Read for my on-going Hardy reading project – which we are well into now, and for me at least has been a total joy. The Mayor of Casterbridge has always been a favourite for me among Hardy’s novels, and so it remains. Although not quite cast in the same mould as those novels often referred to as his pastoral works, for the setting of this novel is largely a small market town, it is for me, reminiscent of those novels, in the scenes of the country fair-ground and the lives of the people of a small market town.
That the man and woman were husband and wife, and the parents of the girl in arms there could be little doubt. No other than such relationship would have accounted for the atmosphere of stale familiarity which the trio carried along with them like a nimbus as they moved down the road. The wife mostly kept her eyes fixed ahead, though with little interest–the scene for that matter being one that might have been matched at almost any spot in any county in England at this time of the year; a road neither straight nor crooked, neither level nor hilly, bordered by hedges, trees, and other vegetation, which had entered the blackened-green stage of colour that the doomed leaves pass through on their way to dingy, and yellow, and red. The grassy margin of the bank, and the nearest hedgerow boughs, were powdered by the dust that had been stirred over them by hasty vehicles, the same dust as it lay on the road deadening their footfalls like a carpet; and this, with the aforesaid total absence of conversation, allowed every extraneous sound to be heard. For a long time there was none, beyond the voice of a weak bird singing a trite old evening song that might doubtless have been heard on the hill at the same hour, and with the self-same trills, quavers, and breves, at any sunset of that season for centuries untold. But as they approached the village sundry distant shouts and rattles reached their ears from some elevated spot in that direction, as yet screened from view by foliage. When the outlying houses of Weydon-Priors could just be described, the family group was met by a turnip-hoer with his hoe on his shoulder, and his dinner- bag suspended from it. The reader promptly glanced up.
“Any trade doing here?” he asked phlegmatically, designating the village in his van by a wave of the broadsheet. And thinking the labourer did not understand him, he added, “Anything in the hay-trussing line?”
The turnip-hoer had already begun shaking his head. “Why, save the man, what wisdom’s in him that ‘a should come to Weydon for a job of that sort this time o’ year?
Young Michael Henchard and his wife Susan and their child Elizabeth-Jane arrive on foot at a country fair. Michael a hard drinking hay-trusser looking for work, is bound down by the responsibilities of being a family man. Foul tempered and spoiling for trouble, Michael sets to drinking rum as soon as the three arrive at the fair. Shockingly Michael offers his wife and daughter to the highest bidder in the midst of a drunken row, an unknown sailor steps forward, and Michael watches his wife and daughter leave with the stranger. The following day – horrified and ashamed at what he has done, Michael vows to stay off all strong drink for a period of twenty years – one year for each year he has so far spent on earth. In the years that follow, Michael Henchard establishes himself in Casterbridge as a respected member of the community.
Eighteen years after the incident at the country fair, Susan and her daughter return to the country fairground. To the same annual fair that Susan had left with the sailor years before, looking for someone who might know Michael Henchard. They are directed to Casterbridge. The Michael Henchard that Susan encounters now is a changed man, for he is now the Mayor of Casterbridge, a successful business man, with a large house. Henchard initially tries hard to right the wrongs of the past. However Henchard is a flawed man, self-destructive prone to dreadful rages and terrible envy. Yet though Henchard is often tempted to do dreadful things, to plot and scheme, and even plot terrible physical revenge, his sense of right and justice generally overrides his baser motivations. Henchard is a man driven by spontaneity fuelled by his temper – which then often quickly cools.
On the night that Susan and Elizabeth-Jane arrive in Casterbridge another newcomer arrives in Casterbridge, a Scotsman named Donald Farfrae, who in a similar line of business as Henchard, is persuaded by the mayor to stay in the town and go to work for him. Typically, Henchard in a moment spontaneous comradeship imparts the story of his past to his new friend. And so the scene is set for a masterly tale of secrets and lies, misunderstandings, disappearances and reappearances. The Mayor of Casterbridge is the story of a self- destructive man who is nonetheless a very human one. The Mayor of Casterbridge is a wonderfully fast paced construction of action and re-action, full of drama, intrigue and excitement. The fortunes of these men wax and wane, as one might expect from Thomas Hardy, and it is fair to say that the story of The Mayor of Casterbridge is not an especially happy one, but it is an unforgettable one. The story of Michael Henchard which was subtitled – the life and death of a man of character, is one of less melodrama than say Tess of the D’Urbervilles, it is as the subtitle suggests a novel which is very much character driven. Michael Henchard is the most important character of course and he eclipses all other characters in the book, he is a continuous presence even in the scenes he isn’t in. I have to admit that I rather like the character of Michael Henchard – he is a deeply flawed man, but one that I find quite sympathetic, because he is someone we can understand – even when we loathe his actions.