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.