Home > 19th Century, British Literature, Classics, Hardy Thomas, Novel > Sense and sensibility in Wessex

Sense and sensibility in Wessex

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.

  1. June 12, 2011 at 12:10 am

    Have you seen Tamara Drewe? It’s an updating of Far From the Madding Crowd.

    A question: do you think Henchard has homosexual feelings for Farfrae? (you used the word ‘fancies’).

    I have never read a bad Hardy novel, btw.


    • June 12, 2011 at 8:10 am

      I missed Tamara Drew when it was released but wanted to see it very much. I didn’t know it was based on Hardy. I’ll read the book first.

      I didn’t have homosexuality in mind when I used “fancy” but maybe you have a point there. Their meeting is like a “coup de foudre” for Henchard. (I like the French expression better than “love at first sight” in this case) I thought more of those relationships when one person is very invasive and the other tries to protect their boundaries. Like in some love relationships, Henchard loves Farfrae more deeply than what he gets in return. Or perhaps its parental love, Farfrae could be Henchard’s son. After all, Farfrae behaves like a son later in the book, never turning his back on him.


      • June 13, 2011 at 2:59 am

        I didn’t know Tamara Drewe was an adaptation of Hardy either. I didn’t recognise it at all–except I had some vague inklings at the corner of my mind. I watched the extras and that is how I discovered the Hardy connection, and then it seemed so obvious.

        Funny as in the extras, Tamara Drewe is discussed by all and sundry in a very positive manner, but Hardy’s Bathesheba wasn’t by any means a totally positive character–neither was Tamara Drewe for that matter.

        I think you’d like the film.

        I saw Farfrae as more of a son-figure than anything else.


        • June 13, 2011 at 8:08 pm

          I’ll rent Tamara Drew, thanks. I looked for Far from the Madding Crowd, the most recent French edition (hard cover) dates back to 1980. I’ll get it in English.


  2. June 12, 2011 at 7:41 am

    I have a little problem, I would like reading your review but am also planning on reading the book soon and I’m afraid the review is too detailed… I started reading from “As I’m writing about the characters…” The part about the names is interesting. I have been paying attentio to how the protagonists are called lately. Some authors have preference for the Christian name in general, others use the surname. Also interesting to analyse titles with names. Why is it Madame Bovary and not Emma Bovary but Jane Austen chose “Emma”….? I think what you discovered here is very right, they are not the equals and they don’t “own” the surname, they get it from father or husband. I’m interested to see whether I will like Hardy as much as you.


    • June 12, 2011 at 8:16 am

      I’ll be curious to read your review. I hope you’ll read it soon.

      Funny that you should talk about two Emmas. After reading Madame Bovary, I wouldn’t have let anybody call me Emma. Jane Austen reconciled me with the name. I think Flaubert chose Madame Bovary because her life started when she got married. In Jane Austen, Emma isn’t really interested in marrying herself, she feels she has more freedom staying with her father as he lets her do what she wants.


  3. leroyhunter
    June 13, 2011 at 10:20 am

    I studied this in school and it really put me off Hardy. Strange, because I never had the experience with anyone else – I usually enjoyed the process of picking books apart, even in the force-fed way you tend to do for school exams. I think I’d read Tess when I was younger but nothing by him since. I’m starting to wonder if it’s a mistake on my part to have ignored him.

    I really liked your comment about money. I’m reading Wharton at the moment and some of the stuff about money / attitudes / relationships is eye-popping. That alone is a link that makes me think I should give this another go.


    • June 13, 2011 at 8:11 pm

      I’m not sure I would have enjoyed Hardy that much when I was younger. I think he’s a writer for adulthood. If you read him again after this review, that’s the best compliment you can make.

      Which Wharton are you reading?


      • leroyhunter
        June 14, 2011 at 8:48 am

        The House of Mirth. Superb so far.


        • June 14, 2011 at 6:02 pm

          I still have to read Wharton. I want to start by Custom of the Country. (In French, it’s too big and complicated for me to read it in English) Have you read it?


  4. June 15, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    I loved this. My wife persuaded me to read it, against some resistance (it looked dry) but she was right and it was fabulous. Great characters, a rich setting, I wanted to know what would happen. I should read more by him.

    Wharton is incredible, though I’ve only read one so far (The Age of Innocence, so good I mentioned Wharton in my personal canon post recently but I’ve yet to read another).

    Aagh. So many books I want to read.

    I loved the point on forenames and surnames by the way. The gender disparity. Very interesting.


    • June 15, 2011 at 5:05 pm

      I’d want to read another one right now and it’s been a while since I finished a book and thought “where’s the next one?” Usually I’m not into reading several books in row by the same writer. I hesitate between The Woodlanders and Far From the Madding Crowd.
      I’m on a book buying moratory, so I’ll wait. (or try to read one in English, I getting used to his language.)


  5. leroyhunter
    June 16, 2011 at 10:51 am

    No, this is my first Wharton, but it won’t be the last. I might as well read them in order, so Ethan Frome would be next.

    I’m sure I still have this (Hardy) lurking at home in a dishevelled Penguin Classics edition so I’ll look for it when I have the chance.


    • June 16, 2011 at 11:18 am

      I have Ethan Frome at home too.
      Reading Hardy in order could be a good idea too.


  6. November 8, 2011 at 11:47 am

    A lot more detailed than my review, but I think mine was back in the early days of my blog when I was still experimenting a little with style 😉

    I actually prefer the more pastoral of Hardy’s novels (‘Far From the Madding Crowd’, ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’, ‘The Woodlanders’, ‘Return of the Native’) – I think Hardy does country folk better than (small) city dwellers.

    Although ‘Jude the Obscure’ is great too…


    • November 8, 2011 at 2:59 pm

      Good to know I have many good ones to read. Do you read him in English or in German?


  7. November 9, 2011 at 9:41 am

    In English, of course – despite my liking for G-Lit, I am actually English (and Australian!).


    • November 12, 2011 at 11:41 pm

      Haven’t I read on your blog that you can read in German and in French too?
      I wish I could read in German but I’ve almost forgotten everything.


      • November 13, 2011 at 4:12 am

        Yes, but that’s fallen by the wayside a little (mainly due to the mountain of German stuff I’ve been reading this year!). I’ve only actually read one book in French so far in 2011…
        …but it was ‘Du côté de chez Swann’, so that’s got to be worth at least ten books, right?


        • November 13, 2011 at 8:40 am

          At least ten books, yes. I’m happy to discover another Anglophone who knows French (and well enough to read Proust in the original; I’m impressed. I couldn’t read Proust in English. The most difficult so far have been Henry James and Martin Amis)
          Where’s your review of Du côté de chez Swann? I want to add it on my Reading Proust page.


  8. November 13, 2011 at 11:17 am

    Sadly, it was read during one of my infrequent bouts of RSI, so I never got around to writing a post – there are a lot of gaps in my reviews for early/mid 2011. I did, however, summarise it in four tweets (which is very rude and wildly inappropriate!).


    • November 13, 2011 at 9:03 pm

      You’re tweeting your review of Proust?! Shame on you. 🙂 Tweeting Proust is like putting coke in your red wine or drinking root beer with your roquefort. 🙂


  1. January 1, 2012 at 1:09 am

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