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Like the British Constitution, she owes her success in practice to her inconsistencies in principle.

June 30, 2015 20 comments

The Hand of Ethelberta by Thomas Hardy (1876) French title: S’il avait insisté. Translated by Jean Audiau in 1931 and now OOP.

Hardy_EthelbertaI’m still reading Thomas Hardy in chronological order and my journey brought me to The Hand of Ethelberta. Ethelberta is actually a young widow, Mrs Petherwin. She married the young man of the family where she stayed as a governess. He died soon after her marriage and her mother-in-law kept her with her on condition that Ethelberta gives up any relationship with her family. Indeed, her father is a butler, her brothers are carpenters. Ethelberta married in a higher social class and it wouldn’t be possible to acknowledge being the daughter of a butler.

Ethelberta had what we would call today a boyfriend in Mr Christopher Julian. He would have married her but he was too poor and without any prospect of doing better and she was not willing to settle without money. She chose young Petherwin.

Ethelberta has beauty, intelligence, guts and a huge family. Her parents have ten children and Ethelberta wants to take care of them, to ensure they get an education to have a chance at a better life. Or what she thinks is a better life. She had a little fame when she published a decent collection of poems. The door of higher circles opened to her and that’s where she met Mr Ladywell, Mr Neigh and Lord Mountclere. However, she has baggage with her maiden name and origins and her siblings’ future. The only one who knows everything is Mr Julian. He knows her family and Ethelberta’s sister Picotee is even in love with him.

When Mrs Petherwin senior dies, she leaves Ethelberta with a house in London but no income. Ethelberta starts writing romance and telling stories for money. She’s certain that she can make it, that she can earn enough money to provide for everyone. In the house she hires her siblings as butler, maid or cook. They pretend they don’t know each other in public and they try to support themselves. But it’s not so easy to earn money when you’re a woman in the 19thcentury. So Ethelberta ends up turning to the most common way of providing for yourself and even your family when you’re female: marriage!

Yet Ethelberta’s gradient had been regular: emotional poetry, light verse, romance as an object, romance as a means, thoughts of marriage as an aid to her pursuits, a vow to marry for the good of her family; in other words, from soft and playful Romanticism to distorted Benthamism. Was the moral incline upward or down?

Lucky her, even in this era of man famine, she has three prospects. Mr Neigh, Mr Ladywell and Lord Mountclere. Mr Julian had to forfeit because he lacked the required financial perspectives. Even if he’s the one she likes best. Ethelberta looks at these men only in terms of financial stability and prestige. She remains cold hearted and states:

Men who come courting are just like bad cooks: if you are kind to them, instead of ascribing it to an exceptional courtesy on your part, they instantly set it down to their own marvellous worth.

[I wonder what Hardy would write about men who are chefs. A man can’t be a cook, he’s a chef, that’s where the marvellous worth expresses itself. Are they marvellous² ? ]

Ethelberta is a strange mix of ambition and self-sacrifice. She wants badly to make money for herself but mostly to take care of her siblings. Her parents don’t ask her to do it but she’s convinced that without a good education, they have no chance. She’s conflicted and stubborn. Nothing and no one can make her change her path. She wants a better life, she’s ready to sacrifice happiness for social advancement for her and her siblings.

Which groom will she pick and how? That’s where you need to read the book to know more…

The Hand of Ethelberta means several things for me. The most obvious meaning is marriage. Her hand is at stake and the novel is about discovering when and whom she’ll marry. Will she listen to her heart or will she listen to her ambition?

One other meaning is the hand she has been dealt. She’s a butler’s daughter, she has nine siblings to provide for and she needs to play it well to win her financial stability. She has four men around her, one for each card suit. Let’s say King of Hearts is Mr Julian, King of Diamonds is Mr Ladywell, King of Spades is Mr Neigh and King of Clubs is Mountclere.

The third meaning is given by Ethelberta’s mother when she refers to her change of social status. She climbed to an upper class when she married Mr Petherwin, she must live with the idea that she cannot be associated with her parents and siblings in public. ‘Well, you chose your course, my dear; and you must abide by it.  Having put your hand to the plough, it will be foolish to turn back.’

I suppose Hardy played on the meaning of the title, otherwise he would have written Ethelberta’s hand, no?

Although I didn’t like this one as much as Far from the Madding Crowd, I was happy to be enveloped again in Hardy’s ironic prose. The novel is full of gems like these:

Supply the love for both sides?  Why, it’s worse than furnishing money for both.

