Friday, December 30, 2016

Review: The Phantom of Thomas Hardy

University of Wisconsin Press.
2016. 184 pages
2016 has been something of a remarkable year in that it has seen the release of three novels featuring Thomas Hardy as a character. I wrote earlier in the year about the first two of these, Winter by Christopher Nicholson and Max Gate by Damien Wilkins. The third, The Phantom of Thomas Hardy, is perhaps the most engaging to the admirer of Hardy's work who will, in its pages, recognize a common kinship with its author, Floyd Skloot, through his very personal quest to connect with Dorset and the places that shaped Hardy's life and his writing.

The Phantom of Thomas Hardy sits on the bleeding edge of modern fiction in that it poses as a memoir while slyly inserting elements of fiction alongside Skloot's very believable and vulnerable writing about himself, his wife, and their journey to Dorset. He expands the range of the novel beyond an extended trip to Hardy country with his wife by including in a much larger narrative about Hardy's longstanding presence in his intellectual life. Skloot's presence in the work is also informed by his decades-long process of coping with neurological eccentricities that came with the development and recovery from brain lesions in the 1980s.

These eccentricities, in fact, form the fulcrum of the suspension of our disbelief throughout the novel as Skloot is visited, numerous times throughout the novel, by the titular phantom of Thomas Hardy as he explores the locales that served as the backdrop for the pivotal moments in Hardy's life. Even as Skloot questions the validity of his own experiences against the expectations of a mundane world, the reader is invited to wonder where the line between what happened and what is imagined within the book actually lies.

It will be difficult for Hardy's admirers not to identify with Skloot and his journey in this book. His trip to Dorset is informed by a lifetime shared with Hardy's work. The narrative isn't merely a travelogue to Dorset. Skloot cuts directly to the heart of why Thomas Hardy and his work still speak to an audience more than a century removed. His first-person account serves as a crucible for the work, the man, the place and the reader to intermingle in a way that reflects my own internal experience with Hardy's work and, I suspect, that of many others.

The ending of the book wraps up just a little too neatly for my taste, having the effect of showing how a magic trick is performed just before its awe-inspiring climax. I was enjoying Skloot's high-wire act, balancing fact and fiction so deftly that I couldn't distinguish between them and the close of the novel definitely dispels that in a way that is unmistakable. It reminded me of an element of Max Gate that drew me out of the narrative at nearly the same point in the book. Perhaps both intended it to serve as a kind of narrative frontality to underscore the fictional nature of all seemingly biographical writing?

It didn't spoil the book for me in either case but I was perfectly happy to let this one close without being reminded that the otherwise note-perfect writing was not just a love letter to Thomas Hardy but also to his many fans. As Hardy himself might note, there is nothing unsavory in giving oneself over to the passion evoked by a well-written love letter but there is wisdom in retaining some small piece of the self in skepticism because love is prone, by the very selflessness of its nature, to overselling its own durability.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Merry Christmas!

I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has supported this blog by reading this year. Please enjoy this drawing of the famous window serenade scene from Under the Greenwood Tree as rendered by my lovely wife Shayna Pond!

Happy holidays and a very merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Under the Greenwood Tree Part 7 - The Hazards of Love

Fancy Day and her suitors from the 2005 BBC adaptation of
Under the Greenwood Tree.
The eccentricities of Under the Greenwood Tree's love story really stuck out to me after watching the 2005 BBC interpretation of the novel, as adapted by Ashley Pharoah and directed by Nick Laughland. As a film considered on its own merits, it's a light-fare historical romance that features competent acting and direction and asks little of its audience. As an adaptation of Under the Greenwood Tree, it's a dismal failure because it misses (or ignores) the fact that the novel is not a romance but a romantic tragedy.

The only meaningful tension in Dick and Fancy's year-long journey to the altar is in its utter frivolousness. It is a given that Fancy, having completed her training as a teacher and moving into the parish, is going to marry someone. Her father explains it plainly to Dick when he first presents himself for her hand.

'Well, and do ye know what I live in such a miserly way for when I've got enough to do without it, and why I maker her work as a schoolmistress instead of living here?'


'That if any gentleman, who sees her to be his equal in polish should want to marry her, and she want to marry him, he shan't be superior to her in pocket.'

Now, in the film, this exchange is sold to the audience as evidence of Geoffrey Day's prejudice towards the potential of the working class as Dick is demonstrating through his action that he intends to grow his father's business into something more than what it has been. By saying that Fancy has been groomed to marry a man who can take care of her to the standard to which she has become accustomed, Geoffrey is implying that Dick will never be able to do that. We, who are swayed Dick's can-do attitude and his ability to transcend his meagre circumstances, believe like Dick and Fancy that he can and will.

One can find only last-minute assertion of this character trait or aspiration in the book. There is every reason to believe that Dick is going to wind up in a place only slightly better than the one his father currently occupies: sincere, honest, respected among his peers and slightly less working poor due to the infusion of Geoffrey Day's money and status.

Perhaps if their love is something truly magical, we should applaud this union anyway? Let's assume that it is. Again, Geoffrey Day:

'D'ye know what her mother was?'


'A teacher in a landed family's nursery, who was foolish enough to marry the keeper of the same establishment;'

Though Day was able to marshal the resources, through his connection with the Lord of the county, to raise his social status, it comes as cold consolation as Fancy's mother is dead. His sacrifice is to his daughter, whom he had hoped to push up into the next class. Even if Dick is able to raise himself by some miracle into Geoffrey's status (as he might in marrying his daughter), the net elevation for Fancy is still zero.

And again, if their love is magical and enduring, perhaps that's ok too?

Before approaching that question, let's consider her alternatives. Farmer Shiner, as a spouse, would not gain Fancy a particular elevation in class, though it would boost her status. Parson Maybold, on the other hand, has the best path to give her both, as he is presented in both book and film as a thoughtful, educated and somewhat ambitious man. This post in Mellstock is just a test run for his assumed social ascent to follow.

Hardy gives remarkable little time in the book towards developing either alternate suitor as a character of any depth. Farmer Shiner gets the better treatment of the two at least in terms of time in the story. He emerges almost immediately as Dick's rival for Fancy's affections and Geoffrey Day sees him as the natural match for her. Hardy, however, gives us almost no reasons to believe that, other than her father's wishes, Fancy might develop a reciprocal feeling for him. He is presented as boorish, awkward and socially obtuse.

As for Parson Maybold, Hardy leaves the development of his character and, thus, his interest in Fancy until late in the book. The locals speculate early on that the two would make a natural couple but it is not until much later that the possibility of an actual romance between the pair rears its head. Like Shiner, Maybold is left as a cipher who we really only see in terms of what his offer of marriage could provide to Fancy from a social and material standpoint.

The filmmakers saw this as a point that obviously needed punching up if we were to take either man seriously as a rival. Under their vision, Shiner gains a vulnerable side that he is able to show Fancy through his steadfast pursuit. When she finally rejects his advances, it feels like a genuine moment and makes us like her a little better in her delicate handling of his feelings. The Parson is given, likewise, more character development and emerges as someone that the audience could probably live with Fancy having dumped Dick for. But, she doesn't and that potential sails off into the sunset, leaving her to fend with the future with Dick alongside her.

But, if their love is magical and enduring, that's ok, right?

The film's creators take their cue from other Hardy works, like Far from the Madding Crowd, and say, "Yes." Fancy has been presented with three roughly equal suitors in terms of their relative virtues; Shiner, who offers financial stability and a self-awareness of his own limitations as a partner who can inspire great passion in her; Maybold, who offers culture, education and the promise of upward social mobility; and Dick, who offers her youthful virility, sincerity and an ambition to move upward slightly status through dint of his hard work. She chooses Dick and they all live happily ever after.

While Hardy's young master Dewy is certainly sincere and virile, he's also something that the film misses (or omits) entirely - namely a member of the Mellstock community. This is the tragedy of the novel. Because members of the Mellstock community are not passionate about their wives or husbands nor do they demonstrate a clear understanding of how and why they came to be married at all.

Mrs. Penny turned around. 'Well, 'tis humps and hollers with the best of us; but still and for all that, Dick and Fancy stand as fair a chance of having a bit of sunsheen as any married pair in the land.'

'Ay, there's no gainsaying it.'

