Posts Tagged ‘thomas hardy reading group’


The Woodlanders is the latest read in my on-going Hardy challenge. Several friends and I have been reading (or re-reading in my case) all of Hardy’s fiction in chronological order. I’m not sure why this is only the second time I’ve read The Woodlanders, as I remember been mesmerised by it when I was eighteen. I can remember clearly where I was when I read it – and despite always meaning to, I never managed to get around to re-reading it in the intervening years. I am so glad I left it until now, as it has been such a joy. I love my Hardy, as many of you will know, and those fond memories of my first reading of it have been upheld.
Despite not being a happy story – that’s maybe no surprise, this is Thomas Hardy we are talking about – The Woodlanders is less melodramatic than some of Hardy’s best known novels. The themes are familiar ones, and in The Woodlanders there are definite echoes of previous novels such as Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd, and the tragic Tess of the D’Urbervilles which came four years later. Hardy’s preoccupations with marriage, sexual mores, social equality and rural life are all present in this wonderful novel.

“There was now a distinct manifestation of morning in the air, and presently the bleared white visage of a sunless winter day emerged like a dead-born child.”

The canvas is less broad than say The Return of the Native and Far from the Madding Crowd, mainly a small woodland community, the hamlet of Little Hintock. At the heart of this small community is George Melbury who has educated his daughter Grace considerably above her social station. Grace promised to local man Giles Winterbourne returns from school to her father’s house seeing her home with new eyes. Melbury’s ambitions for his daughter cause him to regret an earlier vow to Giles’s father.

“He Looked and smelt like Autumn’s very brother, his face being sunburnt to wheat-colour, his eyes blue as corn-flowers, his sleeves and leggings dyed with fruit-stains, his hands clammy with the sweet juice of apples, his hat sprinkled with pips, and everywhere about him the sweet atmosphere of cider which at its first return each season has such an indescribable fascination for those who have been born and bred among the orchards.”

Into this rural idyll of timber dealers and woodland workers come two outsiders. To Hintock house, comes landowner the beautiful widow Felice Charmond, while a gifted young doctor Edred Fitzpiers comes to take up a small hillside practice nearby. In Fitzpiers, who is of an old and noble family, Melbury sees a brighter future for his adored daughter Grace. As Grace and Giles’s youthful affection begins to fade in the wake of Melbury’s interference, Marty South a strange young woman nurses her own old love for Giles which goes unrequited. The world of the woodlanders of Little Hintock is an old one, one of traditions and ancient trades – Mrs Charmond and Fitzpiers do not entirely fit into this world, bringing with them sophistications and ideas at odds with the woodland people. woodlanders
As some of my fellow Hardy readers will possibly read this review – I hesitate to say too much more – in case of spoiling the rest of the story. Suffice to say, in my opinion – whatever that is worth – this is an outstanding novel. Hardy’s descriptions allow the weaving together of beautiful imagery with a well-crafted story. I actually found the ending – of which I’ll say no more – to be wonderful poignant.
For anyone who has read it – a question (no spoilers in your replies please) what do we think of Grace and Marty? I like both of them, for different reasons – although I began by thinking I wouldn’t care much for Grace. One of the things I like about Hardy’s female characters is that they seem real – they are flawed, vulnerable and sometimes do things the reader disagrees with. They are never merely vapid creatures in crinoline. Grace Melbury is no Bethsheda Everdene, but she grows as the novel progresses and the woman who emerges has been transformed from the girl she was by her experiences and disappointments in love.


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This was the latest read for my online Hardy reading group – we are reading one book every two months chronologically. I’m a big Hardy fan – and I am so enjoying rediscovering the works I first fell in love with when I was between about eighteen and twenty. I do find though, that my memory of many of the actual plots has suffered greatly over the intervening years – that was certainly the case with The Trumpet Major. My one recollection was of military men in uniform, at the time of the Napoleonic wars. I had completely forgotten how it ended – which I was rather glad of really.
I think the Trumpet Major is generally considered to be a fairly minor work by Hardy. Of course it could be said that a minor work by Hardy is still a fairly great piece of literature – well I certainly think so. The Trumpet Major is beautifully written, and the characterisation is fabulous, many of the more minor characters beautifully comic. The English countryside and the natural world are always at their best in Hardy’s Wessex, and here the small rural communities that Hardy grew up in, are affectionately reproduced. In writing The Trumpet Major, Hardy was writing an historical novel – which he had been inspired to do after meeting with aged survivors of the conflict at Chelsea hospital in 1875. Although the story mainly concerns the three possible suitors for the hand of Anne Garland – Hardy also faithfully depicts both the fear and patriotism in small English communities at this time.

