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classicclub meme

I haven’t answered a Classic Club question for a couple of months – and really it is time I did.

So in July the Classic Club is asking:

“Have you ever read a biography on a classic author? If so, tell us about it. If you had already read works by this author, did reading a biography of his/her life change your perspective on the author’s writing? Why or why not? Or, if you’ve never read a biography of a classic author, would you? Why or why not?”

time torn manIn 2011 I read a superb biography of Thomas Hardy by Claire Tomalin. The Time Torn Man is a really a must for any Hardy fans I think. Regular readers will know I love my Hardy. When I read A Time Torn man – I was preparing to start my Hardy reading challenge. The challenge undertaken by myself and a few friends was to read the fiction (novels and short stories) of Hardy in publication order. I had already read almost everything at least once – there were just two volumes of short stories I hadn’t read before. Reading one book every two months the project beginning in July 2011 officially finished last month with A Changed Man and other Stories. Back in 2011 then, I already knew a lot of Hardy’s writing, but a lot of it had been read many years earlier, and my memories of those books, although fond had naturally faded with time.

In reading The Time Torn Man, I met Hardy as a child and young man, born into a fairly humble family; he was very much a part of the rural landscape he is so famed for writing about. Thomas Hardy a man who grew up appreciating music, who started out as an architect, who had to work hard to marry his Emma who was his social superior. The echoes of all these things are present throughout his writing. Hardy’s first marriage, starting off happy, didn’t really remain so, in their middle age, the two lived largely separate lives, Emma Hardy religious and traditional, Hardy himself critical of religion, feeling more and more trapped by the conventions of Victorian marriage. Again, throughout Hardy’s writing he returns again and again to themes of marriage. After Emma’s death, Hardy married Florence, a much younger woman, and wrote love poetry to the memory of Emma. He was an often conflicted and complex man, and reading this biography highlights this wonderfully. Claire Tomalin is a superb biographer – I also read her book about Jane Austen – excellent too!

Claire Tomalin obviously appreciates Hardy even more as a poet than a novelist – and the one thing I took away from this book – was the feeling that I had a better understanding of Hardy the novelist, the story teller and in a small way as a man, but I really needed to acquaint myself better with Hardy the poet. That remains something I am working on.

When I set out for Lyonnesse,
A hundred miles away,
The rime was on the spray,
And starlight lit my lonesomeness
When I set out for Lyonnesse
A hundred miles away.

What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there
No prophet durst declare,
Nor did the wisest wizard guess
What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there.

When I came back from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes,
All marked with mute surmise
My radiance rare and fathomless,
When I came back from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes!

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achangedman

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.

thomas hardy

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thewellbeloved

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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winter

Drawing heavily on what is known about Thomas Hardy’s later years and the first production of the play ‘Tess’ – Christopher Nicholson has written a novel that explores many of themes which might have interested Hardy himself.

I am a little nervous perhaps, of novels written about real people – and I don’t mean historical figures from so far away a time as to make them almost fictional like anyway (is that just me?) but those people who lived in times not so very long ago – who we still feel we can almost reach out to, and about whom we think we know so much already. I was slightly cured of that fear when I read and absolutely loved Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness – which features D H Lawrence and his wife. This novel however is about Thomas Hardy and his second wife Florence – set in the last few years of his life, when he and Florence had been married ten years. I was a little concerned I suppose at the Thomas Hardy I would encounter in this book, fiction though it is, it isn’t as though I believe he and I would have been great mates should we ever have met – I think that unlikely – but I wanted still to like him. Incredibly I do – I say incredibly, because Christopher Nicholson hasn’t made either Hardy or Florence especially sympathetic, Hardy emerges as an obstinate, slightly delusional old man, set in his ways and Florence is rather hysterical and a little shrewish at times. Yet still I love Thomas Hardy – it seems I cannot be cured.