Mrs. Dewy came up, talking to one person and looking at another. 'Happy, yes," she said. ''Tis always so when a couple is so exactly in tune with one another as Dick and she.'

But how exactly in tune are Dick and Fancy? Fancy who accepts another man's invitation to marry while engaged to Dick? Fancy, whom Maybold sees clearly upon his discovery of her duplicity, as "less an angel than a woman"? Hardy lays it all out plain in the novel's closing.

'Fancy,' he said, 'why we are so happy is because there is such full confidence between us. Ever since that time you confessed to that little flirtation with Shiner by the river...I have thought how artless and good you must be to tell o' such a trifling thing and to be so frightened about it as you were. It has won me to tell you my every deed and word since then. We'll have no secrets from each other darling, will we ever? - no secret at all.'

'None from to-day,' said Fancy. 'Hark! what's that?'

From a neighbouring thicket was suddenly heard to issue in a loud, musical, and liquid voice--

'Tippiwit! swe-e-et! ki-ki-ki! Come hither, come hither, come hither!"

'O, 'tis the nightingale,' murmured she, and thought of a secret she would never tell.

And so it was that Fancy Day, educated and groomed to move out of the orbit of the Mellstock community by virtue of a good marriage, squandered her father's sacrifice to marry an handsome but otherwise ordinary young man who fell in love with the first pretty girl he met.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Under the Greenwood Tree Part 6 - Marriage and Jemima Hardy's Curious Philosophy

It's wot bwings us togevva today. 
I like a story with a bad moral. My sonnies, all true stories have a course touch or a bad moral, depend upon't. If the storytellers could ha' got decency and good morals from true stories, who'd ha troubled to invent parables? [Reuben Dewy]

I have reserved the love story that provides Under the Greenwood Tree with the bulk of its plot for the end of the discussion because its role in the novel is both slight and strange. Judged through the lens of great literature about the joys and hazards of young love, the story of Dick Dewy and Fancy Day's journey from strangers to spouses lacks on many levels. Both characters are written so flatly that they can hardly be said to have a personality at all. They have no interests drawing them together other than the fact that they are both described as being of above average attractiveness. The obstacles that arise along the way are either flimsy or ultimately brushed aside by something nonsensical. As a courting narrative, it is strangely uninspired by these deficiencies.

Where it fails in satisfying common expectation, though, Under the Greenwood Tree is rich in tantalizing opportunities to examine Thomas Hardy's anxieties about the rituals of love and marriage at a particularly momentous junction in his life. The novel was placed into its final form just after Hardy had met his own future wife, Emma, though it is suggested that some amount of it had been written prior to that meeting. Given the novel's intimate connection to Hardy's birthplace and his penchant for blending the biographical and fictional in his writings, I find the idea that it offers some of the clearest glimpses at Hardy's own inherited ideas (and distrust) of the institution of marriage to be too compelling to ignore. 

This is valuable information because Thomas Hardy's mother, Jemima, was known to hold some fairly curious notions about it herself and, miraculously, enforced them upon three of her four children. Only Tom escaped her expectations that the brothers and sisters should remain unmarried throughout their lives in the interest of maintaining some kind of clannish integrity and neither of his marriages yielded offspring. If that sounds weird, that's because it is. It's one of the enigmatic aspects of Hardy's life that baffles understanding, which is ironic because it positively haunts his work. One could say that it is what makes his art distinctive.

Throughout Under the Greenwood Tree, there is a recurring theme about love suggesting that is a kind of mania that robs both future husband and wife of their sanity and, once it's begun, there is no recovery for which one might hope. It is pronounced within the novel because it is not only demonstrated by the courting narrative but echoed by the members of the community who witness it.

After the Quire has serenaded Fancy Day on Christmas Eve, giving Dick his first glimpse of her, they retire to the church nearby to eat, drink and warm up before continuing their tour of the county. Suddenly, they realize that Dick has gone missing. After rattling through a list of possible tragedies that may have befallen him, Reuben declares:

'A strapping lad like Dick d'know better than let anything happen onawares,' Reuben remarked. 'There's sure to be some poor little scram reason for't staring us in the face all the while.' He lowered his voice to a mysterious tone: 'Neighbours, have ye noticed any sign of a scornful woman in his head, or suchlike?'

'Not a glimmer of such a body. He's as clear as water yet.'

'And Dicky said he should never marry,' cried Jimmy, 'but live at home always along wi' mother and we!'

'Ay, ay, my sonny; every lad has said that in his time.'

The answer was staring them "in the face all the while" as Dick has lingered at Fancy's window, where they later find him before moving on to play for the parson. There, Reuben makes a prophecy that Miss Day and the parson will become romantically involved, no doubt to his son's chagrin.

Prior to a party at the Dewy's later the next night, we are given this glimpse into Dick's parents' marriage. His mother remarks that, "Not one of my family were sich vulgar sweaters, not one of 'em. But Lord-a-mercy, the Dewys! I don't know how ever I cam' into such a family!" with his father reminding her that it was due to her "woman's weakness when I asked ye to jine us."

The subject of Reuben and Ann Dewy's courtship arises again when, much later in the book, Dick queries his father about how they came to be married.

"'Ann,' said I, as I was saying...'Ann,' I said to her when I was oiling my working-day boots wi' my head hanging down, 'Woot hae me?'...what came next I can't quite call up at this distance o' time. Perhaps your mother would know, --she's got a better memory for her little triumphs than I. However, the long and short o' the story is that we were married somehow, as I found out afterwards."

This notion of courtship amnesia is echoed by another community member, Mrs. Penny as she recalls how she broke with her first courting partner for her present husband, saying that "Penny asked me if I'd go snacks with him, and afore I knew what I was about a'most, the thing was done."

This metaphor of disassociation reaches into the plot itself at the book's climax, the wedding of Dick and Fancy. One would think that the wedding to which the book's action had been pointed for a few hundred pages would receive that classic Hardy description. Instead, we get this:

Now among dark perpendicular firs, like the shafted columns of a cathedral; now through a hazel copse, matted with primroses and wild hyacinths; now under broad beeches in bright young leaves they threaded their way into the high road over Yalbury Hill, which dipped at that point directly into the village of Geoffrey Day's parish; and in the space of a quarter of an hour Fancy found herself to be Mrs. Richard Dewy, though, much to her surprise, feeling no other than Fancy Day still.

This final note, about Fancy's surprise at her lack of transformation at this critical junction in her life, is the terminal ring of a warning bell that Hardy has been ringing throughout the book. In the final (and forthcoming) installment of our exploration of Under the Greenwood Tree, I'll be contrasting the novel with the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of the novel from 2006 to show that while the book is a story of love, it is not one with a happy ending.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Under the Greenwood Tree Part 5 - The Social Contract

A cordwainer, that is, a maker of shoes;
differentiated from a cobbler
who merely repairs them.
The last major facet of Thomas Hardy's Dutch portrait of his Dorchester community in decline is more nebulous than the others I've outlined so far; specifically, the relationship between the individual and the larger community or social convention. I say that it's more nebulous because, unlike landscape descriptions or dialogue, it's rarely explicit in the text. It's implied in the ways that characters interact with one another.

It is, however, one of the central themes of the book, embodied in the disruption that Parson Maybold's installation brings to the community. Before the nature and scope of that disruption can be appreciated, it will be valuable to understand what it is that is being disrupted. There is a relationship between the land, the individual, the family and the community that can be thought of as a web that has been undisturbed for generations prior to the opening of the book. Individuals assume vocations (and in fact are defined by those vocations) based on the needs of the community and, in some cases, by the traditions that exist within the family into which they are born.

As the members of the quire gather in Reuben Dewy's home to drink cider and rehearse prior to the long night of caroling, Hardy uses this curious sequence, from the mouth of Mr. Penny, the shoemaker, to underscore the intimate nature of the relations between members of the community.

"Well," said the shoemaker, seeming to perceive that the interest the object had excited was greater than he had anticipated, and warranted the last's being taken up again and exhibited; "Now, whose foot do ye suppose this last was made for? It was made for Geoffrey Day's father over at Yalbury Wood. Ah, many's the pair o' boots he've had off the last. Well, when 'a died, I used the last for Geoffrey, and have ever since, though a little doctoring was wanted to make it do. Yes, a very queer natured last it is now, 'a believe," he continued, turning it over caressingly. "Now, you notice that there" (pointing to a lump of leather bradded to the toe), "that's a very bad bunion that he've had ever since 'a was a boy. Now, this remarkable large piece" (pointing to a patch nailed to the side), "shows a' accident he received by the tread of a horse, that squashed his foot a'most to a pomace. The horseshoe cam full-butt on this point, you see. And so I've just been over to Geoffrey's, to know if wanted his bunion altered or made bigger in the new pair I'm making."