“Their excitement was merely of a piece with that of all men at this critical juncture. Everywhere expectation was at fever heat. For the last year or two only five-and-twenty miles of shallow water had divided quiet English homesteads from an enemy’s army of a hundred and fifty thousand men. We had taken the matter lightly enough, eating and drinking as in the days of Noe, and singing satires without end. We punned on Bonaparte and his gunboats, chalked his effigy on stage-coaches, and published the same in prints. Still, between these bursts of hilarity, it was sometimes recollected that England was the only European country which had not succumbed to the mighty little man who was less than human in feeling, and more than human in will; that our spirit for resistance was greater than our strength; and that the Channel was often calm.”

A thin partition wall divides the home of the Widow Garland and her daughter Anne, from that of the Miller Loveday. The two households get along well together, although Mrs Garland feels that she and her daughter are socially superior to the Lovedays. This does not prevent her from marrying the genial Miller Loveday – but she is less keen for her daughter to marry either of his sons. John the elder is the eponymous Trumpet Major – a good honourable man in the tradition of many other Hardy heroes. Robert his brother to whom Anne once lost her heart when still a very young girl is a sailor – and something of a womaniser. The third suitor to Anne is the cowardly oafish Festus Derriman, a conniving Dragoon, and nephew of the local squire. It is Derriman whom Mrs Garland (later Mrs Loveday) champions in her social ambitions for her daughter.
Needless to say there are many obstacles, misunderstandings, tears and fainting aways to be gone through before Anne decides with whom her future will rest. Anne is ever so slightly irritating at times – I found myself tutting and saying “for heaven’s sake you silly girl!” However John Loveday – the Trumpet Major is wonderful – sigh! I also rather adored Uncle Benji – the horrid Festus Derriman’s uncle – he’s a masterful comic creation.
I won’t give away the ending so I will say no more of the story. Overall however I found The Trumpet Major entertaining and hugely readable – it has in fact a much lighter touch than many other Hardy novels and could be said therefore to be a quite quick read. It is certainly a lighter novel than Far from the Madding Crowd or Return of the Native, which the Hardy group read recently but for me it still has much to recommend it.

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As I have mentioned before, I along with some friends have undertaken a Hardy reading challenge. Hardyreaders group
Thomas Hardy is one of my favourite authors – and I know many other people love his writing too.

As I have read all the Hardy novels before and nearly all the short stories this was a re-read for me although I had remembered surprisingly little about it. That for me was a bonus as it was almost like reading it for the first time – although things did start to come back to me as I read. Other Hardy readers beware – there are spoilers ahead.

In The Return of the Native, Hardy uses the landscape of Egdon Heath to set the mood for the entire novel. The Heath is almost a character in itself – a timeless landscape which carries the reminders of the civilisations that have come before, it is a dark looming presence. The characters are divided both physically and emotionally by the heath, needing to traverse it endlessly to interact with one another. Most characters love the heath, work on it and understand its beauties and its histories others particularly Eustacia Vye are imprisoned by it and long to get away from it. Hardy presents us with a way of life which was already under threat – the reddleman was already becoming a rare sight in these times, he continually reminds us of the passage of time, and the smallness of man upon the larger landscape of the heath, old traditions and myths are woven into the story of the people who live their lives on this most impressive landscape. 

This was Hardy’s first real attempt at tragedy as character after character is driven to destruction in the shadow of Egdon Heath. Eustacia Vye is beautiful and capricious, living on the Heath with her grandfather, she is entangled with Wildeve using bonfires to signal to him across the heath – but he is supposed to be marrying Thomasin Yeobright, the cousin of the returned native – Clym Yeobright. However when Eustacia hears about Clym who is returning from Paris –a place she can only dream of – she firmly sets her sights on him – planning to have him return to Paris with her. Seeing it as a punishment of Eustacia, Wildeve marries Thomasin – and Eustacia gets her man, although in doing so – she sets him against his mother. This falling out has tragic repercussions from which Clym never really recovers. Whether Eustacia really loves poor Clym is open to debate – yet their union is not a happy one. Despite Clym’s insistence that he’ll never return to Paris – but become a school master in Budmouth instead – Eustacia still has her sights set on the boulevards of her imagination. In preparing to become a school master – Clym sets himself to reading – and in so doing damages his eyesight to the point where he can no longer read, and in fact has his vision seriously impaired. Not wishing to be idle – he takes to furze cutting alongside other colourful characters of the heath, instead of being proud of her young husband for his industry and flexibility – Eustacia is horrified by and ashamed of his work. Meanwhile, innocent, gentle Thomasin is married to the selfish and grasping Wildeve who after inheriting money plans to run away with Eustacia. Thomasin however is loved quietly and honourably by the reddleman Diggory Venn – it is Venn who helps to ensure she is married to Wildeve rather than disgraced by his desertion of her, he is instrumental in returning to her money that had fallen into her husband’s hands. It almost goes without saying – that Hardy punishes those who the reader may see as deserving punishment – Eustacia and Wildeve are doomed – though poor Clym is left heartbroken and guilt ridden. The only characters finding real happiness are Thomasin and the wonderful reddleman – who gives up being a reddleman and acquires a dairy herd. This happy ending for Diggory and Thomasin – was not what Hardy had originally intended – but I have to say it is more satisfying than the ending we might have otherwise had.


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Adventuress and opportunist, Ethelberta reinvents herself to disguise her humble origins, launching a brilliant career as a society poet in London with her family acting incognito as her servants. Turning the male-dominated literary world to her advantage, she happily exploits the attentions of four very different suitors. Will she bestow her hand upon the richest of them, or on the man she loves? Ethelberta Petherwin, alias Berta Chickerel, moves with easy grace between her multiple identities, cleverly managing a tissue of lies to aid her meteoric rise. In The Hand of Ethelberta (1876), Hardy drew on conventions of popular romances, illustrated weeklies, plays, fashion plates and even his wife’s diary in this comic story of a woman in control of her destiny.

This is quite different from many of Hardy’s other novels, having a mainly London society setting. The Hand of Ethelberta – subtitled a comedy in chapters – isn’t really my idea of a comedy I must say, although there is more romance in this novel, and we aren’t subjected to the tragedies of other better known Hardy novels. Ethelberta – the daughter of a poor family, manages to raise herself up in society, she is ambitious and bright, and knows what she wants -although she has moments of indecision. Having secretly married the elder son of the family she was working as governess for, she has already raised herself up, although at a price. Living with her mother-in-law Ethelberta is forced to keep her family a secret. As the story begins Ethelberta has written a volume of poetry which becomes much talked about and she is soon a celebrated and sort after member of society. While living in London Ethelberta’s household is not all that society sees it as – her servants are in fact her siblings, her father working in another household as butler where on one occasion Ethelberta goes to dine. Ethelberta still a young girl though already a widow inherits the lease on her mother-in-laws house in London, where she lives knowing that when the lease expires she will have nothing. She knows she must marry a wealthy man and provide for her large family. Hardy presents the culturally elite in a not very flattering light, alongside the working men and women of Ethelberta’s family all of whom act from selfless motives and happily keeping their relationship to ‘Berta a closely guarded secret. Ethelberta is in love with Christopher Julian, a young musician – who in turn is loved desperately by Ethelberta’s sister Picotee.
It is fascinating that Hardy did not end this novel in the conventional way (for Ethelberta at least) – which is one of the things I particularly like – Ethelberta does not end up marrying the poor musician, but a wicked old peer – who she even manages to reform in time. Christopher and his sister Faith, Ethelberta’s family, her workman brothers, her sister Picotee the pupil teacher, turned maid, and her butler father are portrayed as good honest hard working folk, moral and traditional, in complete contrast to the society in which Elthelberta now moves. I like Ethelberta as a character – she is less flighty than some of Hardy’s other female characters – but she is driven and having set upon an end goal she doesn’t allow her doubts to alter her course. She loves her family and it is for their sake that she does what she does. My favourite character is Picotee – I really felt for her loyalty and unrequited love – and so I love how the novel ends for her – it is she and Christopher who are the heroes of the novel.
This is not my favourite Hardy read – although having read it now three times – it is one I feel very familiar with. Of the three times that I have read it – this was the occasion I liked it the best, but probably because I knew it quite well. The style of this novel is at times a little dry and meandering – padded out and some of the best bits come right at the end.

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It was when I was around 18 that I first fell in love with Thomas Hardy. Over the next couple of years or so I read all the novels and most though not all the short stories. I glanced over some of his poetry too from time to time, but it was his novels which really got me. At some point I re-read The Mayor of Casterbridge twice and The Well Beloved, but didn’t get around to reading any of the other novels again for many years. A few years ago I re-read Under the Greenwood Tree and The Hand of Ethelberta, and reawakened my old love of Hardy.

So when an Iris Murdoch reading challenge that had been started by a friend of mine was coming to an end – I suggested we do the same with Hardy. Just as we had with Iris Murdoch we would read the novels and the short stories in chronological order. I set up a yahoo group for discussion and invited people to join us. Although I really hoped to create some Hardy converts – it was also a good way of making me re-read the books I had loved in my late teens and early twenties. I realised I had forgotten much of the plots of many of the novels and so it would almost be as if I were coming to them new. I do however, have a clear memory of being utterly enthralled with The Woodlanders – it was the summer of 1986 and I was determined to read it again and again. So it’s odd that I re-read The Mayor of Casterbridge another firm favourite at the time and not The Woodlanders. I really hope that when the Hardy reading group get to The Woodlanders I love it as much as I did all those years ago. Once we had decided to undertake this reading challenge I prepared for it – by cheating – I read two books of Thomas Hardy short stories (which I will have to read again towards the end of the project) – volumes containing some stories I had read before and some I hadn’t – his children’s book Our Exploits at West Poley – and a biography of Thomas Hardy by Claire Tomlin – I was so inspired I couldn’t wait I also replaced some of my tatty old copies with new Wordsworth classic editions – I rather like the bright blue covers. There is however one book I am not looking forward to so much – Tess of the D’Urbervilles – although maybe I’ll feel differently about it this time round. I just remember it as being so unremittingly depressing and sad. One friend of mine just couldn’t be persuaded to join the group though, as she said that each book would “just be one book closer to Tess!”

