Posts Tagged ‘thomas hardy reading challenge’


The final read for my Thomas Hardy reading challenge – and one of two books of stories that I read for the first time during the project. The stories which make up A Changed Man were written at various points during Hardy’s life, but this collection wasn’t published until 1913. Hardy wrote really excellent short stories – many of his stories having the scope and complexity of a full length novel. This collection of twelve stories; tales of soldiers, shepherds, milkmaids and Dukes, often feature some elements of the eerie or supernatural to some degree. They are not really horror or ghost stories like those of Poe or M R James – but many contain deliciously little elements of darkness which never threaten to get too absurd. At the risk of repeating myself – ok I know I am repeating myself, I always find reviewing short stories really difficult. Hopefully I can give a flavour without banging on about each of the twelve.

The title story set in Hardy’s famous Casterbridge is the tale of a handsome young hussar captain, who resigns his commission to become a preacher, taking a living in a small poor parish. His new young wife, having always been attracted to the glory and pageantry of the military is horrified, decides to leave her husband for another soldier, only things don’t end quite as she would have imagined. The narrative of several stories take place over a number of years, including The Waiting Supper – a wonderfully engrossing story of a socially mismatched couple who separated when very young – are destined to come together again fifteen years later, only to find their intention to finally marry thwarted by the shadow of the past coming back. Hardy is a master at creating a whole world within just thirty or forty pages, individuals and whole communities deftly portrayed within those themes which will be recognisable to Hardy fans.

“So they grew older. The dim shape of that third one stood continually between them; they could not displace it; neither, on the other hand, could it effectually part them. They were in close communion, yet not indissolubly united; lovers, yet never growing cured of love”
(From – The Waiting Supper – 1888)

One of my favourite stories; What the Shepherd Saw – also has a narrative scope of several years, an uneducated shepherd boy left alone in a hut to mind the sheep – is witness to a strange meeting between a Duchess and her cousin, the following night the cousin is met by the Duke, the Duchesses jealous husband. The result of that night – and what the shepherd saw will echo down the years as the Duke later becomes the shepherd’s patron in return for his loyalty and silence. The final story of the collection, another favourite, is also the longest, running to some eighty pages.

“She stooped into the opening. The cavity within the tree formed a lofty circular apartment, four or five feet in diameter, to which daylight entered at the top, and also through a round hole about six feet from the ground, marking the spot at which a limb had been amputated in the tree’s prime. The decayed wood of cinnamon-brown, forming the inner surface of the tree, and the warm evening glow, reflected in at the top, suffused the cavity with a faint mellow radiance.
But Margery had hardly given herself time to heed these things. Her eye had been caught by objects of quite another quality. A large white oblong paper box lay against the inside of the tree; over it, on a splinter, hung a small oval looking-glass.”
(From The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid – 1883)

The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid (no dark elements here) is set firmly in Hardy’s pastoral landscape of Wessex – and features a kind of romantic triangle. Margery – the milkmaid of the title meets and helps a foreign baron, who promising her a gift of anything she would like, finds himself having to treat the girl to a ball, decking her out in finery hidden in a hallowed out tree and whisking her off to a dance under an assumed name. This Cinderella like fairy-tale silliness is quite unusual, but Hardy does it really rather well. Of course there is much to complicate the situation, as Margery has a good honest young suitor in Jim Hayward, but the silly girl has had her head turned, and the baron unwittingly causes mayhem in getting Margery to make him an innocent promise to assist him whenever he should require it. I found it very hard to put this down – just not quite able to finish it in one sitting though I really wanted to. The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid was actually a lovely light bright note on which to finish this project.

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The Well-Beloved was Hardy’s last novel – serialised in 1892, and published in novel form in 1897. Following the furore that surrounded the publication of Jude the obscure in 1895, Hardy turned his back on novel writing, and devoted himself to his poetry for the remaining thirty years of his life. The Well-Beloved is a work that Hardy himself revised several times, in 1897 for the novel’s publication, and again in 1903 and 1912. The edition I read uses Hardy’s revised 1912 text.

