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.
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.