In this one short speech, Hardy demonstrates that the whole of Geoffrey Day's life is bound up in Mr. Penny's shoemaking capabilities. The same is true of everyone else connected to the service he provides. He later asserts that he once identified a corpse otherwise unrecognizable from the bloat of drowning by the shape of the foot. It is no wonder then that when he produces a shoe intended for Geoffrey's daughter, Fanny, it is viewed by those in the room as an intimately tied to her person as if she'd suddenly appeared in the room. Reuben's son, Dick, uses it to fill in the gaps in his imagination about her, while noting that it filled him with "a delicate feeling that he had no right to do so without having first asked the owner of the foot's permission." Penny makes an interesting distinction about the boot though, noting that he "don't care to mend boots I don't make," (because he is a cordwainer, a maker of shoes, not a cobbler, a repairer of them) suggesting that, though born of the community, Fancy Day is apart from it in a way that her father is not.

Another passage, describing the exterior of Mr. Penny's shop, outlines a similar idea from another angle, noting that:

No sign was over his door; in fact--as with old banks and mercantile houses--advertising in any shape was scorned, and it would have been felt as beneath his dignity to paint up, for the benefit of strangers, the name of an establishment whose trade came solely by connection based on personal respect.

This notion that the labor and creativity of the individuals in the community belongs solely to the community asserts itself quite forcefully on one of the two central plots; namely, the eviction of the Mellstock Quire as the principal music providers in the church.

To Parson Maybold, someone with roots in the region but not a member of the community, there is little gravity in the decision to "modernize" the church by replacing the string ensemble with an organ. It is the most obvious outcome of having a) an organ b) someone who can play it (Fancy) and c) a wealthy supporter who has asked him to make the change (Fancy's other suitor, Farmer Shiner). Ironically, all three people who are involved in the decision --The Parson, Fancy, and Farmer Shiner-- are excluded by circumstances from the community: The Parson, by birth and education; Fancy by education and slightly elevated social status stemming from her father's relationship with the Earl of Wessex; and Shiner by his wealth.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Under the Greenwood Tree Part 4 - Dialogue and the Dorset Tongue

The Dorset accent has been featured in prominent roles
 in recent fantasy classics like Hagrid from the Harry Potter films. 
In Under the Greenwood Tree, Thomas Hardy employs a very different set of strategies to capture the language of Dorset than his literary ancestor, the poet William Barnes. Barnes, as demonstrated in part 3 of this series, wrote his verse in the Dorset dialect, painting the sounds of the region in purposeful phonetic spellings that deviate from modern English. Hardy retains his regular voice in describing the setting and action but hints at the peculiarities of Dorset speech in the dialogue. As the story features characters at different points on a continuum of class, caste and education levels, those devices ring with a particular clarity in scenes where socially disparate characters interact.

Dialogue dominates Under the Greenwood Tree. Conversations fill entire chapters and sometimes spill over into the next. Hardy paints his characters mainly through almost obsessive tics in their speech patterns. Reuben Dewy, the male romantic lead's father, is the most instantly recognizable with his habit of throwing in a "my sonnies"  as a prelude to filling half a page while talking to no one in particular.

"Hullo, my sonnies, here you be then!" said Reuben Dewy at length, standing up and blowing forth a vehement gust of breath. "How the blood do puff up in anybody's head, to be sure, a-stooping like that! I was just going out to gate to hark for ye." He then carefully began to wind a strip of brown paper round a brass tap he held in his hand. "This in the cask here is a drop o' the right sort" (tapping the cask); "'tis a real drop o' cordial from the best picked apples --Sansoms, Stubbards, Five-corners, and such-like--you d'mind the sort, Michael?" (Michael nodded.) "And there's a sprinkling of they that grown down by the orchard-rails--streaked ones--rail apples we d'call 'em, as 'tis by the rails they grow, and not knowing the right name. The water-cider from 'em is as good as most people's best cider is."

(For readers not familiar with the Dorset accent, this video suggests reading it in Robbie Coltrane's delivery as Hagrid from the Harry Potter films.)

Drawing from this example (which is descriptive of the way Hardy's captures the Dorset speech from this particular social set), we can make a few broad generalizations about his strategy. First, there is the use of archaic pronouns like "ye" and "thee" and "thou," which show up with some regularity. Secondly, we see a lot of non-standard contractions like "'tis" and "d'mind" and "d'call."
One of the more interesting of these contractions that shows up regularly is a terminal 'n after a verb, (such as "that ever I should call'n such") as a substitution for the word 'him." This is also represented as an uncontracted "en" where we might expect to see a "him."

There is also an attention to cadence that shouldn't be overlooked. Hardy regularly employs the passive voice in his dialogue construction, which contributes to the feeling that it takes his characters a long time to say the simplest things. Consider how it affects the cadences of this passage, delivered by Mr. Penny, a member of the Mellstock Quire: "If so be I hadn't been as scatter-brained and thritingill [wrong-headed] as a chiel, I should have called at the schoolhouse wi' a boot and I cam up along. What is coming to me I really can't estimate at all!"

There are a few moments where the differences between common Dorset speakers and their more refined neighbors are contrasted directly, giving an even clearer sense of the devices Hardy is using to reinforce the dialect in the text. In a pivotal scene in the book, the Quire travels to the home of Parson Maybold in order to lobby against the installation of an organ in the church to replace them. Maybold, like Fancy Day, is representative of someone with roots in the area who has been elevated in status through education and his language and demeanor reflects it.

"What I have been thinking" --the tranter implied by this use of the past tense that he was hardly so discourteous as to be positively thinking it then--"is that the quire out to be gie'd a little time, and not done away wi' till Christmas, as a fair thing between man and man. And, Mr. Mayble, I hope you'll excuse my common way?"

"I will, I will. Till Christmas," the vicar murmured, stretching the two words to a great length, as if the distance to Christmas might be measured that way. "Well, I want you all to understand that I have no personal fault to find, and that I don't wish to change the church music by forcible means, or in a way which should hurt the feelings of any parishioners. Why I have at least spoken definitely on the subject is that a player has been brought under--I may say pressed upon-my notice several times by one of the churchwardens. And as the organ I brought with me is here waiting" (pointing to a cabinet-organ standing in the study), "there is no reason for longer delay."

Fancy's dialogue reads largely like Parson Maybold's but Hardy accentuates her attention to language in a passage connected to the after-wedding party that notes that [emphasis mine]: The propriety of every one was intense by reason of the influence of Fancy, who, as an added precaution in this direction, had strictly charged her father and the tranter to carefully avoid saying 'thee' and 'thou' in their conversation, on the plea that those ancient words sounded so very humiliating to persons of newer taste."

There is one last tidbit about language as it relates to class hidden in Geoffrey Day's introduction, although it probably reflects more on class than language. As the game-keeper for one of Lord Wessex's estates, Day develops two different protocols for talking with others; one for those considerably above him in status (his employer) and those considerably below him (as typified in this passage by his helper Enoch but just as easily applied to any member of the Dewy family).

Although not an extraordinarily taciturn man among friends slightly richer than himself, he never wasted words upon outsiders, and to his trapper Enoch his ideas were seldom conveyed by any other means than nods and shakes of the head. Their long acquaintance with each other's ways, and the nature of their labours, rendered words between them almost superfluous as vehicles of thought, while the coincidence of their horizons, and the astonishing equality of their social views, by startling the keeper from time to time as very damaging to the theory of master and man, strictly forbade any indulgence in words such as courtesies.

In the next installment of JLS, we'll look at more of these social conventions and how the define the relationships and expectations between different members of the cast.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Under the Greenwood Tree Part 3 - Parson Barnes and the Warp and Weft of Wessex Words

Bronze statue of William Barnes outside the Church of St Peter
 on High Street in Dorchester, UK. Photo by Elliott Brown. 
While Thomas Hardy used his own words to great effect in sketching the Dorset countryside across four seasons in Under the Greenwood Tree, it isn't the only tool in his repertoire for capturing the essence of the people who inhabit it. Dialogue and, more specifically, dialect play an oversized role in the novel, often overshadowing the descriptions written in Hardy's own distinctive voice.

The idea of textually representing Dorset through dialect didn't originate with Hardy. The poet William Barnes began writing poetry in the region's dialect in the 1820s and is the originator of the conceit of referring to Dorset as Wessex; both, ideas for which Hardy is better known. It is no exaggeration to say that without William Barnes, there would have been no Thomas Hardy as we know him. He was, by all indicators, a genius and a polymath.

By the time Hardy would have known him by something other than reputation, Barnes had taken an official position in the Church of England. The pair appeared to establish an acquaintance when Barnes moved the school of which he was the headmaster next door to the office of John Hicks, for whom a young Thomas Hardy was apprenticing. Given what we know of Hardy's impressionable personality as a youth, it's hard to imagine that meeting a published poet with a profound interest in the peculiarities of the Dorset dialect didn't put ideas in his head about his own literary future.

Barnes's approach to approximating the Dorset speech is very different than Hardy's own solutions in Under the Greenwood Tree. The former's interest in philology and rendering the sound of the dialect (not unlike Robert Burns) transforms his poetry into almost a formal academic experiment.

The Fall by William Barnes

The length o’ days ageän do shrink 
   An’ flowers be thin in meäd, among 
   The eegrass a-sheenèn bright, along 
Brook upon brook, an’ brink by brink. 

   Noo starlèns do rise in vlock on wing— 
   Noo goocoo in nest-green leaves do sound— 
   Noo swallows be now a-wheelèn round— 
Dip after dip, an’ swing by swing. 

   The wheat that did leätely rustle thick 
   Is now up in mows that still be new, 
   An’ yollow bevore the sky o’ blue— 
Tip after tip, an’ rick by rick. 

   While now I can walk a dusty mile 
   I’ll teäke me a day, while days be clear, 
   To vind a vew friends that still be dear, 
Feäce after feäce, an’ smile by smile.

Barnes uses language here in some specific ways to evoke the Dorset dialect. The first is a certain freedom in spelling to emphasize its peculiar sounds that extends to the application of diacriticals to indicate dipthongs that occur naturally in speech but can be masked by text. "F''s also regularly transform into 'v''s ("vlock on wing," "bevore the sky," "(t)o vind a vew friends"). Although not demonstrated here, Barnes was also inclined to turn some 's' sounds into 'z's as in this line from his poem, "Zun-zet": "Sorrow-slightèn, work-vorgettèn, / Gambol’d wi’ the zun a-zettèn." Interestingly, in both examples, we can see that Barnes has a place for both the letters F and S in his ear but is differentiating specific placements of them (or perhaps their pronunciation in particular words) by use of the different consonant sound.

As we'll see in the next installment, Hardy may have been inspired by Barnes's experiments but goes about implementing them in very different ways.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Under the Greenwood Tree Part 2 - Word Weaving the Elements

Where the trees are separated from the water-meadow by the River Frome
in Lower Bockhampton, Dorset, UK. Photo by Mike Faherty.
Thomas Hardy's initial focus in Under the Greenwood Tree is, as his subtitle suggests, on the Mellstock Quire - a band of musicians and singers who perform weekly at church services as well as at social gatherings such as weddings and dances. At the ensemble's core is three generations of the Dewy family; the elder William, the patriarch Reuben and the young Dick. The novel opens with the quire meeting up at Reuben's house for a bit of cider before discharging one of its annual obligations - travelling house to house all throughout the night to carol for the people of the parish.

From this introduction, Hardy reveals the three principal threads from which the tapestry he intends to hang behind the plot is woven; specifically, location, language and convention. In this piece, we look at the first, location.

Unlike Desperate Remedies, which merely borrows from known places in order to make its setting believable, Under the Greenwood tree is a novel about a particular place, Mellstock, as well as the people who inhabit it. Mellstock is, in reality, Hardy's ground-zero, Stinsford and the associated communities at Lower and Higher Bockhampton, the latter of which being his birthplace. The geographic scope of the novel is limited to this area with only a brief foray south into Budmouth (the port city of Weymouth) and a few times to the north and east at Geoffrey Day's house in Yalbury Wood on the road to Weatherbury (Puddletown).

Hardy's captures its essence in winter in this description of the surrounding landscape, gliding adroitly between physical details and a poetic rendering of the sum effect of seeing it in this early passage.

The lonely lane...connected one of the hamlets of Mellstock parish with Upper Mellstock and Lewgate, and to his eyes, casually glancing upward, the silver and black-stemmed birches with their characteristic tufts, the pale grey boughs of beech, the dark-creviced elm, all appeared now as black and flat outlines upon the sky, wherein the white stars twinkled so vehemently that their flickering seemed like the flapping of wings. Within the woody pass, at a level anything lower than the horizon, all was dark as the grave. The copse-wood forming the sides of the bower interlaced its branches so densely, even at this season of the year, that the draught from the north-east flew along the channel with scarcely an interruption from lateral breezes.

Hardy manages to work in at least one such word painting per season, around the changing of which the novel is structured. As Dick Dewy makes his way from Mellstock to Yalbury Wood in springtime to engage Fancy Day in her father's house for the first time, Hardy paints the scene. Notice again how light is used to frame the scenery.

[H]e was journeying along with Smart the mare and the light spring-cart, watching the damp slopes of the hill-sides as they streamed in the warmth of the sun, which at this unsettled season shone on the grass with the freshness of an occasional inspector rather than as an accustomed proprietor...The distant view was darkly shaded with clouds; but the nearer parts of the landscape were whitely illumined by the visible rays to the sun streaming down across the heavy gray shade behind...

Later that summer, after Dick and Fancy have undertaken a secret engagement, Hardy places more emphasis on the interplay between water and the flora fed by it.

It was a morning...of lingering dews, when grass is never dry in the shade. Fuchsias and dahlias were laden till eleven o'clock with small drops and dashes of water, changing the colour of their sparkle at every movement of the air; and elsewhere hanging on twigs like small silver fruit.

In the autumn, as the certainty of Fancy and Dick's shared future begins to waver under pressure from multiple fronts, the sun and its associated effects take center stage again.

The landscape being concave, at the going down of the sun everything suddenly assumed a uniform robe of shade. The evening advanced from sunset to dusk long before Dick's arrival, and his progress during the latter portion of his walk through the trees was indicated by the flutter of terrified birds that had been roosting over the path. And in crossing the glades, masses of hot dry air, that had been formed on the hills during the day, greeted his cheeks alternately with clouds of damp night air from the valleys.

Returning to the tree imagery of the opening passage, Hardy blends it with his water theme from the summer as well as an interest in kinetic motion from the wind to stirring effect in this dramatic scene as Fancy travels to meet with the witch of Mellstock, Elizabeth Endorfield.

A single vast gray cloud covered the country, from which the small rain and mist had just begun to blow down in wavy sheets, alternately thick and thin. The trees of the fields and plantations writhed like miserable men as the air wound its way swiftly among them: the lowest portions of their trunks, that had hardly ever been known to move, were visibly rocked by the fiercer gusts, distressing the mind by its painful unwontedness, as when a strong man is seen to shed tears. Low-hanging boughs went up and down; high and erect boughs went to and fro; the blasts being so irregular, and divided into so many cross-currents, that neighbouring branches of the same tree swept the skies in independent motions, crossed each other or became entangled. Across the open spaces flew flocks of green and and yellowish leaves, which, after travelling a long distances from their parent trees, reaches the ground, and lay there with under-sides upward.

The autumnal section is closed as the final threats to the Dewys' future happiness are removed one after another and Hardy narrows his eye to the interplay of water and the landscape surrounding.

It was a foggy morning, and the trees shed in noisy water-drops the moisture they had collected from the thick air, an acorn occasionally falling from its cup to the ground, in company with the drippings. In the meads, sheets of spiders'-web, almost opaque with wet, hung in folds over the fences, and the falling leaves appeared in every variety of brown, green, and yellow hue.

The story ends with a spring wedding celebration that takes place, as we might suspect, under the titular greenwood tree. Hardy describes the march to the church in a curiously oblique fashion, as if it were happening to someone who was merely an observer and not a true participant, with this beautiful image while the actual wedding takes places off-stage, so to speak.