What is it then that I love about Hardy? That’s a hard question – I suppose I should know what it is about Hardy I love so much but I’m not sure I can quantify it completely. I do love the pastoral scenes – there are moments in some of the novels that I feel I have seen as much as read. If I close my eyes I can conjure up the opening scenes of Under the Greenwood Tree, the men of the Melstock choir silhouetted against the dark sky, the Tranters cottage and the carol singers. I also feel the same about The Mayor of Casterbridge and I know I felt like that about The Woodlanders, and The Well Beloved. That’s not to say that the stories themselves aren’t great too though – they are – some more so than other perhaps – but many are fantastic page turners. However tragic we find Tess – there’s no doubt it’s an amazing story – one a reader can stay up late reading and quite possibly howl over – they may never want to read it again – but they will never forget Tess and Angel Clare – even though they may want to. I like the themes of Hardy novels – society, marriage and the slow disappearance of traditional ways. Of course there are some novels I prefer to others, the one I am reading at the moment I like well enough but it would be a way down the list of favourite Hardy reads. I love the short stories too – especially The Withered Arm – what a title! and ‘The Distracted Preacher’.

So the Hardy reading group – still open to late joiners by the way – began in July 2011. There are currently 21 members not all them post messages to the group (that’s ok people are busy) but a good number do and seem on the whole to be enjoying the project. We are reading one book every 2 months – and if we keep to the current timetable we’ll finish in April 2014. So far the group have read: Desperate Remedies, Under the Greenwood tree, A pair of Blue eyes and Far from the Madding Crowd. I am now well into The Hand of Ethelberta again. Reading these books has been a complete joy to me – and sharing the experience with others is wonderful. Not everyone loves them as much as I do – and that’s, it’s fascinating how different reactions and experiences of the same book can be.

The Hardy reading group”>


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A Pair of Blue Eyes, though early in the sequence of Hardy s novels, is lively and gripping. Its dramatic cliff-hanging episode, for example, is at once tense, ironic, feministic and erotic. With settings in Wessex and London, the novel also has some strongly autobiographical features, as the blue-eyed heroine, Elfride Swancourt, is based largely on Emma Gifford, who became Thomas Hardy s first wife. Elfride s vivacious nature attracts several lovers, but she is beset by sexual prejudice, and the ensuing ironies reveal the constraints of her times. A Pair of Blue Eyes provides an engaging and moving experience for today s readers.

Read this as part of the Thomas Hardy reading challenge. The second time I have read this novel, and yet I found I had remembered nothing of the story at all. I was puzzled by this as I found it hugely readable, and really very gripping in parts, which I must surely have done the first time I read it. The prose is beautiful, the descriptions of landscape, and buildings are lovely. It is a wonderfully accessible Hardy novel, and one I would recommend to people who don’t like some of the better known later novels which can be much darker, not that this one ends all happily ever after or anything, this is Thomas Hardy after all.

What Hardy manages to highlight beautifully in this novel, are the double standards that society placed upon Men and Women at this time. Elfride is judged harshly by the men in her life. Another familiar theme is that of the disparity between people of different classes. Elfride’s love interest’s are each from a higher social standing from the one before. Essentially the story is of Elfride’s relationships with young architect Stephen Smith, who’s humble family background finally drives them apart, and then later with Smith’s older friend and mentor Henry Knight. The stories of these three likeable people are portrayed with all the protagonists victims to circumstance rather than there being villains and heroes.  Secrets, lies, an embittered widow who threatens to reveal all she knows, and a dramatic cliff top scene make for a brilliant page turner of a read.

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It is now about time for those taking part in the Thomas Hardy reading project to begin our second book, "Under the Greenwood Tree" Which I last read in 2008. So this will be third reading of it for me.

I have been quite pleased with how things have gone so far. Although we haven't heard from everyone who joined the group – we have had some interesting posts from many members about our first book "Desperate Remedies" On the whole I think people are enjoying the project and I am hopeful that for the moment at least, that will continue.

I am really looking forward to Under the Greenwood Tree. Which I will start tonight.

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