gertrude buglerIn the 1920’s Thomas Hardy adapted his favourite novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles for the Hardy Players – a Dorset amateur dramatic group which still exists today, at least they seem to have been reformed a few years ago. Gertrude Bugler was cast to play Tess; she was a Dorset girl, who had been locally acclaimed as an actress of real ability. Gertie was the daughter of Augustus Way who years earlier as an eighteen year old milkmaid had been Hardy’s inspiration for Tess. This of course is a tantalising glimpse into the possible thinking of the great man. Augustus/Gertie/Tess are inextricably linked and tangled up with each other. So in a way this novel is a wonderful companion read to The Well Beloved – the next read in my ongoing Hardy reading challenge – a novel I have read twice before though not for a long time. Hardy desperately wanted Gertie to take the play to London, and perform it at the famous Haymarket theatre. This was a dream come true for Gertie, although it would mean leaving her husband and young baby for a month. However this was destined never to happen, Florence Hardy had become so jealous of Gertie that she put a stop to Gertrude Bugler’s playing Tess in London. It seems that all this is true, and has provided Christopher Nicholson with a wonderful story on which to build his novel. gertrudebugleronstage

thomasandflorencehardyWinter – named for the time of year the story is set and more importantly the stage of Hardy’s life it concerns, is a beautifully constructed, subtly complex little novel. Exploring themes of marriage, desire, ageing and mortality, it is a wonderfully psychological examination of one of England’s best and most loved writers (oh I know there are Hardy haters out there I like to ignore the fact). At Max Gate – Hardy’s  country home he and Florence lead a largely reclusive life with their adored little dog Wessex. Thomas Hardy is eighty four, his wife only forty six – but in poor health she seems older. As the novel opens the couple await a visit to their home by Gertrude Bugler. Gertie threatens the equilibrium of their quiet life; she is beautiful, ambitious and in Hardy’s mind embodies the spirit of Tess – his favourite heroine. As plans for transferring the play to London start to take shape, Hardy is often preoccupied with thoughts of his own mortality – going as far as picturing his own funeral in minute detail, though even here his thoughts return to the Tess/Gertie/Augustus ideal.

“Yet the one who caught his attention as the crowd thinned was a woman somewhat like Gertie but entirely she, a woman whom he had never seen before, but whom he seemed to know with an intimacy which ran to the bone; the ideal woman, the well-beloved, the Shelleyan avatar of whom he had so long dreamed and who had haunted every novel he had ever written. Beneath a wide black hat she gazed into the grave before slowly raising her head as if to bid him a final farewell. Her precise features remained elusive, for her face was veiled, yet he had no doubt that she had full knowledge of his presence, and he would have liked to step forward, or to make at least, some corresponding gesture, but found himself unable. Then she and all other members of the human race faded from view, and he was left alone by the yew tree, in the winter wind.”

Florence meanwhile already obsessed with the idea that the thick trees which surround Max gate are affecting her health, frustrated at her husband’s refusal to have them cut back, now becomes convinced that he is planning on betraying her with Gertie Bugler. Florence’s moods become increasingly erratic, making whispered telephone calls, and finally paying a secret visit to Gertie Bugler at her home to beg her to turn down the London role.

This is a superb novel, beautifully written, profound and deeply affecting. This is Christopher Nicholson’s third novel, although the first of his I have read, and I probably wouldn’t have read him at all if her hadn’t gone out and written a novel about my favourite novelist, I am so glad I have encountered him.

christophernicholson

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judetheobscure

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.

99s/31/huty/13619/18

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Merry Christmas!!

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Merry Christmas!!

I would like to take the opportunity to wish you all a very happy, healthy Christmas. Hoping it is warm, relaxing (and my particular wish) book filled.

I am spending a couple of days at my Mum’s house – cosying in with Mum her little dog Ozzie my sister and brother in law. We none of us go really mad with Christmas gifts – buying smallish things for one another (books count as smallish) – and I am fortunate in having several book loving friends so I can usually guarantee some books. The picture above is of only some of the bookish shaped parcels I have had to keep my mits off before the big day. Those who read this blog may guess – that my favourite kinds of gifts are book shaped or tea cannister shaped.

As this is a book blog I wanted to share something vaguely literary with you. You may have noticed my love of Hardy which generally only extends to his prose work, – but here is a short Christmas poem that I found , I think it’s rather sweet.

The Oxen

Thomas Hardy (1915)

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen.
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few believe
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve
“Come; see the oxen kneel

“In the lonely barton by yonder comb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

A massive thank you for supporting me and my blog, for popping by commenting and sharing your thoughts I do appreciate it.

Have a wonderful day today, whereever you are and whoever you are with.

 

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lifeslittleironies

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.

99s/31/huty/13619/18

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