Now among dark perpendicular firs, like the shafted columns of a cathedral; now through a hazel copse, matted with primroses and wild hyacinths; now under broad beeches in bright young leaves they threaded their way into the high road over Yalbury Hill, which dipped at that point directly into the village of Geoffrey Day's parish.

By isolating particular elements (trees, wind, light and moisture) and manipulating our awareness of them across four seasons, Hardy makes the landscape in his tightly-framed story come alive. He uses these word-paintings to heighten the drama of certain scenes, perhaps to a tenor beyond what the sometimes flimsy story demands. It is a skill that would serve him well as the complexity and consequences of his socially driven plots grew with his skill as a writer of fiction.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Interlude - By Way of Explanation

Living British writer Alan Moore
Greetings all! I hate doing posts about not posting but I figured after nearly two months radio silence that an explanation was in order. In mid-July, I secured an opportunity to interview British writer, Alan Moore, for World Literature Today magazine, of which I am the book review editor. He has a new book, Jerusalem, that is dropping very, very soon.

It's 1300 pages long.

Moore is, far and away, my favorite living writer and gaining the opportunity to interview him is the achievement of a life-long goal. I had one month to read this life-altering but very long book and prepare questions for an author who has been an inspiration to me for more than 20 years.

The good news is I finished the book and conducted the interview on August 25th. I think it went very well and, Lord willing and if the Creeks don't rise, it'll be in the January issue of the magazine. There are some interesting (and not altogether obvious) correlations between Hardy and Moore's works that will be obliquely addressed in the piece so, when the time comes, I'll share it here along with my thoughts on what elements, textual and otherwise, link them in my mind.

The bad news is/was that there was no way I could meet those goals and work on this blog. Now that it's behind me, I'm going to get started again here very soon. I actually am in the process of reviewing Under the Greenwood Tree and my original notes to get back into the headspace to write about it.

In the meantime, I thought I'd share a Hardy poem with which you may not be familiar. I was gifted two books of Hardy criticism from a friend's library and, inside of them, was a Hardy poem cut out of a magazine of unknown origin (though the photography in an ad on the back side suggests early 1960s). This poem, "The Unplanted Primrose," is dated 1865-1867 and, according to the tiny text at the bottom, was "discovered by Miss Evelyn Hardy [ed. note, noted Hardy critic but, as far as I can tell, no relation] among the unpublished papers of Thomas Hardy." I've only spotted it online embedded in longer papers and books so why not reprint it here for your enjoyment?

The Unplanted Primrose

"A pink primrose from the plant he knows
      Let me send him in his far spot,
 From the root I brought to his garden-knot
 When he dwelt herefrom but a little mile;
 A root I had reared at that time of love,
 And of all my stock the best that throve
     Which he took with so warm a smile."

Such she sang and said, and aflush she sped
     To her love's old home hard by
Ere he left that nook for the wider sky
Of a southern country unassayed.
And she crept to the border of early stocks,
Of pansies, pinks and hollyhocks,
     Where their vows and the gift were made.

"It has not bloomed!" And her glances gloomed
     As she missed the expected hue,
"Yet the rest are in blow the border through;
 Nor is leaf or bud of it evident.
 Ah, can it have died of an over-care
 In its tendance, sprung of his charge to spare
     No pains for its nourishment?"

She turned her round from the wrong ones found
     To the seat where a year before
She had brought it him as the best of her store,
And lo, on a ledge of the wall she neared,
Lay its withered skeleton, dry and brown,
Untouched since there he had laid it down
     When she waved and disappeared.

1865-1867 Westbourne Park Villas

16 Westbourne Park Villas, W2, London
where the poem was written.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Under the Greenwood Tree Part 1 - Going Dutch

A tree at the junction of the North & South Warren Hills
outside of Beaminster, Dorset. Photo by Graham Horn (2008)
Thomas Hardy's second published novel, Under the Greenwood Tree, bears the curious subtitle of "The Mellstock Quire: A Rural Painting of the Dutch School." It's easy to overlook this as an authorial eccentricity but, as it turns out, heeding it is of vital importance in the task of enjoying this novel for what it is, rather than what it half-heartedly pretends to be.

During Hardy's extended stay in London (beginning in 1860), he tried on a number of creative hats above and beyond his work as an architect's assistant, including that of an art critic, though he probably would have thought of it more as art journalism. He spent many hours in the museums of London studying the work of the great master painters, developing an eye to perceive what techniques could be used to achieve what ends as well as a language to articulate what he saw. Indeed, many of Hardy's novels rely a kind of painterly language to describe landscapes and scenery in particular and imbue those descriptions with a poetic register more often reserved for feelings or people in other novelists' work.

So when Thomas Hardy says that he's writing something as "A Rural Painting of the Dutch School," it behooves us to take that seriously as he, no doubt, did in proclaiming it. I am not an art expert so I'm drawing from ideas that can be gleaned from a Wikipedia article and a couple of YouTube tutorials. I have no doubt that Hardy may have found more levels on which to weld his rural idyll to the conceptual framework of Dutch painting but here are the ones that pertain most obviously to Under the Greenwood Tree.

The first is precision in detail. If Desperate Remedies offered a hint at Hardy's future gift for describing people, places and things, it is Greenwood Tree where this impulse sees it first full expression. We'll be looking in particular at how Hardy uses his descriptions to compose a kind of emotional soundtrack to lay beneath his rather simple plot that gives it more heft.

Second, painters in the Dutch school are remembered for their choice of subject matter, elevating the lower above the greater. They liked to paint landscapes with no people in them. They selected more mundane items to foreground in their compositions. The working class became the subject of their portraits in lieu of dignitaries.

I believe that this applies to Greenwood in two different ways. First, this is a story about simple Dorset folks of limited social importance in the grand scheme . The most elevated characters in the book (Geoffrey Day, Fred Shiner and Parson Maybold) are a land steward (like Manston in Desperate Remedies), a farmer and a clergyman respectively. The novel's primary energies are tasked with recreating the complex social web that exists among Dorset folk, which brings me to my third and final point.

The love story which drives Under the Greenwood Tree's plot serves only as a frame to dictate the span of Hardy's panoramic sketch of the rural life in which he'd grown up. This is a secondary inversion of the "lower above the higher" variety as the setting and supporting characters are the genuine subjects of this portrait. As a result, the main characters are only broadly sketched and offer little in the way of depth to examine except for the dimensions in which they relate to the explication of the social systems of which they are a part. I do think there is one macabre implication in the plot worthy of mention as it is so classically Hardy so we'll explore that a little as well.

Photo Credit - By Graham Horn, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Monday, July 4, 2016

Writing Under the Greenwood Tree

The original two-volume edition
of Under the Greenwood Tree from
the Tinsley Brothers publishing house.
There is an apocryphal story about filmmaker Quentin Tarantino suggesting that he arrived in Los Angeles with one movie in his mind to make, but it was so sprawling that he couldn't convince anyone that it was filmable. In time, that one movie morphed into a string of films that formed the bedrock of his legacy: Natural Born Killers, True Romance, Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs.

In the same manner, Thomas Hardy's unpublished The Poor Man and the Lady served as the springboard for several of Hardy's early novels including the first published under his own name, Under the Greenwood Tree. It is a testament to what a beast of novel Poor Man must have been that both Desperate Remedies and Under the Greenwood Tree are supposed to contain large swaths of material from it but could not be more distant from one another in tone, focus and execution. Indeed, Hardy claimed to have begun Greenwood before abandoning it for what must have seemed like a more commercially viable approach to the plot-driven Remedies.

Desperate Remedies had been neither the resounding hit nor unmitigated failure that might have given Hardy a clear sign of what to do next. He had earned only about two-thirds of his initial investment in the book back, despite some positive reviews in conspicuous places. He began the process of placing his second novel in August of 1871 with the same publisher where he began, with Macmillan, offering Under the Greenwood Tree as a novel which built upon the positive feedback he'd gotten from readers about his ability to portray rural life in a convincing manner. Hardy steers its plot (such as it is) studiously away from any questions of moral impropriety that might have alienated Macmillan from publishing Poor Man.  

