Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction,, pre-20th Century classic, Publisher, Setting, Thomas Hardy

‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ by Thomas Hardy


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.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, historical fiction, Penguin Classic, pre-20th Century classic, Publisher, Setting, Thomas Hardy

‘A Mere Interlude’ by Thomas Hardy


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.