The Mayor of Casterbridge

by Thomas Hardy

Not sure that I have much to say about this book.  I enjoyed reading it more than I expected to, but – as with all the Hardy novels I have read – I don’t feel any urge to read it again or to mark it as one of my best-loved books.

What stays with me more than anything are the descriptions of the back streets and villages, the landscape and the harsh lives of ordinary country people.  I do feel that this is Hardy’s strength – and it comes from personal experience and detailed observation.

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Thomas Hardy – the Time-Torn Man

by Claire Tomalin

I have loved Tomalin’s biographies ever since picking up Mrs Jordan’s Confession some 20 years ago.  She makes her subjects come alive in the context of their time.

This book did not disappoint.  Published in 2006, it had passed me by at the time, but I pick up a copy at a charity shop while on holiday in Dorset.  I felt that, being in Dorset, I should give Hardy another try.  And what better place to start than a biography of the man.

Let me put my cards on the table: I neither love nor loathe Hardy’s writing, but I very much favour his poetry over his novels, at least the ones I have read (Tess, Jude, Far from the Madding Crowd and, most recently, The Mayor of Casterbridge).  I don’t know that I will go out of my way to read any of the novels again, nor to try any of the ones I have not read.  But I will come back to Hardy’s poetry and his short stories.

Tomlin does justice to the author, his time and, most importantly, the Dorset environment that is so important in his work.  Definitely a good read, and a book that will stay on my shelves for the time being.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles

by Thomas Hardy

I came back to this book – which I suppose I first read in my late teens – after hearing an analysis of it on BBC Radio 4’s In our time.  On the programme, the participants all spoke about the power of the novel’s setting, the descriptions of the countryside, and the value they had all found in reading it slowly, rather than rushing through as most of them felt they had done when reading it in their youth.

So I went to my Kindle collection of Hardy’s collected works, and read the novel slowly enough, relishing every page and the descriptions of the country settings, which are indeed beautifully and vividly presented.

The story is, on one level, harrowing.  There is much to shock: Alec’s seduction (or rape – the novel leaves this deliberately uncertain) and his subsequent pursuit of Tess; Clare’s abandoning of her after she opens her heart to him on their wedding night and reveals her past; Tess’s own parents’ lifestyle and expectations of their daughter.  Hardy knows how to tell a story, and the plot develops effortlessly to its inevitable harrowing conclusion.

I felt much more engaged in the story than on my previous reading, even though I knew what was going to happen.  I also felt, as an older adult, more understanding of the circumstances that drove the characters to behave the way they did, but less forgiving of their behaviour.