Sunday, 23 February 2014

Fiction Review: 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' by Thomas Hardy

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.

The 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.

Now, 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.

There are 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 here.

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.

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