Coincidently I recently read a novel called Winter’ – about Thomas Hardy and his second wife Florence at the very end of Hardy’s life. Exploring the idea that his character Tess, was Hardy’s own ideal – his Well-Beloved, a character based upon a young milkmaid whose daughter was to later play the part of Tess in a stage production. Winter was therefore great preparation for re-reading this novel. A novel often categorised as being one of Hardy’s Romance and Fantasies. The themes that Hardy explores in this novel are not unfamiliar ones for Hardy readers; conventional marriage, the search for an ideal and the effects of the passage of time.

wellbeloved2The Well-Beloved of the title – is an ideal, a spirit which the central character Jocelyn Pierston, believes comes to temporarily inhabit the physical form of subsequent women and girls. Structurally the novel is divided into three sections, charting Jocelyn’s romantic life at twenty, at forty and finally at sixty, the three stages of his romantic education with three generations of women. The story of a transient spirit transferring itself from woman to woman is of course is the story that Jocelyn Pierston tells himself and his artist friend Somers in order to excuse what is obviously his own flighty, inconsistent behaviour.

“She came nine times in the course of the two or three ensuing years. Four times she masqueraded as a brunette, twice as a pale-haired creature, and two or three times under a complexion neither light nor dark. Sometimes she was a tall, fine girl, but more often, I think, she preferred to slip into the skin of a lithe airy being, of no great stature. I grew so accustomed to these exits and entrances that I resigned myself to them quite passively, talked to her, kissed her, corresponded with her, ached for her, in each of her several guises.”

Jocelyn is a sculptor – from a small “island” community, in fact a peninsular described by Hardy as the Gibraltar of Wessex – where a few families exist mainly by working in the stone quarrying industry, marrying and intermarrying for generations. The community have their own traditions surrounding betrothal which involves couples sneaking off together to fully consummate their relationship – thus making marriage necessary. Jocelyn has moved away from his island home, making his life mainly in London, he comes back from time to time to visit.
When he is twenty Jocelyn’s ideal of the Well-Beloved inhabits the form of Avice Caro – a girl he has known since childhood. Having asked Avice to marry him, the couple decide not to go through the form of traditional betrothal; Jocelyn later abandons Avice to run off with another woman, the daughter of his father’s greatest business rival, in whom he again sees the spirit of The Well-Beloved. In later years Jocelyn finds his Well-Beloved in other places and in other women, it becomes a more fleeting ideal with the passage of time. At forty Jocelyn returns to his Wessex home briefly, where he meets Avice Caro’s daughter Ann Avice and in her immediately sees the Well-Beloved again. In his sixties it is her daughter, Avice the third to whom he becomes briefly engaged.

With the passage of time Jocelyn comes to believe that the original Avice was the woman he least appreciated – the hereditary link between these three women seem in part at least, what draws Jocelyn toward them. These three stages of Pierston’s romantic education concludes with Jocelyn changing his attitude somewhat in the search for his ideal – contenting himself with affection and companionship with one single woman.

The premise of this novel is an odd one I suppose, and yet Hardy makes it work, allowing him as it does to explores those old familiar themes. This was my third reading of The Well-Beloved – a likeable enough Hardy novel although not a favourite of mine – I do think it offers us an interesting perspective on Hardy’s own attitudes to love, marriage and the pursuit of the ideal.


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There are some novels that it is always so difficult to sit down and write about – their stature as works of literature almost speaking for itself. Hardy’s final novel is quite simply utterly brilliant. Yes it is bleak, famously so, but in that very bleakness there is great beauty, Hardy tugs at the heartstrings as only he can. In this novel Hardy explores themes of educational inequality, marriage and religion, his cynicism at these social institutions seems particularly brutal in his story of Jude and Sue. Hardy was only in his mid-fifties when he completed this novel, and yet he lived until he was eighty eight; spending his remaining years dedicated to poetry. In this novel, it is possible to see echoes of Hardy’s own religious scepticism and the difficulties that had arisen in his marriage to his first wife Emma. It is not surprising that this novel was enormously controversial when it first appeared, and that apparently Emma Hardy didn’t like it at all.

“But his dreams were as gigantic as his surroundings were small.”