Under the Greenwood Tree's length (or lack thereof) proved to be an impediment in selling Macmillan on it as a publishable property. As the novel publishing business in England at the time was built on a model of books of a particular length (the three-volume model), moving something other than that may have been a privilege afforded to those who had proven their ability to attract an audience, which Hardy had not. It also lacks a certain narrative heft in the pages it does fill that may have made it seem even more slight than it was by page count.

Though Hardy was encouraged by their willingness to correspond with him on the possibility of publishing it, he was sufficiently convinced of their lack of interest in publishing it by October of that same year to begin seeking out other options. He crafted a letter to William Tinsley. who had published Desperate Remedies, alerting them to a favorable late review (penned by his friend Horace Moule) and dangling the possibility of two other novels, Under the Greenwood Tree and the not-yet written A Pair of Blue Eyes. Tinsley showed alternate moods of interest and disinterest in taking on Hardy's next novel until April of 1872, when Tinsley offered Hardy £30 for the copyright of the novel.

It behooves us to remark on the slow transition taking place in the publishing industry at that time, one that reflected the growing power of individual authors in relation to the publishing companies that brought their works to market. Hardy had availed himself of the less attractive of the two choices of the old paradigm, paying Tinsley a £75 guarantee against the publication of Desperate Remedies. This offer represented the other, guaranteeing Hardy £30 profit on the sale of his second novel but at the expense of his control over the work unto perpetuity. Before long, the industry would move towards the payment of royalties in exchange for temporary control of the copyright. This benefitted publisher and author alike as it lowered the non-manufacturing costs associated with publishing a book from a popular author (ie the advance) while guaranteeing a longer-term source of income (if the book were successful) to its author. These are the terms by which Hardy eventually would be able to make a living as a writer of novels but those days were yet some years in the future.

And so, desperate to build on whatever momentum he had accrued through the publication of Desperate Remedies, Thomas Hardy signed away the rights to his second novel to Tinsley in April of 1872 and the two-volume edition was published in June of that same year. It was the only novel for which he was never able to buy back the rights to regain control of the copyright.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Another Milestone!

Illustration by Shayna Pond (2016) for JLS
Please cite artist and blog if you reuse.
I didn't have much opportunity to write for the blog this week as I had a big show this week opening a local blues/jazz festival. I'm reading Under the Greenwood Tree and a couple of other Hardy-related titles right now but I don't have anything specific upon which to report yet.

In the meantime, the flurry of activity at the end of our discussion of Desperate Remedies pushed the all-time page views up over 15,000 since March.

I want to celebrate these little victories while acknowledging that these big bumps in views happen when the good folks at the Thomas Hardy Facebook page share one of my posts (in this case DR Part 7) with their nearly 200K followers. That post was viewed more than 3,500 times, while the majority of my organically supported posts (such as my recent review of Arthur Mee's Dorset) are usually viewed by somewhere between 50 and 80 people.

Call me simple but the fact that somewhere between 50 and 80 people take the time out of their day to exercise their enthusiasm for Thomas Hardy's writing by reading this blog thrills me. I've found pockets of wonderfully sociable Hardy readers at the Thomas Hardy Fans FB page and Goodreads who have given me lots of support and feedback and it means a lot to me. Thanks to all of you - friends, family, strangers alike - who stop in to follow along.

I'd like to give a final shout-out to my wife, Shayna, who has graced this blog with several outstanding illustrations, including the one attached to this post. She made that one for me for a one-of-a-kind t-shirt [editor's note: said t-shirt and the illustration which adorns it was a wedding anniversary gift] which should arrive later this month. I'm going to make the shout-out extra loud because I groused at her literally this moment for asking me about another obligation I had made freely but had yet to fulfill. And then she brought me some iced tea. She's wonderful and I am still a project under improvement.

Thanks, y'all.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Review: The King's England (Dorset) by Arthur Mee

The King's England: Dorset is a quaint book that offers an exhaustive survey of the towns and accompanying landmarks of Dorset as they stood in 1939. The author, Arthur Mee, wrote a series of these books, covering all the counties in England, and this one, published just over a decade after Hardy's death, is written through a filter of identifying landmarks that might appeal specifically to admirers of TH's work.

As one might expect, there is a LOT in here about the churches that serve as the anchor for most, if not all, of these towns but geography and history are given a fair amount of consideration as well. Mee focuses a lot of his description on delineating the layers of pre-Roman, Roman, Saxon, Norman and British influence on the architecture that really drives home how long these lands have been occupied.

There is a somber tone that underpins this book as one is regularly reminded of the trouble brewing in Europe as it is being written and published and it's hard not to read a "We better document this while it exists" subtext into it. This proved to be true, though not as apocalyptically as Mee might have feared, as later editions of the London volume had to be extensively re-written and broken into multiple volumes to accommodate the rebuilding after the bombing of the Second World War.

Judging solely from the Dorset edition, I enjoyed reading Mee's writing. He's not afraid to take an opinion or pass a judgment on an historical event or person and it feels like something written by a person and not a tourism board. His writing is, on occasion, lyrical and always thorough. The survey as a whole is undermined by the alphabetical listing of the towns, which makes the continuity of geographic proximity tougher to parse than it should be.

There are plenty of nods to Hardy and the many roles Dorset plays in his work to satisfy those who might consider this volume as a reference to their own interest in the West Country's favorite son.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Desperate Remedies Part 8 - The Verdict

Eliza Bright Nicholls,
the inspiration for Cytherea Graye?
Photo from the Beinecke Rare Book
and Manuscript Library, Yale University
As we close the back cover on our examination of Thomas Hardy's first novel, Desperate Remedies, I want to take a quick look at what elements of the book were reflections of people and places in his real life.

Millgate points out in his Hardy biography that Cytherea Graye was based, at least in aspect, upon Eliza Nicholls, the elder of the two Nicholls sisters with whom Hardy had a long-standing "agreement" that did not end in marriage. However, it is very tempting to read some of his own sister, Mary Hardy into the character as well. She was visiting Hardy regularly in Weymouth during the time he was writing The Poor Man and the Lady, which would be cannibalized to some degree or another to create Remedies. The strong bond between Hardy and his sister can also be seen in the relationship between Cytherea and her brother, Owen.

Speaking of Owen, Hardy acknowledged that he had modeled that character upon himself but, when asked about Edward Springrove, he coyly responded that the character was modeled upon someone he met while working in the architectural office in Weymouth. I think it's pretty plain that Edward, an architect of limited means who was tangled up in a long-standing engagement he did not wish to fulfill and had literary aspirations, was also based on Hardy. The two characters (Owen and Edward) become very difficult to tell apart from one another, especially later in the novel when they are working together to prove Manston's guilt. Owen represented Hardy as he saw himself with Edward representing the soulful young architect who aspired to be a writer. To Hardy's credit, he lived out that aspiration more successfully than I imagine even he could have hoped.

Where shall we look to find the inspiration for our two more tortured characters, Miss Aldclyffe and Aeneas Manston? Those characters, I suspect, were mostly invented for the sake of the story. One could point to Julia Martin, the woman of some means who took a shine to Thomas when he was a boy and from whom he was separated by a feud she got into with Jemima Hardy over his education. Hardy infuses Miss Aldclyffe with a surprising degree of sensual energy for the role she plays in the book and she would have been of just the right age when he knew her best to serve as the eventual model for this dark maternal figure. As for Manston, there is no one adequately Byronic enough from Hardy's life prior to the writing of Remedies to have been the direct inspiration. Again, one might be tempted to consider Horace Moule but given Moule's known predilection for young men, it's just a poor fit.

Thomas Hardy's body of novels (and to some extent his poems) are known for their shared geography, the fictional Wessex standing in for the county of Dorset. While Hardy certainly drew upon familiar places to make the locations in Desperate Remedies seem real, he didn't imbue them with the same careful attention to detail that he would in later books. In fact, the Wessex towns that appear in Remedies didn't even bear the names that line up our current editions of the novels with the other Wessex novels in his body of work. He changed them later to import them into his Wessex universe.

Of the places that appear in the novel, only Budmouth (a stand in for the coastal city of Weymouth) comes across as a Wessex city proper. Hardy's inclusion of incidental details that he experienced while living there (and while writing the early draft of The Poor Man and the Lady) like boating and dancing probably have more to do with his trying to draw from lived experiences to give the novel a ring of authenticity. Otherwise, cities don't play the defining role that we'll see in later books.