If a needy man must be so foolish as to fall in love, it is best to do so where he cannot double his foolishness by marrying the woman.

I enjoyed the twists and turns, the help of bad weather, coincidences, bad luck and other tricks to move the plot forward. It’s part of Hardy’s game and I went along with it. Behind the twists and turns, there’s also the very serious question: what makes us truly happy? Is social success enough? Is money enough? Is social standing and money are worth leaving a worthy companion behind? Does it make you happy to change of social class or does it cost too much? Ethelberta has made up her mind, have you made yours? For Ethelberta, changing of social class also means being able to express her potential to the fullest. It gives her the opportunity to engage in things that are challenging her intelligence. She needs this. She’s intelligent, she doesn’t want her brain to go to waste. Who can blame her?

My next Hardy will be The Return of the Native.

PS: I can’t resist adding a last quote. What would be British literature of the 19th Century without clumsy and offensive marriage proposals? I wonder. It must have been a rite of passage for would-be writers at the time. That was before creative writing classes but perhaps it was required in feuilletons like television has requirement for series nowadys. I put XXX where the gentleman’s name was mentioned, to avoid spoilers.

‘I have been intending to write a line to you,’ said XXX; ‘but I felt that I could not be sure of writing my meaning in a way which might please you.  I am not bright at a letter—never was.  The question I mean is one that I hope you will be disposed to answer favourably, even though I may show the awkwardness of a fellow-person who has never put such a question before.  Will you give me a word of encouragement—just a hope that I may not be unacceptable as a husband to you?  Your talents are very great; and of course I know that I have nothing at all in that way.  Still people are happy together sometimes in spite of such things.  Will you say “Yes,” and settle it now?’ ‘I was not expecting you had come upon such an errand as this,’ said she, looking up a little, but mostly looking down.  ‘I cannot say what you wish, Mr. XXX. ‘Perhaps I have been too sudden and presumptuous.  Yes, I know I have been that.  However, directly I saw you I felt that nobody ever came so near my idea of what is desirable in a lady, and it occurred to me that only one obstacle should stand in the way of the natural results, which obstacle would be your refusal.  In common kindness consider. I daresay I am judged to be a man of inattentive habits—I know that’s what you think of me; but under your influence I should be very different; so pray do not let your dislike to little matters influence you.’ ‘I would not indeed.  But believe me there can be no discussion of marriage between us,’ said Ethelberta decisively. ‘If that’s the case I may as well say no more.  To burden you with my regrets would be out of place, I suppose,’ said XXX, looking calmly out of the window.

Who wants to say yes to such a proposal?

So I’ve seen Far From the Madding Crowd

June 8, 2015 18 comments

Given my fondness for Hardy’s novels, I had to see the 2015 version of Far From the Madding Crowd. It is directed by Thomas Vinterberg, screenplay by David Nicholls, with Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene, Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak, Michael Sheen as Mr Boldwood, Tom Sturridge as Sergeant Troy and Juno Temple as Fanny Robin. Good cast, according to me.

To be honest, about 75% of the audience in the cinema was female and the men who were there seemed to be fulfilling some conjugal duty. My husband was at home, seeing Sense and Sensibility years ago left a permanent scar on him and a new nickname for Hugh Grant, Indeed, which is all he seemed to utter in Ang Lee’s film version of the book. But back to Far From the Madding Crowd.

Télérama rated it average but the journalist seemed to know nothing about Thomas Hardy’s work. Otherwise she wouldn’t have had the idea to compare Far From the Madding Crowd to Tess of the d’Urbervilles and wonder that the first was less dramatic and bleak than the latest. No kidding.

Hardy_film_farI remembered the book well, I read it last year and the film is faithful to the novel. The main events are there, except for the two important scenes of the beginning, the one when Gabriel Oak sees Bathsheba Everdene for the first time and finds her proud and the one when she saves his life. I wonder why the director cut those off as they are part of the foundation of the relationship between Bathsheba and Gabriel.

The story and characters struck me again as very Austenian, more that The Hand of Ethelberta. I developed this idea in my billet about the novel. And thanks to the film, I now know how to pronounce Bathsheba. 🙂 Watching the film and hearing the characters names out-loud gave them a new meaning. I guess Gabriel Oak has a name that suits his temper: he’s solid and has the patience of an angel. Mr Boldwood is not made of the same wood, his obsession with Bathsheba makes him bold. And Sergeant Troy is like a Trojan horse in Bathsheba’s ordered life.