As the novel opens Jude Fawley a young orphan, is living in the hamlet of Marygreen with his Great Aunt Drusilla. The school master Mr Phillotson is leaving and it is about him that young Jude has developed a kind of hero worshiping attitude. Mr Phillotson is off to Christminster (Oxford) and the idea of learning and the colleges of Christminster becomes a firmly fixed goal for Jude – and he determines to follow the school master’s example one day. Jude is not a school boy – living with his aunt helping out in her small bakery – and trying unsuccessfully to earn a small amount of money by scaring the rooks in a farmer’s field – he takes to teaching himself Latin and Greek in his spare moments. His ambitions become well known locally and are treated as a bit of an eccentricity.

When sex rears its ugly head – it is the beginning of the end for Jude’s continuing study, though not quite for his lofty ambitions – he continues to dream of attending the university at Christminster. Jude marries Arabella, a young woman determined to snare herself a husband – she is a totally unsuitable spouse, and Jude quickly realises his mistake, and the entrapment that was deployed by his conniving wife. Within a year or two Jude has been abandoned by his young wife, and is working as a stone mason, eventually set off for Christminster to ply his trade, still hoping to make it to the university one day. It is in Christminster that Jude first meets his cousin Sue Bridehead, of whom he has heard from his Great Aunt.

On the very day that Jude first meets Sue, he looks up Mr Phillotson, and introduces Sue to him. Phillotson has abandoned his studies, and is again working as a village schoolmaster. As Jude is not free to marry, Sue marries Mr Phillotson, planning to work alongside him in his school. Sue and Jude promise to be no more than good friends, the stories of their families’ history of tragic and unlucky unions introducing a terrible superstition to their minds. Sue quickly comes to regret her marriage, physically repulsed by her husband, even jumping out of a window to get away from him; and soon leaves him for Jude. Although initially the two live together platonically, eventually their relationship moves to the next stage – Jude’s son from his marriage with Arabella nicknamed Little Father Time – comes to live with them, and Jude and Sue have two more children. Life is hard for the couple, as they move from place to place, Jude’s health breaks down and he starts to find it difficult to get work, how far away his dreams of Christminster University seem now. Despite both Jude and Sue obtaining divorces Jude and Sue remain unmarried – although living as husband and wife, convinced that the tragedies of their ancestors can only bring them misfortune. However tragedy lurks closer to home, as the couple find themselves back at Christminster – the city of Jude’s original dreams. I won’t say any more about what happens – the bleakness of Jude’s story is probably well known – but I don’t want to be responsible for too many spoilers.

“I have been looking at the marriage service and it seems to me very humiliating that a giver-away should be required at all. According to the ceremony as printed, my bridegroom chooses me of his own will and pleasure; but I don’t choose him. Somebody gives me to him, like a she-ass or she-goat or any other domestic animal.”

As a character Sue Bridehead is slightly confusing, certainly she is every bit as memorable as Tess or Bethsheba, although not quite as powerful a character as either of them, although I feel she should have been. Sue appears to be an intelligent, modern forward thinking young woman, at the beginning of the novel she is a religious sceptic. Yet although she rails against the necessities of women tying themselves to men by marriage – and the practise of being given away by a man during the marriage ceremony – she is superstitious and sexually repressed. Allowing herself to become brain-washed by religious conventions – Sue is the instigator of her own continuing misery. Jude whose ambitions are thwarted by poverty and indifference is a man who is fairly passive; he is dominated rather by the women in his life, although he is hugely likeable.


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This particular collection of stories from Thomas Hardy which I only read for the first time two years ago at the start of my Thomas Hardy challenge – are very well named. Hardy is a master at delivering a soft little punch to the guts as his story draws to a close. I say soft punch because so often the reader can see it coming – and still Hardy knew how to ring every last little bit of drama and emotion out of his characters.

I love Hardy’s world, as many regular readers of this blog will be aware, and I thoroughly enjoyed re-visiting these stories which I had remembered so very well from two years ago. Funnily enough however my favourites then and now are different. Previously I had particularly enjoyed the stories ‘An Imaginative Woman’ and ‘ ‘A tragedy of Two Ambitions’ both of which I still really loved, but this time I particularly appreciated the pathos of the story entitled ‘The Son’s Veto’ about a middle aged woman, partially crippled, who had married outside her station and moved from her beloved home village to a London suburb, now widowed, her growing son, brought up as a gentleman puts the block on any future happiness she could have had when he makes her promise not to marry her former sweetheart, a grocer, who she has unexpectedly met again.

