After reading Goodbye to All That, next in my To Read pile was a book that a good friend (who is currently living in the heart of Hardy country) recently sent me: Thomas Hardy’s Wessex Tales. This was quite a fitting follow up to my previous read, as Robert Graves mentions visiting Hardy in his autobiography.

Wessex Tales by Thomas Hardy

At this point, I feel I must make a public apology: I somehow managed to get through an English literature GCSE, an English literature A-level, and an English literature degree without reading a single Thomas Hardy work, which seems somewhat ridiculous. However, I did read Tess of the d’Urbervilles a few years back, which I half like and half tremble at the thought of. Tess is clearly a classic tale; evocative and memorable, yet it is also quite possibly the bleakest book I have ever read!

Still, I know several people who love Hardy’s works and who have recommended them to me, so a collection of stories seemed like a good next step. Plus, I was hoping that this 1988 collection might not be quite as bleak as Tess of the d’Urbervilles was.

However, if I mention that two of the seven tales in the collection feature a hangman, while others focus on disease, loneliness, and unrequited love, you will quickly gather that this volume was not exactly hilariously fun either. Let me give you just one example:

There is a perfectly good, engaging, well structured tale entitled “Fellow Townsmen”, which I was enjoying reading. It is essentially a classic will-they-won’t-they? type love story. However, being a Thomas Hardy story, this is how the reader is rewarded for his or her attentive efforts: after having read 43 pages of this tale, this is how Hardy concludes the piece:

[After many years, just when all external barriers to their love have been overcome] Lucy went herself to the Black-Bull, and questioned the staff closely.

Mr Barnet had curiously remarked when leaving that he might return on the Thursday or Friday, but they were directed not to reserve a room for him unless he should write.

He had left no address.

Lucy sorrowfully took back her note, went home, and resolved to wait.

She did wait – years and years – but Barnet never reappeared.

And that’s it. The end. “She did wait – years and years – but Barney never reappeared.” A true Hardy tale!

Actually, I’m being rather misleading with this review, as I did actually enjoy reading these tales a lot. There are some great characters and the stories provide fascinating depictions of life in rural towns and villages in the mid nineteenth century.

If you liked this you might also enjoy Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie. And if you can stomach the relentless sadness, you might like to try Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles.