Sunday, July 29, 2007

Thomas Hardy – ‘The Woodlanders’

It must be ten years or more since I read a Thomas Hardy book. Borrowing from my mother’s usually reliable bookshelves I was disappointed by Far From the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbervilles in turn, and decided to leave it at that. They didn’t fit in to the idea of the Victorian novel as I understood it – and I thought I did understand it then, on the basis of a Dickens and an Eliot or two. Hardy has little in common with the former, you’d think, and I felt that he fell ridiculously short of the latter on what was quite similar territory. George Eliot always knows what’s what, can impress simple truths about human behaviour more directly than any author I can think of. By comparison, Hardy is as confused as hell, and it is only on this latest reading that I’ve begun to think that this is not a shortcoming. In Middlemarch, for example, Dorothea makes the wrong marital choice, pays the consequences, and the book is long and big enough to encompass her gradual shift towards choosing the man she should have picked in the first place. In The Woodlanders, Grace Melbury makes the right then the wrong choice in prospect, marries the wrong one, and then, things begin to get complicated. Not so much a love triangle as a love pentagon ensues. A loves B who loves C who loves B or D depending on whether D loves C or E at the time. It’s a plot which defies any straightforward moral interpretation because what (or who) is right in one chapter becomes wrong in another: everything is contingent.

Edred Fitzpiers, the doctor who impresses Grace and her father with his cosmopolitan ways (her) and his family history (him), is at first so much of an out-and-out baddie that I pictured him as Alan Rickman might play the part. His courtship of Grace is based upon the power his presence has over her: it is awe she feels, not affection. There is the suspicion, too, that he is after her father’s money; he is also lazy – the late nights spent studying which impress Grace so are scattershot, something to keep his mind off what he ought to be doing, which is building up his practice. And then there is Suke Damson, voluptuous and simple, whom Grace spies emerging from his house early one morning after she has become engaged to him. He explains this away – she had a tooth-ache – but the reader is not intended to believe it. More serious than this minor affair is Fitzpiers’ attachment to Mrs Charmond, owner of Hintock House, which begins nearly as soon as he is back from his honeymoon. The man is incorrigible, clearly. And yet he does redeem himself: he is not really bad (how confused his negative qualities are – ambitious and lazy), because he is not really heartless, just predisposed to fall for more than one woman at once. After he has sown his seeds in a profligate early life, his ego cracks and he calms down, becoming far more likable. I expect this is true of a lot of people.

Other characters are just as morally complex, though none show so dramatic a change: Mr Melbury dithers between what is right and what is advantageous for his daughter; Grace does this herself, lacking the passion to over-ride convention (she has ‘more of Artemis than if Aphrodite in her constitution’ (p. 381)). The two characters who are completely constant are unfortunate that their feelings are not for each other: Marty South, and Giles Winterbourne. These two will live their whole lives in Little Hintock, a tiny place in which it is no surprise that everyone with a scrap of education feels constrained. But they do not, finding infinite interest in nature:

The countryman who is obliged to judge the time of day from change in external nature sees a thousand successive tints and traits in the landscape which are never discerned by him who hears the regular chime of a clock, because they are never in request. (p. 155)

If there is a value judgement here, it is that nature is more reliable than people, and that the people who are closest to it are as reliable as people are likely to get. The pair are far from happy though, so in a sense this is just another dead end.

Having said that Hardy is not like Dickens, I immediately remembered the passage in Martin Chuzzlewit in which the rain pours down as Jonas goes about his sordid little murder. There is a rain storm at the low point of this novel too, more subtly used, but similar in effect:

Sometimes a bough from an adjoining tree was swayed so low as to smite the roof in the manner of a gigantic hand smiting the mouth of an adversary, to be followed by a trickle of rain, as blood from the wound. (p. 374)

What an absolutely stunning description of a storm! You feel yourself to be in the one-room dwelling with Grace as you read it, looking out, feeling the room shake with the impact of the branch, watching the water it releases. And you feel yourself to be outside too, with Giles in the sorry state he’s in, reeling from the storm, the adversary with the bloody mouth.

An earlier and a happier use of melodrama comes at the beginning of the book, in which a mysterious figure pays Marty South a visit in the middle of the night and asks to buy her hair. It’s a brilliant set piece, Dickensian in its intention to impress and intrigue from the outset, and humourously undercut by the prosaic explanation for it all (the mysterious figure is a barber, of course, who wants her hair to make a wig – again, it is easy to imagine Dickens poking fun at this fellow). Who but Hardy, though, could twist this around again and have the wig cause a murder? Every big event in his careful plot is explained in terms of the little things which caused it, and which well might not have done. At times this gives the authorial voice a hint of sadism: unlike Richard Yates, who writes about impossibilities, Hardy gives us missed possibilities. Both like to twist the knife in their own way.

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