Today’s blog is a little tribute to the man who is perhaps my favourite novelist writing in the Victorian age. I’ve always felt slightly sorry for him, believing – probably incorrectly – that he loses out in the popularity stakes compared to some of the other nineteenth century novelists. He doesn’t have Dickens’ verbosity and larger than life characters, or Austen’s tightly wound love stories that set pulses quickening through their very restraint. The qualities that he does have in abundance, though, happen to be ones that appeal very much to my nature and are the reason I find his stories resonate so deeply with me. First and foremost, Thomas Hardy is honest. Bad things happen to good people with no guarantee that divine justice will right things in the end. Even when people manage to find some level of comfort and contentment in their lives, many of them will end their days carrying around an underlying sadness, regretting those from the past that slipped away or the things that didn’t go to plan. In short, life is cruel and there’s nothing anyone can do to change that.
“But he’s so miserable!” is a response I’ve heard on numerous occasions when professing my love for his books. Well, yes – I have to concede that some of his novels contain a few pretty horrific goings-on. I can totally see how his choice of subject matter could be off-putting and I pass no judgement on anyone who feels that way! I suppose the reason why I choose to read his books is the overwhelming sense that his characters are just doing what so many of us are doing: fighting to survive, thrive and find love and hope in a world that can at times present us with the toughest, most unjust and undeserved of obstacles. And I also have to admire a writer who can provoke in me a physical reaction to the pain of his fictional creations; there are times while reading his stories that my stomach ties itself in knots so acutely do I feel his characters’ plight.
The more appealing side to Hardy, if it’s right to call it that, is his beautiful portrayal of rural England. When I think of his books I can’t help but think of scenes akin to a Constable painting; in essence, a landscape and a way of life that is now vanished forever. It would be inaccurate to claim that Hardy himself intended these backdrops to be purely idyllic; the communities he depicts do not exist in a serene bubble but are subject to the uncertainty that pervades any era, as technology advances and people have to adjust to changes of all sorts as time marches on. Reading the books over a century later, however, the sense is one of nostalgia as much as unease. I’ve always been drawn to the old-fashioned rather than the current, the comfort of the past rather than the excitement of the future, so getting lost in a rustic Victorian existence for a couple of hundred pages plays to my natural inclinations.
If I was going to recommend a Thomas Hardy novel to start you off if you’ve not read him before, I would definitely put forward “The Woodlanders”. It’s not got the crushing trauma of some of the others and is a very enjoyable read; it’s also probably my personal favourite, although it’s very a very tight call between that and “The Mayor of Casterbridge”! If you’re also a Hardy fan I’d love to hear what your favourite is…