“When she had opened the door she found Sam on the step, and he lifted her bodily on his strong arm across the little forecourt into his vehicle. Not a soul was visible or audible in the infinite length of the straight, flat highway, with its ever waiting lamps converging to points in each direction. The air was as country air at this hour, and the stars shone, except to the north-eastward, where there was a whitish light – the dawn. Sam carefully placed her in the seat, and drove on.
They talked as they had talked in old days, Sam pulling himself up now and then, when he thought himself too familiar. More than once she said with misgiving that she wondered if she ought to have indulged in the freak. ‘But I am so lonely in my house,’ she added, ‘and this makes me so happy!’ “

(The Son’s Veto)

The volume concludes with ‘A few Crusted Characters’ – apparently originally entitled ‘Wessex Folk’ – it was this section I had remembered least well – they are a wonderful group of sketches – highlighting he passage of time, with oral stories told by a group of people sharing a coach – stories of farce, tragedy and rural traditions, that take the nostalgic reader back to familiar places and family names of Under the Greenwood Tree –(one of my favourite Hardy novels).

It happened on Sunday after Christmas the last Sunday they ever played in Longpuddle church gallery, as it turned out, though they didn’t know it then. The players formed a very good band almost as good as the Mellstock parish players that were led by the Dewys; and that’s saying a great deal. There was Nicholas Puddingcome, the leader, with the first fiddle; there was Timothy Thomas, the bass-viol man; John Biles, the tenor fiddler; Dan’l Hornhead, with the serpent; Robert Dowdle, with the clarionet; and Mr. Nicks, with the oboe all sound and powerful musicians, and strong-winded men they that blowed. For that reason they were very much in demand Christmas week for little reels and dancing-parties; for they could turn a jig or a hornpipe out of hand as well as ever they could turn out a psalm, and perhaps better, not to speak irreverent. In short, one half-hour they could be playing a Christmas carol in the squire’s hall to the ladies and gentlemen, and drinking tea and coffee with ’em as modest as saints; and the next, at the Tinker’s Arms, blazing away like wild horses with the “Dashing White Sergeant” to nine couple of dancers and more, and swallowing rum-and-cider hot as flame.

(A Few Crusted Characters)

These stories about family, social ambition – and its consequences, are deeply ironic. Many of the characters are tragic, the misguided actions of themselves or others impacting upon their fortunes. In these stories we encounter The Great Exhibition of 1851, and the dawn of the railway, we see rural life juxtaposed with a smart London life. Many of the themes that are present in Hardy’s novels are present in these hugely readable stories. So often with Hardy’s shorter fiction the scope of a thirty page story is not dissimilar to that of his novels, years pass, characters age and many of these stories could be stretched out to the length of a novel. I certainly think Hardy was a particularly good short story writer, within the confines of the genre; he manages to create whole communities and families, trace histories over many years, while keeping the narrative flowing brilliantly.

Amazingly we have only three books left in the Hardy chellenge; Jude the Obscure, The Well Beloved and A Changed Man and other Tales, and then it will be all over. Where has the time gone?  All the novels and most of the short stories I had read before some more than once, but the real joy of this project has been sharing my love of Hardy with others and finding that I love Hardy as much as I always thought I did, mabe  even more so.


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Even if you have never read Tess of the d’Urbervilles before, (which I had) upon taking this novel down from the shelf – you just know it’s going to be emotional. I first started reading Hardy when I was about eighteen, and devoured each of the novels and many of the short stories over the next two or three years. I can’t remember exactly when I read “Tess” but for a long time it remained the one I thought I liked the least. It was also the one; I thought at one time, I would be loath to re-read. Embarking upon the Hardy reading challenge a couple of years ago I realised that not only would I have to face “Tess” again, but that I was actually rather looking forward to it. I have found once or twice before, that re-reading novels I first read in my late teens or early twenties and been underwhelmed by to be enormously rewarding. When I was younger I think I needed a happy ending from my reading – and so the tragedy of “Tess” rather traumatised me.

“Why didn’t you tell me there was danger? Why didn’t you warn me? Ladies know what to guard against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance of discovering in that way; and you did not help me!”