The film is well done but a bit too polished to my taste. Although there are wonderful landscapes –it really, really makes you want to visit England—, I thought the director overused meaningful eye contacts between characters and morning light. It is centered on the plot which is normal for a film but it lacks the salt of Hardy’s writing: the humour, the tenderness for life in Wessex, the peasants’ accent and all the little thoughts about life and human nature that he drops everywhere along the way. I guess it’s hard to capture on film.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a good version, equivalent to reading an abridged version of the book. Not as good as reading the original but close enough for you not to feel betrayed by the choice of actors or unforgivable alterations of the plot.

And Thomas Hardy invented the love rectangle

April 20, 2014 26 comments

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. 1874 French title: Loin de la foule déchainée.

OK, I don’t know if Thomas Hardy invented the love rectangle and a more literate reader may prove me by A+B = QED that it was someone else, but it’s a nice title for my billet.

When the book opens, Gabriel Oak is a young shepherd who has just leased a farm and Bathsheba Everdene moves in the neighbouring farm with her aunt Mrs Hurst. She’s a proud beauty and Gabriel assesses her as such when he meets her for the first time but he falls in love with her anyway. They befriend, she even saves his life once but when he proposes she refuses him. She doesn’t love him and doesn’t want to get married.

“Well, what I mean is that I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding, if I could be one without having a husband. But since a woman can’t show off in that way by herself, I shan’t marry—at least yet.”

Shortly after this, Bathsheba moves out of the village and Gabriel thinks he’ll never see her again. Then Gabriel loses his farm after his inexperienced sheep dog pushes his sheep over a cliff. He’s ruined and his search for employment brings him in Weatherbury. He helps putting out a fire on a farm and discovers that it’s Bathsheba’s property. She has inherited an estate from her uncle and is now a rich woman. Despite their shared history, she hires Gabriel as her shepherd.

William Boldwood is the other wealthy farmer in Weatherbury. He’s about forty, a confirmed bachelor and happy to be so. He never expressed admiration to Bathsheba’s beauty and she’s a little piqued by the lack of attention. On a whim, she sends him a secret Valentine card. He discovers where the card comes from, starts looking at her and falls head-over-heels in love with her. She has now another admirer in the village.

Arrives Sergeant Troy. He had a relationship with Fanny, a maid who eloped shortly after Bathsheba arrived in Weatherbury. She never knew why Fanny disappeared while Gabriel and Boldwood do. Troy is handsome, courteous and flirty. As a hopeless womaniser, he soon starts to court Bathseba who falls for him. The other two don’t stand a chance against the charming Sergeant.

Now, you see the love rectangle between Gabriel, Boldwood, Troy and Bathsheba. Who will get the girl? How will Fanny’s relationship with Troy influence the game?

Monet_meulesSummed up like this, the plot is simplistic. However, there’s a lot more to Far From the Madding Crowd than the love relationships. There’s the usual description of the country life in fictional Wessex and Hardy’s descriptions of the landscape are picturesque. Natural disasters are plausible and become handy plot devices; that comes with the genre. I enjoyed reading about the farming customs and he doesn’t repeat himself. Far From the Madding Crowd tells about sheep breeding and tending to fields. These topics weren’t in The Mayor of Casterbridge. The novels complete each other and are a part of the jigsaw picturing rural Sussex.

The four characters have more depth than my summary of the plot lets on. There’s an Austenian feeling to these characters. Bathsheba is a mix between Marianne and Emma. Boldwood reminded me of Colonel Brandon. Troy resembles Willoughby and Wickam. And Gabriel is more like Mr Knightley.

Bathsheba is a fascinating character. She’s independent, intelligent and stubborn. She’s also young, inexperienced and passionate like Marianne. She’s proud and level-headed like Emma.

Bathsheba, though she had too much understanding to be entirely governed by her womanliness, had too much womanliness to use her understanding to the best advantage.

