What Do You Do All Day? (or "Stop Me Before I Volunteer Again")
Tuesday, January 28, 2003
What I Finished Reading Recently:
The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
This was our book group's selection in December (I got a bit behind on these reviews over the holidays!), and I have to admit I was kind of dreading the read. Never having read Hardy before, I wasn't quite sure what to expect...and while I do love some 19th century authors (Dickens, Austen, Twain, etc.), I've had decidedly less than enthusiastic reactions to others, such as Henry James (after college, I swore I'd never touch another James book). But after the book group read a James novel (The Europeans) earlier this year, and I actually found myself enjoying it, I decided to give Hardy a try...and to my surprise, found him very easy to digest.
The most surprising thing about this book, for me, was its interesting mix of elements which seem very 19th century with others that seem incredibly contemporary. Both my husband and I were surprised by the mixture of archaic terms we'd never heard before (e.g. "Michaelmas summer") and others which are still very much a part of modern-day conversational and even slangy English.
Also, the construction of the story is, in at least one way, extremely contemporary. Since my background is in screenwriting, I'm very aware of the way in which today's movie stories are constructed, and one of their chief features is a relatively brief opening scene designed to really grab the audience and get them excited about sitting through the rest of the movie. The most obvious of these are in action movies, particularly "James Bond" and similar pictures, which open with a huge action scene that sets the mood and establishes the main character's sense of derring-do. But if you look closely, almost all movies these days have such scenes - they open with an event that's either emotionally or physically "big," and then, after the story has grabbed you, pull back for more leisurely introductions of characters and plot complications.
And to my surprise, unlike any novel of its time that I've ever read, Mayor starts with exactly this kind of contemporary "grabber" scene: a poor man gets drunk one too many times and actually sells his wife and child to the highest bidder at a rowdy pub. And after an opening like that (which wraps up with the wife going off with her purchaser, a sailor just passing through town), you can't help wondering where the story will go from there, and you definitely want to stick around to find out.
After the bang-up opening, Hardy actually continues in fairly contemporary mode, installing significant plot twists every 10 pages or so, which further draw you in and keep you involved in the story. After the opening scene, we cut to nearly 20 years later, when the wife and daughter return to the village and learn the drunkard has sworn off liquor and become a wealthy pillar of the community. The wife, who hasn't told the daughter who the man really is to them, arranges to meet him and they finally conspire to court and marry, to rectify the man's old misdeeds. But complications also arise when the "Mayor" takes a young up-and-comer under his wing, and then begins to resent the younger man's success in his own business. Then we find out that the Mayor no longer really loves the wife, and has cut off a torrid romance with another woman in a distant city to marry her. And, while the wife finally does tell the daughter that the Mayor is her father, she later dies, leaving a note confessing otherwise, which the Mayor intercepts without the daughter's knowledge.
While all this is certainly entertaining, however, it's also ultimately almost too much: the twists started piling so deep that the story seems to slip dangerously close to soap opera territory.
What remains interesting from beginning to end, however, are the two main characters: the "Mayor," Michael Henchard, and his supposed daughter, Elizabeth Jane, who have a very on-again, off-again relationship. Of the two, Henchard is definitely the best developed as a character, and he comes off as a fascinating presence: a man with all the basic requirements for success, but who has the fatal flaw of impatience, which leads again and again to ill-advised actions that torpedo his most important relationships. And as Henchard's fortunes fall as a result of his own missteps, the import of each misguided decision he makes looms larger and larger.
In contrast, Elizabeth Jane is harder to pin down, but the brief glimpses we do get into her inner life are fascinating (e.g. she's so ashamed of her humble origins and education that she throws herself into reading and study, privately amassing a large personal library and a book-fed education that quite probably outstrips those of any of the people around her). Also, her constant placidity and good temper are a sharp contrast to Henchard's much more impatient and blustery temperament, and the two characters play off each other very well.
I wouldn't say The Mayor of Casterbridge is one of the best books I've ever read, nor even, probably, one of my favorite 19th century novels...but I did enjoy it, and would recommend it, particularly to anyone interested in seeing some very interesting seeds of contemporary literary forms in a surprisingly early incarnation.