I’m not going to embark on a lengthy re-hashing of the story of “Tess” – most people must know the bare outline at least. Set in Hardy’s beloved Wessex – it tells the story of an innocent country girl who is corrupted and brought down by the debauchery of the aristocratic Alec d’Urberville and the hypocrisy of a society that treats men and women so differently. One of the many tragedies of this story is that if Tess’s family had not sought to better their prospects by claiming kin to the ancient d’Urberville family – which they had been told they were descended from – none of Tess’s sufferings would ever have occurred. One of the abiding images for me from the opening chapters of this wonderful novel is of Tess dancing in the fields near her home with the other young girls, in the May-day dance. Dressed in white, and taking part in an ancient tradition Tess appears as the epitome of a young, innocent traditional country girl. As Angel Clare, Tess’s future great love, passes by the dancing girls after briefly joining in the dance – although not dancing with Tess – the reader who knows what is to come, wants to call him back.

“So each had a private little sun for her soul to bask in; some dream, some affection, some hobby, or at least some remote and distant hope….”

Tess leaves her family home and meets with disaster in the form of Alec d’Urberville, who vilely preys upon Tess’s beauty and innocence leaving her pregnant and disgraced. Tess feels herself to be guilty and this supposed guilt is in many ways her undoing. A couple of years later and Tess has tried to put the past behind her, going to work at Talbothays dairies as a dairymaid where – briefly she is content. Talbothays dairies are a haven of traditional industry and friendship. It is here that Tess meets Angel Clare – who though he doesn’t know her, she remembers well from the time of the May-day dance. Believing herself to be not good enough for Angel, the son of a clergyman, training to be a gentleman farmer, Tess fights her feelings for Angel. Angel is persistent and naturally the two fall in love. The happiness of the couple is doomed by the shadow of Alec d’Urberville – and the horrific hypocrisy of the times which allow for a man to have a past, but not a woman. Angel is not without sin himself – surely his name is another of Hardy’s wonderful ironies. Angel is not a bad man, but it his stubborn blind pride that is Tess’s final undoing.

“Her affection for him was now the breath and life of Tess’s being; it enveloped her as a photosphere, irradiated her into forgetfulness of her past sorrows, keeping back the gloomy spectres that would persist in their attempts to touch her—doubt, fear, moodiness, care, shame. She knew that they were waiting like wolves just outside the circumscribing light, but she had long spells of power to keep them in hungry subjection there.”

In Tess of the d’Urberville’s Hardy explores many of those themes which are familiar to readers of his novels, society, the disparity between men and women, marriage and the traditions of a way of life that was already on the wane. Hardy’s descriptions of the Wessex landscapes and its rural traditions are, as ever, glorious, his characters unforgettable. Reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles is as I said emotional – enchantment, sadness, anger and a few tears – I experienced them all more than a few times. I am so glad I reacquainted myself with ‘Tess.’ My favourite Hardy’s I think will always be Under the Greenwood tree, Far from the Madding Crowd and The Trumpet Major – but I no longer wince when I think of ‘Tess’ – it might be a tragedy – but it is utterly beautiful and a wonderfully compelling read – happy endings? Pah! Who needs ‘em?


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Read for my on-going Hardy reading project, this was the first book of Hardy’s work I hadn’t read previously, the only other one I haven’t read is A Changed man and other tales – which is scheduled for next May. I was therefore looking forward to reading a selection of short stories which were new to me, and over all I wasn’t disappointed, although these won’t be my favourites Hardy stories. In these stories there are little of the pastoral scenes which I so love in Hardy’s work, the emphasis being instead themes of love and marriage in stories largely of women.

For each of these ten stories Hardy has taken the idea of noble country families – and the stories which could lie behind them. Each story is set historically (from Hardy’s time) and is told by a different gentleman of the Wessex Field and Antiquarian Clubs.
Focusing on the lives, loves and marriages of aristocratic women, Hardy examines the secrets and hypocrisies of some country families. Marriage is a recurring theme in many Hardy novels, and each of these perfectly constructed stories could quite easily be stretched to novel size, such is their depth and complexity – several of the tales span many years. It’s always so hard to review short stories – talking about each story in detail could end up being rather wordy. I will try therefore to just give a brief flavour of the whole collection – which recount the fortunes of some very memorable young ladies. Hardy’s female characters are always fascinating – and these are no exception. Not all of these women are likeable, Hardy is very good presenting his female characters as real and flawed people, be they shallow, conniving, romantic or proud. In the opening story we meet the first Countess of Wessex – whose early marriage at thirteen, arranged by her mother, so incensed her adoring father. Having lived apart from her husband until she is eighteen, she contemplates being reunited with her husband nervously. In the second story, Barbara marries a beautiful poorly educated young man unwisely and in haste, but when her young Adonis returns from abroad horrifically disfigured following a fire, she is unable to reconcile the memory of her lovely young husband with the changed man before her.

