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Love is an unceremonious thing

March 16, 2011 24 comments

Life’s Little Ironies by Thomas Hardy (218 pages)

I wanted to discover Thomas Hardy and I chose to read Life’s Little Ironies because of the title. This reading is part of my list for Sarah’s Not a Rat’s Chance in Hell’s Challenge and is my choice for the “Investigate a canonical writer hitherto most shamefully overlooked” category. Unsurprisingly, reading Hardy in English was difficult for me. It’s a high level of language for the narration and characters speak a local dialect. It required a lot of concentration but I wasn’t that lost, being French probably helped a little.

The short-stories included in Life’s Little Ironies were written from 1888 to 1893 (check) and Hardy put his last hand on this short-story collection in 1912. He chose the tales he would gather and also determined the sequence. I know these tales have been dissected by armies of students and teachers in literature. What I’m going to write is based on nothing else than my perception of this work.

French literature is in the background. As pointed out in the foreword, An Imaginative Woman has something about Emma Bovary. Ella (Emma?) is married to an unsuitable husband and is carried away by her imagination. (“An impressionable palpitating creature Ella was”). A Tragedy of Two Ambitions made me think of Le Rouge et le Noir, because of the two young peasants not rich enough to go to university and using the church to make a career, losing their soul in the dark pool of their ambition. Thomas Hardy also refers to the symbolists, a current in French literature. I’m not familiar enough with short-stories written by Maupassant to find similarities.

In Life’s Little Ironies, all the tales have the same setting (Wessex villages and London) but the landscapes aren’t thoroughly described, just briefly painted to give the reader a quick image of the scenery or of the neighbourhood. Similar themes cross-over the stories: love, marriage, lust, ambition, greed, jealousy, selfishness.

Thomas Hardy doesn’t seem to have a definitive opinion about marriage. Love, lust and reason are equally bad motives to marry someone. He shows how a marriage can be miserable when the spouses have ill-matched tempers.

Marchmill considered his wife’s likes and inclinations somewhat silly; she considered his sordid and material.

Love is a boisterous child whose consequences are unplanned for:

They gazed at each other with smiles, and with that unmistakable expression which means so little at the moment, yet so often leads to passion, heart-ache, union, disunion, devotion, overpopulation, drudgery, discontent, resignation, despair.

Several tales depicts the power of imagination over sense and reason and the power of words. Poetry can give birth to tender feelings. Love can be fostered by well-crafted love letters or in the contrary or extinguished by poor “pen-and-ink work”.

Marriage isn’t a good way to climb the social ladder when the spouse coming from a lower social class is unable to adapt. Two women marry above them and they happen to be incapable to behave – and speak, ah the importance of accents in English – like ladies. As a consequence, their husbands’ careers are limited.

In several tales, marriage is forced upon someone. A groom is too drunk to be married. His bride asks that he be locked in the church until he sobers up because she fears he runs away. A selfish man presses a woman to marry him to ease his guilty conscience.

In the end, the best spouse seems to be someone who comes from the same social class and is best attuned in temper and vision of life.

For Victorian times, sex is incredibly present is all these stories. Hardy describes how rules no longer matter when physical attraction is involved. Music wreaks havoc on weak minds, liberates sexual energies and leads to whimsical decisions.

Sex out of marriage is everywhere. One woman absolutely needs to be married because she is so pregnant anyone can see. Two ones are left behind with baby girls. Women dream of having sex with other men than their husbands. It must have been shocking at the time. It is said so neatly that the reader doesn’t really pay attention at the moment, but thinking about it afterwards, it’s really obvious.

The situation of women is also well put forward. Conjugal sex can’t be avoided. Whether Ella thought of England or of her beloved poet when her husband imposes sexual intercourse on her isn’t indicated. Not that he is violent, he does enquire after a possible headache, he’s just sure of his good right and the idea that she should be in the mood too never crosses his mind. Woman always depend on a man, father, husband, son. Sophy can’t re-marry because her son doesn’t agree with her choice of a new husband. That she is miserable is of no importance to him. The only woman who had managed to respectably stand by herself is prompted to marry to protect her daughter’s prospects.

Hardy also lightly questions the notion of fatherhood. In the Fiddler of the Reels, Ned considers Carry as his child even if he isn’t her biological father. This idea of fathering on the basis of love and not of blood seems very modern to me. However, in An Imaginative Woman, Marchmill suspects his wife cheated on him, he starts loathing his own son.

Greed, jealousy and envy are also masterly depicted. Uncontrolled ambition is a bad master leading to disaster and lost of moral compass. Lives are lost because of improper pride and greed.

Clergymen aren’t really well treated in there. The Established Church is seen as a mean to climb the social ladder, the clergymen being more ambitious than pious. In another tale, the parson and his clerk’s passion is hunting. They are so carried away by hunting foxes that they forget to come back to the church to celebrate a wedding. This blood lust isn’t really what we expect from a clergyman, is it? 

Music and dancing play an important part in these villagers’ lives. Musicians have opposite roles. They play Christmas carols at the Squire’s mansion and holy tunes in the church. They also play “the devil’s tunes” at inns and weddings. In all cases, music has the power to elevate souls or lose them.

Thomas Hardy is such a subtle painter of human tempers. The irony is everywhere, in his use of the language and in the events of the tales, as the capital decision made by a character rarely gives the expected outcome and often ends up with the opposite situation to the one searched for. The language is artistically polished. Hardy can picture a scene, a character in a few words.

To the eye of a man viewing it from behind, the nut-brown hair was a wonder and a mystery. Under the black beaver hat, surmounted by its tuft of black feathers, the long locks braided and twisted and coiled like the rushes of a basket, composed a rare, if somewhat barbaric, example of ingenious art. One could understand such weavings and coilings being wrought to last intact for a year , or even a calendar month; but that they should be all demolished regularly at bedtime, after a single day of permanence, seemed a reckless waste of successful fabrication.

I really loved how Hardy politely mocks social conventions and denounces the hypocrisy of social rules and roles. He never judges the characters. There is no intention to teach a moral lesson. I find him quietly subversive and I love that.

I wonder if Maugham tried to imitate Hardy’s collection of tales in The Trembling of a Leaf, although it is acknowledged that Maupassant was his master. There’s a similarity in the work, the gathering of the tales, their themes. Both have a unity in place (Southern Seas / Southern England) and describe disappointing marriages and the difficulty to marry outside your class. They point out that marriages based on lust are failures but marriages based on reason are no better matches. The two books include stories about clergymen, adventurers, true love and lust driven fates.

To me, Hardy and Maugham depict the same vision of life: we are the result of our decisions. We don’t realise all the potential consequences of our choices when we make them, because our mind is weak or blinded but we have to live with their inevitable consequences. Hardy and Maugham want to tell us that what we call “bad luck” or “fate” is actually nothing else than the unwanted outcome of a choice, tiny or major, thought through or whimsical, that we made at one given moment. We’d rather find comfort in thinking that some god manipulated our actions than face the truth. There is no more god in Southern England than there is in the Southern Seas.

Life has its own inner logic and Hardy looks at it through the lenses of irony. As I share his stern vision of life and its accompanying mix of lucidity and irony, I loved these short-stories and want to read more of him.

 PS: My favourite stories are An Imaginative Woman, On the Western Circuit and A Tragedy of Two Ambitions.

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