In closing our examination of Desperate Remedies, I'd like to offer a few broad assessments of it that the reader might take away. Most importantly, it's a pretty good book, especially for a first published work. Several of the characters transcend their function in the twisting plot and inspire a degree of pathos from their suffering, not the least of which being the supposed villain, Aeneas Manston. Hardy's natural gifts for prose leavened by a poetic tone elevates important moments and even sections of the book unmistakably out of the pure genre fiction it is intended to be and up towards something resembling literature.

The book suffers to an extent from being overlong. There are sections, mostly towards the end, where it feels as if we are being asked to tread water in order to satisfy the structural expectations of the audience. The social aspects of the novel feel more successful but the suspenseful elements are leaned upon more heavily to justify the plot. The result is, at worst, mildly diffuse.

For this reader, though, the good in this novel outweighs the bad by a margin of about two-to-one and, on whatever plane we feel the need to record a success or a failure in regards to a work of art, Hardy notched a 'W' on his first published novel.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Desperate Remedies Part 7 - Let's Get Physical

Cytherea Graye, as illustrated by Peter Whiteman for the
Heron Books edition of Desperate Remedies (1977)
Thomas Hardy is known for bringing a thrilling kind of poetry to his physical descriptions and Desperate Remedies is no exception. While the social and suspenseful elements of the plot may group it with or set it apart from other novels he's written, Hardy's attention to detail and his ability to wring emotional value out of the delivery of those details are the elements perhaps most universal to what is great in his writing.

The bedrock of this gift lies in his descriptions of the characters that inhabit his work. The more important that a character is, the more lavish the description he affords. Moreover, Hardy has a particular knack for tying something essential about the character into that description using interesting metaphors or other rhetorical devices.

In the opening of the plot proper, he describes Cytherea Graye, noting that "[her] face was exceedingly attractive, though artistically less perfect than her figure, which approached unusually near the standard of faultlessness." Later, he describes her hair as "resting upon her shoulders in curls" and "of a shining corn yellow in the high lights, deepening to a definite nut-brown as each curl wound round into the shade." Her eyes are "of a sapphire hue" as well as possessing "the affectionate and liquid sparkle of loyalty and good faith as distinguishable from that harder brightness which seems to express faithfulness only to the object confronting them."

We are treated to the first description of her beau, Edward Springrove through Cytherea's eyes. She notes him as being "above her brother's height" and "although the upper part of his face and head were handsomely formed, and bounded by lines of sufficiently masculine regularity, his brows were somewhat too softly arched, and finely pencilled for one of his sex." The sum effect suggested to her that "though they [his features] did not prove that the man who thought inside them would do much in the world, men who had done most of all had had no better ones."

Hardy's description of the misunderstood villain of the piece, Aeneas Manston, is perhaps his most sensual and detailed of the book.

He was an extremely handsome man, well-formed, and well-dressed, of an age which seemed to be two or three years less than thirty. The most striking point in his appearance was the wonderful, almost preternatural, clearness of his complexion. There was not a blemish or speck of any kind to mar the smoothness of its surface or the beauty of its hue. Next, his forehead was square and broad, his brows straight and firm, his eyes penetrating and clear...Eyes and forehead both would have expressed keenness of intellect too severely to be pleasing, had their force not been counteracted by the lines and tone of the lips. These were full and luscious to a surprising degree, possessing a woman-like softness of curve, and a ruby redness so intense, as to testify strongly to much susceptibility of heart where feminine beauty was concerned...

His manner was rather elegant than good; his speech well-finished and unconstrained.

In all three cases, Hardy begins with the physical but then credibly extends his observations into the more intangible elements of character to let the reader know what they can expect from each player moving forward into the story.

Another highlight of Hardy's descriptive passages are those of buildings and structures. By his own admission, Hardy rarely invented these structures of whole cloth but often pulled them from places he'd lived, visited or studied on his own aborted journey toward becoming an architect. He spoke the language of structural design and, at times, could have been reading aloud from a blueprint. He describes Knapwater House (Miss Aldclyffe's home) as "regularly and substantially built of clean grey freestone throughout...the main block approximated to a square on the ground plan, having a projection in the center of each side, surmounted by a pediment. From each angle of the inferior side ran a line of buildings lower than the rest, turning inwards again at their further end, and forming within them a spacious open court, within which resounded an echo of astonishing clearness."

The steward's house is described by Manston himself, again using the voice of an architect to demonstrate Hardy's own fluency in the language of design.

'Here, you see, they have made a door through; here, they have put a partition dividing the old hall in two, one part is now my parlour; there they have put a plaster ceiling, hiding the old chestnut-carved roof because it was too high and would have been chilly for me; you see, being the original hall, it was open right up to the top; and here the lord of the manor and his retainers used to meet and be merry by the light from the monstrous fire which shone out from that monstrous fire-place, now narrowed to a mere nothing for my grate, though you could see the old outline still.'

For all the depth that his description of people and structures brings to Hardy's novels, it is, of course, his descriptions of natural phenomena that often elevate his writing into the poetic register. Like the Impressionists painters, Hardy describes nuance in the interplay of light and shadow that might be lost on a less observant eye, as in this passage: "It was just that stage in the slow decline of the summer days, when the deep, dark, and vacuous hot-weather shadows are beginning to be replaced by blue ones that have a surface and substance to the eye."

Or this painterly description of a "heathery valley":

The wide concave which lay at the back of the hill in this direction was blazing with the western light, adding an orange tint to the vivid purple of the heather, now at the very climax of bloom, and free from the slightest touch of the invidious brown that so soon creeps into shades. The light so intensified the colours that they seemed to stand above the surface of the earth and float in mid-air like an exhalation of red.

His observations are also not limited to the visual dimension but can cross senses with a dizzying facility, as when he is describing Cytherea's long first night at Knapwater House.

Her ears became aware of a strange and gloomy murmur.

She recognized it: it was the gushing of the waterfall, faint and low, brought from its source to the unwonted distance of the House by a faint breeze which made it distinct and recognizable by reason of the utter absence of all disturbing sounds...She began to fancy what the waterfall must be like at that hour, under the trees in the ghostly moonlight. Black at the head, and over the surface of the deep cold hold into which it fell; white and frothy at the fall; black and white, like a pall and its border; sad everywhere.

These kinds of poetic flourishes can be found peppered throughout Desperate Remedies, sometimes to set a scene, often to set a mood or reinforce a theme or, in masterful confluences which manage both aims. Hardy opens this passage with a sly quotation from Tennyson's "A Dream of Fair Women" before completing the image with his own imaginative verbal sketch.

'The tearful glimmer of the languid dawn' was just sufficient to reveal to them the melancholy red leaves, lying thickly in the channels by the roadside, ever and anon loudly tapped on by heavy drops of water, which the boughs above had collected from the foggy air.

(That is my favorite sentence in the book!)

Friday, June 3, 2016

Desperate Remedies Part 6 - Everything Falls Apart

Illustration by Shayna Pond.
Please cite the artist and blog if you reuse this image.
After the wedding that was left unconsummated, Desperate Remedies slips into a torpor. The overarching theme is one of limbo: Cytherea in a half-married, half-unmarried state; Edward unable to advance his cause do to the debt incurred from the inn's burning; Manston searching for a wife recently presumed dead; Miss Aldclyffe receding from the story as a whole.

Manston does his due diligence (though he is near fixated on Cytherea) and places advertisements encouraging his wife to return. After the third advertisement, Manston receives a letter from his estranged wife and she returns, moving into his steward's quarters at Knapwater House as was the original plan. Cytherea and Owen move to a nearby town while she recovers from an illness brought about by the stress of her situation.

It is this point in the book (about two-thirds of the way in) that Desperate Remedies becomes a little tedious. Part of the problem is that the most interesting characters are basically shelved and replaced by two very earnest and almost murderously dull architects (Owen and Edward) painfully unspooling the inconsistencies in the events as they have unfolded. Cytherea will have no part of a marriage with Edward while her virtue is in question, which she perceives that it is due to having married an already married man if in rite only. Edward becomes obsessed with proving that Manston knew his wife was alive before he married Cytherea, which would out him as a knowing bigamist and exonerate her of any implied guilt.