“O Edmond – it is you? – it must be?’ she said, with clasped hands, for though his figure and movement were almost enough to prove it and the tones were not unlike the old tones, the enunciation was so altered to seem that of a stranger”

Another noble young woman who marries secretly quickly repents her choice – so when her husband dies suddenly she finds an ingenious way of covering up her hasty union, only things take an unexpected turn, and she is unable to undo her lies. Then there is the Lady Penelope who is courted by three different men, and foolishly makes a hasty declaration.

“I would have you know, then, that a great many years ago there lived in a classical mansion with which I used to be familiar, standing not a hundred miles from the city of Melchester, a lady whose personal charms were so rare and unparalleled that she was courted, flattered, and spoilt by almost all the young noblemen and gentlemen in that part of Wessex.”

Heartbreak, deceit and the inconsistencies of romance all play a part in these stories. Thomas Hardy really was a consummate storyteller, and these stories like The Wessex Tales which the Hardy group read last – really show how he was a gifted writer of shorter fiction too.


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By now I think I must have made it fairly obvious that I love Thomas Hardy, and so I was looking forward to my re-reading of this superb collection of Hardy shorter fiction for my on-going Hardy reading challenge.

Wessex Tales contains seven stories, the first two of them really very short – the others considerably longer. In this collection Hardy explored familiar themes of marriage and rural life that we see in his novels, but he also experiments rather in a supernatural tale, ‘The Withered Arm’, which I think I have read at least three times, as it crops up in various other short story collections. The Three Strangers is wonderfully atmospheric, with a delightful little twist, although short it is a perfectly crafted little story, a small isolated cottage, packed with local folk for a celebration, inclement weather and the unexpected arrival of three strangers. ‘The Withered Arm’ – for me at least – is right up there with the best of the gothic type ghost and supernatural stories. There’s a wronged woman, an illegitimate child, a pretty young wife, a curse and a wonderful twist – delicious.

Hardy doesn’t allow himself to be in anyway curtailed by the genre of the short story – he gives full reign to his imagination, and his characters are fully explored. Hardy presents us with men making foolish and rash decisions in the pursuit of marriage, the women they reject so obviously superior. Using irony, coincidence, comedy and tragedy, devices that are so familiar to readers of his novels, Hardy could quite easily have spun out several of these brilliantly constructed stories into novels. In ‘Fellow Townsmen’ and ‘Interlopers at the Knap’ the stories span many years – characters are made to regret the decisions of the past. While in ‘The Distracted Preacher’, a good man puts his principles to one side in order to help the woman he loves – in a wonderfully atmospheric and slightly comic tale of smugglers.
Hardy was very aware of the changing world in which he lived – and in the Wessex Tales it is a world that is presented to us with the great understanding and affection that he had for it. Born and brought up in a humble home Hardy understood the rural world that he wrote about, he understood the work of the furze cutter and the shepherd, he had an ear for the dialect of the region, which he reproduces in many minor characters, characters who no matter how minor they are manage to be completely real.

“Is it necessary to add that the echoes of many characteristic tales, dating from that picturesque time, still linger about here, in more or less fragmentary form to be caught by the attentive ear? Some of them I have repeated; most of them I have forgotten; one I have never repeated, and assuredly can never forget.”

Hardy even manages to lend some of his stories an air of traditional folklore – the story being re-told by a nameless narrator after a passage of time. I wonder if it these were the kind of stories that Hardy would have grown up hearing.
Although I do love Hardy’s pastoral novels best, I think his shorter fiction to be very well worth reading, and wonder if it doesn’t sometimes get overlooked a little. I actually think that The Wessex Tales wouldn’t be a bad place to start for those who have never read any Thomas Hardy.


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