Saturday, January 29, 2011

Thomas Hardy – ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’

Reflecting on The Woodlanders a few years ago, I wrote: ‘unlike Richard Yates, who writes about impossibilities, Hardy gives us missed possibilities’. That book left such a rich impression – not for its plot, which I’ve completely forgotten (having carefully avoided spoilers in the post, it doesn’t help much), but for its textures, in terms of both landscape and portrait. The Mayor of Casterbridge doesn’t quite live up to it on those terms, being so packed with event and exposition, but that is also its strength: a plot so tight and self-perpetuating, yet which also keeps the reader guessing. Things are obviously going to end badly, but how? – and how is it going to remain interesting? This novel does deal in impossibilities: its events might have unfolded in a different way, but they are driven by the flaws of its central character, and the same end must be reached. The stunning opening chapter, during which Michael Henchard, a hay-trusser with a young family in tow, gets drunk at a village fair and sells his wife to a passing sailor, sows the seed of all that is to follow.

Years later the wife, Susan, believing the sailor to be dead, tracks Henchard down to Casterbridge, where he has risen to be mayor, and the town’s dominant corn trader. Her daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, is now grown up, and remarkably well adjusted, unlike Henchard himself:
It was an odd sequence that out of all this tampering with social law came the flower of nature Elizabeth. Part of his wish to wash his hands of life arose from his perception of its contrarious inconsistencies – of nature’s jaunty readiness to support unorthodox social principles. (p. 296)
The notes to this (Oxford World’s Classics) edition point out Henchard’s physical resemblance to the devil (e.g. ‘his red and black visage kindled with satisfaction’ (p. 78)). It is an effective device, and put me in mind both of James Hogg’s Justified Sinner and Roald Dahl’s The Witches, but it did seem to quash the moral ambiguity of his character, at least for a time. And yet, he is more misguided than bad: he fights against the hellfire in his constitution, generally with more hellfire. The day after selling Susan, he realises his mistake and, being 21 years old, pledges solemnly to drink no more alcohol for another 21 years. He also makes some attempt to find her, but without success. The pledge is telling. Henchard clearly believes in a moral order, in transgression and atonement. He knows he has behaved unacceptably, and the pledge is a way of controlling his punishment, of forestalling fate. His resolve is almost autistic, in that it is totally autonomous: he doesn’t see that the way to avoid similar behaviour in future is to become more open, less fierce, less guarded. Also – perhaps this is the rub – more charming. At one low point, he calculates:
Henchard’s wife was dissevered from him by death; his friend and helper Farfrae by estrangement; Elizabeth-Jane by ignorance. It seemed to him that only one of them could possibly be recalled, and that was the girl. (p. 114)
It is as though he doesn’t care whom he is close to, as long as he is close to someone.

There is another character with this failing: Lucetta Templeman. One of the book’s many parallel events occurs when she arrives in Casterbridge, ostensibly a stranger, and takes up residence at High Place Hall (grand but conveniently central). She has come to marry Henchard, to whom she had been secretly engaged before Susan’s re-appearance. They met and courted in Jersey, where Henchard used to travel on business, so she is not known in Casterbridge. When she arrives, her plan is to pretend to court Henchard again, before marrying him and thus preserving her honour (both parties share a sense of obligation to this Victorian moral code, though neither can live up to it). Although it is not her plan in advance, this is exactly what Susan does, under Henchard’s guidance, and in a humbler – but not too humble – cottage. Her death a few years later re-introduces the possibility of a respectable alliance between Henchard and Lucetta. On arrival, Lucetta, newly genteel thanks to an inheritance, employs Elizabeth-Jane as a companion, and the two of them gaze out from High Place Hall on to the market place, and Donald Farfrae. The stage is set.

Donald Farfrae is Henchard’s nemesis, and his opposite in many ways. He is young, charming, ambitious and, as a Scot with a full song book, a welcome novelty in the West Country. He is also canny:
the curious double strands in Farfrae’s thread of life – the commercial and the romantic – were very distinct at times. Like the colours in a variegated cord these contrasts could be seen intertwisted, yet not mingling. (p. 149)
Farfrae courts Elizabeth-Jane to begin with, but with Lucetta’s arrival his attentions move towards her, and the plot begins to seem unduly cruel. Farfrae, whilst challenging Henchard in trade, unwittingly prevents his marriage to Lucetta and casts aside his step-daughter (as she is presented at the time). Things move quickly, and Henchard is driven by Lucetta’s aloofness to extort a promise of marriage under threat of revealing their former relationship. Elizabeth-Jane is horrified, and he snaps:
Don’t be a no’thern simpleton! […] This promise will leave him free for you, if you want him, won’t it? (p. 184)
The favour is so brutal that she cannot possibly collude in it. The odd thing is, that Henchard is right, in one sense at least. It has already been shown that Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae share an easy compatibility, and an intellectual seriousness wholly absent in the rest of the novel’s cast. Lucetta is frivolous but dazzling, more anxious for status and being important to someone important (and lively, exotic, charming) than she is concerned with being important to a particular person. Her over-hasty marriage to Farfrae shows the extent to which she views him as a commodity. Both are fickle, but only Lucetta is congenitally so. Elizabeth-Jane’s influence would be sufficient to compensate for Farfrae’s flaws if only he would let her. She is studious, affectionate and true, and she is willing to allow other people and events to shape the course of her life without feeling undue bitterness:
She had learnt the lesson of renunciation […]. Yet her experience had consisted less in a series of pure disappointments than in a series of substitutions. Continually it had happened that what she had desired had not been granted her, and that what had been granted her she had not desired. So she viewed with an approach to equanimity the now cancelled days when Donald had been her undeclared lover, and wondered what unwished for thing Heaven might send her in place of him. (p. 167)
Henchard’s devilishness turns out to be a red herring, as it must for the novel to remain engaging. His rough idea of the bonds of affection as so many (or so few) title deeds, is bound to lead him to loneliness, especially when he insists on shoring them up with lies and blackmail. ‘This man of strong impulses’ (p. 62) is ultimately to be pitied, though the impulses lead to some pretty terrible behaviour. His paternal love for Elizabeth-Jane, absent for much of the novel, is the driving force of its closing chapters, and I won’t say how he manages to destroy it in one last moment of madness, but he claws a little of it back in death with what must be the saddest will in literature.

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