My book group has a sadistic streak. They recommend chick lit and Booker prize winners and other deeply worthy stuff, and turn their noses up at perfectly good fantasy. Why? I can’t understand it. ‘Wolf Hall’ would have been so much better with dragons in it (everything’s better with dragons). And here’s another of their good ideas: let’s do a proper classic. Now, I’d struggled with Hardy at school, but that was a long time ago. Surely it will be better now, with my greater maturity. So here’s the opening paragraph and a bit:
“One evening of late
summer, before the nineteenth century had reached one-third of its span,
a young man and woman, the latter carrying a child, were approaching
the large village of Weydon-Priors, in Upper Wessex, on foot. They were
plainly but not ill clad, though the thick hoar of dust which had
accumulated on their shoes and garments from an obviously long journey
lent a disadvantageous shabbiness to their appearance just now.
man was of fine figure, swarthy, and stern in aspect; and he showed in
profile a facial angle so slightly inclined as to be almost
perpendicular. He wore a short jacket of brown corduroy, newer than the
remainder of his suit, which was a fustian waistcoat with white horn
buttons, breeches of the same, tanned leggings, and a straw hat overlaid
with black glazed canvas....”
Right. This is going to need a lot of wine.
the language is (not surprisingly) old-fashioned, since it was written
in 1886. It’s not that difficult to follow, but it isn’t as readable as
Jane Austen, who wrote more than half a century earlier. It’s quite
dull, however, for a great deal of it is focused on turgid descriptions
of the scenery. I know Hardy is famous for his poetic descriptions, but
it’s that heavy mid-Victorian poetry that’s very much an acquired taste.
And I haven’t acquired it.
Beneath the verbiage, there’s an
interesting plot going on. A man gets drunk at a fair and sells his wife
and child to a passing sailor for five guineas. Twenty years later,
when he’s the eponymous mayor, the wife and daughter return. In the
meantime, the man has had a liaison with another woman and promised to
marry her, and when the wife dies she, too, turns up. To make the
romantic entanglements complete, there’s a bright young Scotsman who
becomes the mayor’s protégé, then falls out with him, and attracts both
the daughter and the mistress. And that’s enough plot.
enough complications there to keep the average soap opera going for
years. The most appealing aspect, to me, is that all the characters are
well-meaning and trying very hard to do the right thing. They may make
mistakes, but they do everything they can to correct them. The mayor
agrees at once to court and re-marry his original wife. The wife agrees
to it. The daughter, when she finds out the truth, goes along with it.
The mistress agrees that’s the best thing to do. There are no villains
On the minus side, a great deal depends on coincidence.
Important information is overheard. Secret letters are found. Characters
fortuitously bump into other characters. Characters believed to be dead
miraculously reappear. This all becomes terribly silly and quite
incredible. Then there are the hordes of comedic yokels, wheeled out for
a bit of local colour and stupidity from time to time. Combined with
the heavy prose, this all became a bit much, and I gave it up at the 50%
point. But the nice thing about dead authors is that their books are
described in detail on Wikipedia, so I could read the entire plot
without feeling I’ve missed anything (other than the comedic yokels, of
course). One star for a DNF.