Quite often you’ll see Harriet and I write about the same books around about the same time. That’s because we’re in the same book group in Oxford… and usually she is much more prompt than me at actually getting around to writing about the things. Today’s post is no different – I’m writing about Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, and she did so here.
I thought I’d cracked Hardy, last year. I made my second attempt with Jude the Obscure, and loved it – it even ended up on my Top Ten of 2010. And so I was excited when Harriet suggested that our book group read The Return of the Native – I wanted to get some more Hardy under my belt, now that I’d discovered that I loved him.
Hmm. Well, that didn’t pan out quite as expected. You’ll have to forgive my post title – I put it in because it amused me, not because it was true. Whilst I’d been surprised that Jude swept me along like a modern page-turner, I found The Return of the Native something of a slog.
The novel kicks off with a few pages describing Egdon Heath, which are apparently famous and much-loved. Well, you know me and descriptions of landscape – I was flicking past these pages before too long. And we come to a group of yokels discussing and dancing on the hillside. This crowd did give for a moment or two of something I didn’t expect at all – humour!Want of breath prevented a continuance of the songs; and the breakdown attracted the attention of a firm-standing man of middle age, who kept each corner of his crescent-shaped mouth rigorously drawn back into his cheek, as if to do away with any suspicion of mirthfulness which might erroneously have attached to him.That occasioned a little chuckle, and I liked this next bit from later in the novel so much that I went and read it aloud to my housemate:
“Strange notions, has he?” said the old man. “Ah, there’s too much of that sending to school in these days! It only does harm. Every gateost and barn’s door you come to is sure to have some bad word or other chalked upon it by the young rascals: a woman can hardly pass for shame some times. If they’d never been taught how to write they wouldn’t have been able to scribble such villainy. Their fathers couldn’t do it, and the country was all the better for it.”(In my village, I must say, the local vandals tended towards the pictorial.) None of these characters end up being particularly important, however, and it’s all a rather lengthy introduction to some of the novel’s main players – Eustacia Vye and Damon Wildeve. Eustacia is all flashing eyes and passionate proclamations; Damon is all wry comments alternating with romantic gestures. Awkward, then, that he’s about to marry someone else – a girl so virtuous and accepting that I can’t even remember her name.
Naturally everyone is in love with everyone else. Throw the reddleman Diggory Venn into the mix (a reddleman being someone who transports sheep-dye around the countryside, and is covered head to toe in the stuff), and the ‘native’ himself Clym Yeobright, and we’ve got a love-hexagon or -septagon or somesuch going on. To be honest, it all felt a bit like a watered down version of Jude the Obscure, even though that novel came later. All the partner-swapping, and going back and forth between people; false promises and broken vows; wild and amorous announcements followed by bitter renouncing, etc. etc. This excerpt is fairly representative:
She interrupted with a suppressed fire of which either love or anger seemed an equally possible issue, “Do you love me now?”
“Who can say?”
“Tell me; I will know it!”
“I do, and I do not,” he said mischeviously. “That is, I have my times and my seasons. One moment you are too tall, another moment you are too do-nothing, another too melancholy, another too dark, another I don’t know what, except – that you are not the whole world to me that you used to be, my dear. But you are a pleasant lady to know, and nice to meet, and I dare say as sweet as ever – almost.”This sort of histrionics does occasionally result in humour where I imagine Hardy didn’t intend it. The following is possibly my favourite quotation from Victorian literature, and one I intend to put to good use in moments of over-dramatic angst:
“Your eyes seem heavy, Eustacia!”
“No, it is my general way of looking. I think it arises from my feeling sometimes an agonizing pity for myself that I ever was born.”Well, quite, Eustacia. It comes to us all.
I can’t decide whether The Return of the Native really is much worse than Jude the Obscure or if I was simply not in the mood for Hardy. And I wasn’t, especially since I had to speed-read the second half for book group… to which only one other person came!
Perhaps I’m not being fair, and I have enjoyed ripping into Hardy a bit – it somewhat makes up for the slog I had reading it. I’d love (as I always love) someone to come along and disagree with me – there must be someone who loves this novel? Maybe I would if I read it in a different mood. As it is… I’m back to the drawing-board with Thomas Hardy.