You’ll laugh, cry and get angry in places!
    I got this edition direct from Amazon for the total price of £0.00. Yes, it was FREE.
    It’s very easy to download to your Kindle because as soon as you buy it, it automatically downloads via wireless technology to your device. You can even shop directly on the Amazon website using your Kindle (as opposed to a computer). This can be very dangerous, if, like me, you buy books on a whim.
    You can also get free books from manybooks.net You download them to your computer, and then you can very easily transfer them to your Kindle using the lead which comes with the device.

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  4. I’ve never tried Far From the Madding Crowd, so I can’t tell you whether it’s typical Hardy fare or not. I usually tell first timers to try Jude the Obscure, because it’s such a great, easy-to-read story, albeit a heart-breaking one.

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  5. Both _Far from the Madding Crowd_ and _The Mayor of Casterbridge_ are superb works. BBC has also dramatized both novels. You might want to check those out also.

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  6. I find Hardy a challenging author (I too frequently want to throttle his central characters), but a rewarding one. Ironically, your two favorites are the ones that I have not got to yet. I can say that I found Maddening Crowd, The Return of the Native and The Woodlanders to be rewarding reads.

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  7. I went through my Hardy phase and definitely came out on the other side. I used to love him, but latterly I’m afraid he no longer appeals. However, if I was forced on pain of death to re-read one of his novels then this wold be the one. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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  8. Far from the Madding Crowd is the most cheerful of the Hardy novels I’ve read, and for that reason, I do sometimes recommend it to first-time Hardy readers who are concerned about all the grimness. It’s not at the top of Hardy list, though. Mayor is actually the one I started with, and I became a fan immediately. Return of the Native is another good one to start with, I think.
    I’ve actually warned first-timers away from Jude and Tess, even though I adore them both, because they’re soooo unrelentingly tragic. But if you’re prepared for that, Steph, they’re both excellent books. (And The Woodlanders is very good, too, as I recall.)

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  9. Hardy is probably my all-time favorite writer, so I’m always excited to see a review of one of his books, especially a positive one. I read this one in high school, and fell in love with Hardy from that moment. And now I’m craving a Hardy novel!

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  10. Hardy was a brilliant writer, but there’s a lot of misery in his novels. 🙂 Claire Tomalin’s bio tells how he used to scour the newspapers for stories and base his books on them. He was an interesting man, but I’m not a great fan of his grim fiction.

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  11. I enjoyed this book too, when I read it many years ago. I would not call Hardy my favourite 19C author, though, as he’s too fatalistic to my taste (and the women suffer disproportionately in his novels, I think). I first discovered him through studying Far from the Madding Crowd for what were then called O levels, and have enjoyed many of his other works. At the moment I am enjoying rediscovering Anthony Trollope, another 19C author, and I think his length makes Hardy seem quite short! You can get all his books free in e-form too, via Amazon or wherever, thanks to the Gutenberg project and similar ventures. (Along with almost all other classics and out of copyright books I think.) Having said that, I am reading Trollope in physical book form even though I have to pay about £5 per book, as I find a 900=pager a bit daunting to undertake on a Kindle, for some reason.

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  12. Oh, I’m the opposite: if the book is fat, I have to read it on the Kindle because it’s not as heavy or as awkward to hold as a 600+ blockbuster! 😉
    As to Trollope, I’ve seen him mentioned on various book blogs recently, so I’m going to have to take the plunge and try one of his (slimmer) tones shortly…

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  13. I read this book many years ago and my memories of it are quite blurred. I just remember great sadness, and especially a poignant scene involving a caged canary. I really must re-read it sometime.

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  14. I am a bit of a classics failure it has to be said (apart from most of the late victorian sensation authors) and I have still not read ANY Thomas Hardy and should really sort that out shouldn’t I?
    I think, though this does sound much better than its title suggests – I have a thing about mayors like I do boats, I might start my Hardy journey with Tess. I feel like I might gel better with her first.

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  15. Just wanted to say that Hardy is one of my all-time favourite writers. His work is hard to narrow down to just one or two favourites, but it might be The Return of the Native.

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  16. Ah yes, I think I remember you being a bit of a Hardy obsessive. He’s a great writer, particularly if you like your fiction a little dark and full of tragedy, as I do.

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  17. I always think you’re quite well read as far as classics go, Simon. Me? I’ve probably read less than 10 in my entire life time!
    And how funny you don’t like books about mayors! Where did that little peccadillo come from I wonder?

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  18. I’ve got a copy of Return of the Native in my eBook queue, so hope to get around to it at some point. Had quite a few people tell me, via Twitter, that this one was their favourite.

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  19. I can’t wait to read this one. I’ve just been ‘waiting’ for the right moment – whenever that is. I’ve already decided to take Far from the Madding Crowd when I go travelling later next month.

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  20. I absolutely love Hardy & found it an absolute pleasure to write about The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess…, and The Return of the Native for my dissertation. I’m so glad you’re a fan too. I post a new ‘must read’ book every Wednesday on my blog & am always asking different people for suggestions, if you have any, please do not hesitate to contact me 🙂

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