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Sense and sensibility in Wessex

June 11, 2011 23 comments

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy. 1886. Translated into French by Philippe Neel (1922)

Michael Henchard is travelling the country with his wife Susan and their baby daughter Elizabeth-Jane. He’s out of work at the moment and is looking for a position as a trusser. They reach a fair and decide to have a meal there and stop by for the night. Henchard gets drunk and sells his wife and daughter to a passer-by, a sailor named Newson. Susan follows Newson with their daughter. Sobered in the morning, Henchard is crushed by guilt and swears not to drink alcohol during the next twenty years. 

Eighteen years later, Newson is lost at sea and Susan decides to go and find Henchard. She has been haunted by remorse for a while, thinking she shouldn’t have left her lawful husband that night. When Susan and Elizabeth-Jane arrive at Casterbridge, a rich party is given at the Kings Arms Hotel, the finest hotel of the town. They discover that Henchard is now a rich and respected man, the Mayor of Casterbridge. That same night, Donald Farfrae comes to Casterbridge on his way to catch a boat to immigrate to America. Henchard persuades him to stay and hires him as his manager.

We will follow the twists and turns of their intertwined lives. 

Henchard is the main character of the book. He’s driven by passion. He’s impulsive, violent and unpredictable. He flies off the handle easily. His employees are afraid of him because his reactions can’t be foreseen. He makes decisions with his guts, not with his brain. Sometimes they’re good and sometimes they’re a disaster. He is loud, with a sledge-hammer directness. He’s excessive in his love and hate. He fancies Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane analyses their relationship:

Her quiet eye discerned that Henchard’s tigerish affection for the younger man, his constant liking to have Farfrae near him, now and then resulted in a tendency to domineer, which, however, was checked in a moment when Donald exhibited marks of real offence.

Henchard isn’t a vile man, he’s even generous. His bad deeds are done in the course of action, on impulse. He can’t act badly in cold blood. We all know that kind of bulls, good-hearted but childish in their behaviour and tiring to live with as they keep you on edge, wondering what their next move will be.

Susan is looking for safety. She has basic needs, like animals. She chooses the path that will lead her to food and shelter and she’s able to lie for it. She has her own sense of right and wrong. She also acts for conscience’ sake, setting things in motion by looking for Henchard. (Like in the short story For Conscience’ Sake, published in 1891.) She’s not very clever and doesn’t fit well in Henchard’s new life, as a notable of Casterbridge.

Elizabeth-Jane is good and pessimistic. In her opinion, she doesn’t deserve to be happy and she should be glad to catch pieces of happiness when she can. She has no other ambition than to live honestly as a good daughter. She’s capable of rebellion though and can take care of herself if needed. Her character is more complex than it seems at first sight. She may be the literary cousin of Jeanne (A Life by Maupassant) but I don’t recall the novel precisely enough to push the comparison. Elisabeth-Jane accepts life as it comes but isn’t passive. She’s a country girl, thinks and behaves like one:

One grievous failing of Elizabeth’s was her occasional pretty and picturesque use of dialect words—those terrible marks of the beast to the truly genteel.

She has what we call in French, “le bon sens paysan”, literally “good sense of the peasant”. Elizabeth-Jane can be compared to Elinor, from Sense and Sensibility although she comes from a lower social class.

Donald Farfrae allies intelligence, goodness and charisma. He will always be grateful that Henchard gave him a chance to start in life and never turns his back on him, whatever happens. As in the short story The Fiddler of the Reels, Farfrae sorts of dazzle people with his songs. (It’s interesting to notice that the fiddler was also Scottish). He’s not openly ambitious but takes on the responsibilities when they arrive. He’s a good employer, stable and trustworthy. He is what Henchard could be if he acted with more sense than sensibility.

As I’m writing about the characters, I realise that women are called by their Christian name whereas men are called by their surname. They’re not their equals, are they? Side characters are briefly portrayed and help Hardy draw a vivid picture of life in Casterbridge, always with his unique sense of humour, like here:

Solomon Longways, Christopher Coney, Buzzford, and the rest of that fraternity, showed their sense of the occasion by advancing their customary eleven o’clock pint to half-past ten; from which they found a difficulty in getting back to the proper hour for several days.

Apart from the story – and it is engrossing, I really wanted to know the ending – The Mayor of Casterbridge is also an fascinating picture of the rural society of that time. Hardy describes the markets and the fair, the customs, the social classes of Casterbridge, the crowd at the pubs and the landscape bearing the imprint of the past (timuli, ruins of Roman edifices). It also depicts the organization of the city: the elections of the Mayor, the local court and the economy. For example, the first sowing machines appear in the country. Hardy also mentions the trade of cereals and the accompanying speculation. After my comment about finance in La Cousine Bette and Max’s post about investments in Proust, the following passage caught my attention:

Yet many [merchants] carried ruffled cheque-books in their pockets which regulated at the bank hard by a balance of never less than four figures. In fact, what these gibbous human shapes specially represented was ready money—money insistently ready—not ready next year like a nobleman’s—often not merely ready at the bank like a professional man’s, but ready in their large plump hands.

So, in Hardy’s mind, there are three different kinds of money depending on your social class and on its degree of liquidity. Interesting.  

I loved The Mayor of Casterbridge. It is one of Hardy’s early works but I found there all the elements I had enjoyed in Life’s Little Ironies. The black and fatalist look Hardy lays on life and people. How people’s lives are sealed by tiny choices or bad reactions at a moment and later call it fate. I really like his subtle sense of humour. As a reader, more than a century later, I can feel his tenderness for the rural society of fictional Wessex and its customs. Definitely a writer I want to explore.

PS: I’ll post my thoughts about the French translation soon.

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