The details of that slow unraveling are too dull to document point by point but they wind us up at the most improbable of outcomes: namely, the discovery that the woman who has been living in Manston's home is not the same woman who arrived at the inn those many months earlier. At the same time, the faux-Mrs. Manston (whom we'll now address by her name, Anne) is having her own doubts about her "husband's" reason for perpetuating the charade. She comes across a letter written by her doppelganger AFTER she'd arrived in Carriford, thus proving she survived the fire. Each of Manston's allies (his fake wife, Miss Aldclyffe and a rector) are peeled away from him by the ever-lengthening trail of evidence until his ultimate motive is revealed in a scene that would be hilarious if it weren't so macabre.

Suspicious of his motives, Anne follows Manston after he presumes that he has slipped her a sleeping concoction. He retrieves a suspicious bundle and trudges off into the forest. Anne sees what no one else does - that Manston is being watched by a man who in turn is being watched by a woman who is being watched by Anne herself and they all follow one another, with Manston as the drum major bearing the bulky load deep into the forest. After he buries the bundle, there is a chain reaction wherein Manston is alerted to his male stalker by the unknown female stalker and, after striking the man down with his shovel, he runs off into the forest. The man is a detective hired to follow Manston and, backed up by the rector and Anne's testimony, they dig up the parcel to discover the lifeless body of the original Mrs. Manston -- her murder his desperate remedy for his obsession with marrying Cytherea.

The woman who alerted Manston was Miss Aldclyffe who, it turns out, is Manston's natural mother. He was the secret lovechild that made her marriage to Ambrose Graye impossible those many years ago. Her machinations to wed him to Cytherea is the final desperate remedy revealed but instead of righting the wrong of her youth, it transforms her son into a murderer in order to escape his joyless marriage. There is a bit of roughhousing at the end when Manston tries to kidnap Cytherea to take her out of the country but his efforts come to naught as eventually the self-inflicted noose, literal and figurative, finally tightens around his neck.

I know that was probably a lot of plot description to take in but it should give you some sense of how twisty this book is. I'll wrap up my discussion of Desperate Remedies in two posts: one looking at Hardy's descriptions of nature and architecture; and the final looking at how Desperate Remedies intersects with our understanding of Hardy himself at the time he wrote the book.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Desperate Remedies Part 5 - Burning Down the House

Hardy uses the revelation of Aeneas Manston's married status as an ironic opportunity to rehabilitate his character in the eyes of the reader. He doesn't struggle against his regrettable fate of being married to someone he does not love but, instead, works diligently to make his home ready for her. His failure to meet her at the right time is chalked up to a genuine misunderstanding.

In fact, Hardy draws a couple of new parallels between Manston and Edward Springrove that invite us to question if Cytherea's heart is unfairly biased towards the latter. Manston's unfortunate marriage calls to mind something Owen Graye says about Springrove earlier in the book, describing him as "an impulsive fellow who has been made to pay the penalty of his rashness in some love affair." Later, as Manston arrives in town, he sees Springrove for the first time, noting that "[b]ut for my wife, Springrove might have been my rival." Both are architects and their shared affection for Cytherea draws a clear line between them.

So it is a wicked trick Hardy plays in burning down the Carriford inn with the wayward Mrs. Manston inside. Upon this hinge, the two men's fortunes reverse.

Aeneas Manston is set free of his social obligation to his wife upon her death. His designs to woo Cytherea Graye had been brought to a grinding halt by the revelation that he was already married. This doesn't improve Cytherea's own social instability, as she remains reliant upon the capricious grace of Miss Aldclyffe as her employer but, at least, retaining that favor is no longer dependent on her reciprocating affection to the obviously smitten Manston. With the spectre of his wife's return banished, he is also free to retrain his sights on wearing down Cytherea's resolve.

The inn's destruction lands heavily on the Springrove family. The tenements, including the inn, were leased to Farmer Springrove along with the responsibility for having them restored. This debt, subtly enforced to Manston's benefit, threatens to send the family into a social chasm and pushes Edward out of the picture while Manston restarts his campaign to win Cytherea as his wife.

When Owen falls ill, Manston befriends and supports him. This proves to be the final point of leverage necessary to erode Cytherea's resistance to marrying a man that she does not love. Finally, the day arrives and the pair are married at Knapwater House. During the ceremony, Cytherea sees a grief-stricken Edward and all of her reservations about marrying Manston are confirmed. Though the ill-fated pair do manage a dramatic reunion far from the sight of others where miscommunications can be clarified, Cytherea is now married and they part with their love acknowledged but forever unconsummated.

This business of consummation becomes a suddenly important one as Cytherea and Manston leave for their honeymoon. It is revealed by a dying man that he saw the original Mrs. Manston after the inn had burned down, suggesting that she was, in fact, alive. Edward and Owen rush to the hotel where Cytherea and Manston are about to consummate their marriage and arrive just in time to stop them from doing so. This sets up the status quo for the remainder of the book, with Cytherea legally married to a man she doesn't love and spared from his touch only by the existence of a second Mrs. Manston.

This is also the section where Desperate Remedies abandons its pretenses of being a social novel and plunges into reversal after reversal to sell its pivot to the suspenseful.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Desperate Remedies Part 4 - The Wedding March

Hardy takes the first third of the book to erect and clarify the social lattice upon which his characters hang. Beginning in the eighth section, he sows the elements of suspense that will germinate in its middle third and blossom in the conclusion.

Miss Aldclyffe, upon confirming Edward Springrove (her neighbor's son) as Cytherea's estranged love, advertises for a steward to manage the land associated with Knapwater House. After rejecting a number of suitable applicants, she casts her nets of inquiry ever wider until, at last, she finds a candidate who suits her enigmatic requirements.

Enter Aeneas Manston.

Hardy introduces Manston with considerable fanfare. He is first "seen" by the reader when Miss Aldclyffe sends Cytherea to Manston's somewhat dilapidated house on the property in order to collect his dues for a social society. She encounters him just after having learned of Edward's betrothal to his cousin and is vulnerable. Hardy paints his physical description with the same vigor as he would one of his heroines:

He was an extremely handsome man, well-formed, and well-dressed...There was not a blemish or a speck of any kind to mar the smoothness of [his complexion] or the beauty of its hue. Next, his forehead was square and broad, his brows straight and firm, his eyes penetrating and clear...Eyes and forehead both would have expressed keenness of intellect too severely to be pleasing, had their force not been counteracted by the lines and tone of the lips. These were full and luscious to a surprising degree, possessing a woman-like softness of curve, and a ruby redness so intense, as to testify strongly to much susceptibility that might require all the ballast of brain with which he had previously been credited to confine within normal channels.

His manner was rather elegant than good: his speech well-finished and unconstrained.

Hardy brings his best descriptive tools to bear on making a memorable first impression, setting the stage at dusk as rain begins to fall heavily. Cytherea is urged by the inclement weather into the house where Manston plays dramatic music on his organ (I can't make this stuff up) as lightning flashes in the raging storm outside an oversized window that dominates the room. She leaves the encounter somewhat intrigued by him but he, of course, falls madly in love with her.

The middle section of the novel is taken up by an inexorable march towards a marriage between Cytherea and Manston and begins to take on more qualities of a suspense novel at the expense of its social elements. Twists in the plot cease to work in service to the social anxieties and more in that of heightening the tension (and delaying the arrival) of that certain-to-be unhappy union. Cytherea, despite Edward Springrove's absence from her life, continues to nurture her love for him even as her dependency shifts from Miss Aldclyffe to that of her unwelcome suitor. His interest in her is succinctly laid out in a passage where he describes her as, "a lady's dependent, a waif, a helpless thing entirely at the mercy of the world; yes, curse it; that is just why it is; that fact of her being so helpless against the blows of circumstances which renders her so deliciously sweet."

Cytherea is granted a surprise reprieve from Manston's persistent affections when Miss Aldclyffe discovers that he is already married, by his own admission, to an actress he'd met in Liverpool ("an American by birth") and from whom he'd tried to estrange himself in taking the position as steward. He is allowed to keep his job if he will move his wife into the old manor home with him. He sends for the wayward Mrs. Manston, whom he admittedly does not love, to meet him. When he doesn't meet her at the train station at the appointed time, she travels to the nearby village of Carriford and takes overnight lodging at the inn, owned by Edward Springrove's father.

The inn burns down and, it is presumed, takes Mrs. Manston with it.