Friday, 15 April 2011

Hardy hard? Hardly...


Quite often you'll see Harriet and I write about the same books around about the same time. That's because we're in the same book group in Oxford... and usually she is much more prompt than me at actually getting around to writing about the things. Today's post is no different - I'm writing about Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native, and she did so here.

I thought I'd cracked Hardy, last year. I made my second attempt with Jude the Obscure, and loved it - it even ended up on my Top Ten of 2010. And so I was excited when Harriet suggested that our book group read The Return of the Native - I wanted to get some more Hardy under my belt, now that I'd discovered that I loved him.

Hmm. Well, that didn't pan out quite as expected. You'll have to forgive my post title - I put it in because it amused me, not because it was true. Whilst I'd been surprised that Jude swept me along like a modern page-turner, I found The Return of the Native something of a slog.


The novel kicks off with a few pages describing Egdon Heath, which are apparently famous and much-loved. Well, you know me and descriptions of landscape - I was flicking past these pages before too long. And we come to a group of yokels discussing and dancing on the hillside. This crowd did give for a moment or two of something I didn't expect at all - humour!
Want of breath prevented a continuance of the songs; and the breakdown attracted the attention of a firm-standing man of middle age, who kept each corner of his crescent-shaped mouth rigorously drawn back into his cheek, as if to do away with any suspicion of mirthfulness which might erroneously have attached to him.
That occasioned a little chuckle, and I liked this next bit from later in the novel so much that I went and read it aloud to my housemate:
"Strange notions, has he?" said the old man. "Ah, there's too much of that sending to school in these days! It only does harm. Every gateost and barn's door you come to is sure to have some bad word or other chalked upon it by the young rascals: a woman can hardly pass for shame some times. If they'd never been taught how to write they wouldn't have been able to scribble such villainy. Their fathers couldn't do it, and the country was all the better for it."
(In my village, I must say, the local vandals tended towards the pictorial.) None of these characters end up being particularly important, however, and it's all a rather lengthy introduction to some of the novel's main players - Eustacia Vye and Damon Wildeve. Eustacia is all flashing eyes and passionate proclamations; Damon is all wry comments alternating with romantic gestures. Awkward, then, that he's about to marry someone else - a girl so virtuous and accepting that I can't even remember her name.

Naturally everyone is in love with everyone else. Throw the reddleman Diggory Venn into the mix (a reddleman being someone who transports sheep-dye around the countryside, and is covered head to toe in the stuff), and the 'native' himself Clym Yeobright, and we've got a love-hexagon or -septagon or somesuch going on. To be honest, it all felt a bit like a watered down version of Jude the Obscure, even though that novel came later. All the partner-swapping, and going back and forth between people; false promises and broken vows; wild and amorous announcements followed by bitter renouncing, etc. etc. This excerpt is fairly representative:
She interrupted with a suppressed fire of which either love or anger seemed an equally possible issue, "Do you love me now?"

"Who can say?"

"Tell me; I will know it!"

"I do, and I do not," he said mischeviously. "That is, I have my times and my seasons. One moment you are too tall, another moment you are too do-nothing, another too melancholy, another too dark, another I don't know what, except - that you are not the whole world to me that you used to be, my dear. But you are a pleasant lady to know, and nice to meet, and I dare say as sweet as ever - almost."
This sort of histrionics does occasionally result in humour where I imagine Hardy didn't intend it. The following is possibly my favourite quotation from Victorian literature, and one I intend to put to good use in moments of over-dramatic angst:
"Your eyes seem heavy, Eustacia!"

"No, it is my general way of looking. I think it arises from my feeling sometimes an agonizing pity for myself that I ever was born."
Well, quite, Eustacia. It comes to us all.

I can't decide whether The Return of the Native really is much worse than Jude the Obscure or if I was simply not in the mood for Hardy. And I wasn't, especially since I had to speed-read the second half for book group... to which only one other person came!

Perhaps I'm not being fair, and I have enjoyed ripping into Hardy a bit - it somewhat makes up for the slog I had reading it. I'd love (as I always love) someone to come along and disagree with me - there must be someone who loves this novel? Maybe I would if I read it in a different mood. As it is... I'm back to the drawing-board with Thomas Hardy.

13 comments:

  1. Oh, don't give up on Hardy, especially if you liked Jude the Obscure. My favorite is Far from the Madding Crowd, but Jude is a close second. I am not crazy about Return of the Native either--in fact, I would never have read any Hardy after that except a good friend adored his books and was so enthusiastic I tried again. Susan E

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  2. I started with 'Tess of the D'Ubervilles', which was good, but I felt that it was all downhill from there. I think I even preferred 'The Return of the Native' to 'Jude the Obscure', which was just relentlessly depressing. On the whole I think I would declare Hardy too hard for me, so would hardly encourage you to persevere with him...

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  3. Glad to see Cat liked Tess, since that one is still on my TBR. I can't disagree with you Simon. Slog-fest pretty much summed up my own reading of the Native.

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  4. I've only read Tess and Far from the Madding crowd but both were for A level literature. I think I've almost forgotton what they were about!!!! Will have to go back to all of them soon.

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  5. Yes indeed -- though I found the yokels dreadfully unfunny and skipped them entirely most of the time. "Your eyes seem heavy Eustacia..." has to be my favorite quote of all time. But as Susan says, don't give up on Hardy -- at least not until you have read The Mayor of Casterbridge, which is a truly great novel.

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  6. I read The Return of the Native last year, and I loved it! I seem to be the only one...I am in fact a fan of every novel of Hardy's I have read (four of them). I do agree with Susan E and Harriet: Do not give up on Hardy! The Mayor of Casterbridge is excellent, and so is Tess of the d'Urbervilles.

    I do have a suggestion for you, which could possibly go either way: Furze the Cruel, by John Trevena. I believe Trevena is a near-contemporary of Hardy's: right at the end of the Victorian period. Furze the Cruel is a description of the lives of people (mostly yokels), in Dartmoor. They are grotesque characters, truly grotesque, and I think they are more black-and-white, evil-or-good than Hardy's. But it is a very good book. Cruel, yes, but quite interesting and, in some places, beautiful. Be warned: There are landscape descriptions here!

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  7. I still haven't managed to read any Hardy other than Tess, which I find really dragged. My classics book group is reading The Mayor of Casterbridge this year which I've heard is wonderful.

    And I also hate it when I kill myself to finish a book in time, and no one else does! A few years ago I was the only one in my group to finish Anna Karenina. To be fair, maybe a month wasn't long enough, but we'd had the list for ages.

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  8. Hardy is my husband's favourite writer and so I've continued to persist with him long beyond what he deserves. (Hardy, not the husband). I just find the appeal mystifying. Far From the Madding Crowd was ok....but I can't forget that it said 'she was the stuff of which great men's mothers are made' or something like that, and I was just like, FANTASTIC! That's all women can aspire to! Well done on making it through this...I have to confess to reading three chapters and thinking, wow this is dreadfully boring :)

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  9. Do you know what Simon, I have never (and actually this might not surprise you with me and classics) read a single word by Hardy. Is that awful?

    I just hear such mixed things, I know I should try for myself and maybe I will with Tess of the D'Urbervilles? Maybe!

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  10. oh Simon.
    The advanage of Hardy, in my humble opinion, is that it is chronilogical. It also has characters with whom you can be sympathetic - even if the 'goodies' don't always win.
    Try FFTMC or Tess or the TM.
    don't give up!

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  11. I read 'The Return of the Native' over Christmas and liked it very much - although I also hated Tess and Jude, so perhaps our Hardy tastes are just not in sync (esp as I loved the landscape descriptions!). I thought it suffered from the normal Hardy flaws of melodrama and oh-so-fated characters (yes the Eustacia quote is classic!), but was toned down in comparison to Tess and Jude, and so gave me more space to enjoy the things I really like in his writing - the aforementioned Landscape and sense of place, but also the evocations of local customs, and the startling readability. I've also heard 'Far From the Madding Crowd' is better, though, and am looking forward to reading it, so maybe try that one?

    PS first time commenting - I think!

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  12. Susan E - I will persevere... at some point. Not likely to be soon! I'll try to cling on to how much I liked Jude.

    Cat - Jude was rather glum, wasn't it... but somehow I still loved it.

    Susan - glad it wasn't just me! I did feel rather guilty...

    Mystica - I'm glad I didn't have to do Hardy at school, I think that would have stopped me ever liking him.

    Harriet - I think I was just so surprised to see Hardy even attempting humour that I cheered him on for the effort! I did read half of the Mayor of Casterbridge once, and got distracted and never finished... but I will return to it. I seem to remember I was enjoying it.

    Dan - well, I'm pleased for you! Thanks for that suggestion too. Cruel in which sense? Will it make me too upset? And I love the idea of WARNING: LANDSCAPE DESCRIPTIONS - it should be put on front covers.

    Karen K - annoyingly a bunch of others had finished and weren't able to get there! We had a mini discussion of it at the next meeting... And Anna K in one month = I'm impressed!

    Lyndsey - does your husband read many other fiction authors? My Dad loves Hardy but rarely reads other novels...

    Simon - wear it as a badge of honour! Or try Tess... well, actually, I'd recommend Jude as that feels much pacier than the others I've read by Hardy.

    Dad - I have read Tess! I'd be intrigued as to who won your sympathy in Return of the Native... but, yes, they are definitely chronological ;) And nobody else has mentioned Trumpet Major, I wonder why?

    Laura T - lovely to have you commenting for the first time, thank you! It does sound like we differ in our Hardy appreciation - maybe the ones I like have fewer landscapes ;) Although I actually did love the description of Jude lookng out over Christminster.

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  13. I actually loved this one--I've read it three times--but I seem predisposed to love all things Hardy. I've read all the major novels multiple times and love them more every time I read them. I even love his landscape descriptions, which are usually something I could take or leave. Tess is probably my favorite of his books, followed (I think) by Jude, so maybe Tess would be the one to try next.

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