Marrying Gabriel the farmer was a reasonable decision to make when he proposed. He was on his way to be a respectable and solvent farmer and she didn’t have a higher prospect. Yet she refuses him. When she inherits her uncle’s estate, she decides against hiring a bailiff and runs the estate herself. That’s against traditions and her workmen don’t know how to accept their mistress in such a role. Gabriel is there to smooth things out, always in the background. Because she’s aware of his regard for her, she accepts his help reluctantly. She’s alone on the farm and she enjoys their conversations. She needs someone to turn to. They remain friends and Gabriel doesn’t hesitate to tell her what he thinks of her behaviour when she goes overboard.

Gabriel Oak is also an interesting character, the most likeable of the novel. His name says it all: he’s as good as an angel and as solid as an oak. He’s intelligent and responds to Bathsheba’s intelligence. They are good partners at managing the farm and they both keep their heads in case of emergency. He loves her for herself, flaws and all. He’s the most mature character of the novel. His solid knowledge of farming, his simplicity and his interactions with Bathsheba reminded me of Mr Knightley.

Troy is the proverbial bad boy, thoughtless, lazy and self-centred:

Idiosyncrasy and vicissitude had combined to stamp Sergeant Troy as an exceptional being. He was a man to whom memories were an incumbrance, and anticipations a superfluity. Simply feeling, considering, and caring for what was before his eyes, he was vulnerable only in the present. His outlook upon time was as a transient flash of the eye now and then: that projection of consciousness into days gone by and to come, which makes the past a synonym for the pathetic and the future a word for circumspection, was foreign to Troy. With him the past was yesterday; the future, to-morrow; never, the day after.

Not exactly a man you want to build a future with. In addition to that lightness of character, he’s mercenary and Bathsheba’s money attracts him even if it’s not his first motive to pursue her. However, when you consider his relationship with Fanny, he’s a lot more complex than he seems to be.

Boldwood reminded me of Colonel Brandon because he’s also much older than Bathsheba, he’s wealthy and brooding. His passion comes as a surprise; he wasn’t really interested in women before and was content with his bachelor life. Bathsheba kindled an unexpected fire and he has trouble dealing with his feelings.

Each male character represents a way of feeling passionate about someone. Gabriel’s fire for Bathsheba is a homely one, a steady chimney fire, anchored in daily life. Troy is more like fireworks, beautiful, amazing and short-lived. Boldwood’s passion is a fire hazard, simmering and potentially destructive. And Bathsheba? She’s confusing, burning for Troy and capable of a strong bond with Gabriel. Sometimes she irritated me but I liked her for her courage and her intelligence. Even if she’s conceited, she also admits her faults and flaws. Despite her apparent carelessness, she has a strong business head and is intelligent enough to acknowledge Gabriel’s worth. She appeared to me as mostly young and needing the guidance of a mother (as long as the mother is not Mrs Bennett). Gabriel and Bathsheba show how hard it is to step out of one’s condition: Bathsheba wants to manage the farm and it’s not a woman’s job in these times; Gabriel wants to be a farmer, or at least, a bailiff.

Far From the Madding Crowd is pure Hardy and I had a wonderful time reading it. It took me time to re-acquaint to Hardy’s style and vocabulary. Each writer has his ocean of words and it took me a while to feel confortable swimming there again. I wondered about the title and Wikipedia tells me it comes from a poem by Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751)

   Far From the madding crowd’s ignoble strife

   Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;

   Along the cool sequester’d vale of life

   They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

 

‘Bravery is only obtuseness to the perception of contingencies,’

January 12, 2013 32 comments

A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy 1873 French title: Les yeux bleus.

Although I haven’t read a Thomas Hardy for a while, I’m still in my project of reading all his books chronologically. So, after Under the Greenwood Tree came A Pair of Blue Eyes. What a delight!

Hardy_Yeux_BleusElfride Swancourt is the daughter of a vicar who lives in a remote village in Wessex (of course). Her father wants to have the church renovated and hires a London architect to come and have a look at the place and propose renovation plans. When Stephen Smith, sent by the said London architect arrives at the vicarage, the vicar is stuck in bed by gout and Elfride has to welcome the visitor on her own. Stephen is rapidly smitten by her pair of blue eyes, her easy manners and they quickly fall in love. Stephen is nice and a bit mysterious, which kindles Elfride’s imagination. He behaves strangely and has curious manners sometimes. He’s educated but pronounces Latin wrong. He seems to be a gentleman but can’t ride a horse. Elfride’s father encourages their time alone and enjoys the young man’s company very much but when he discovers that Stephen is actually the son of a working man from the nearby domain, he doesn’t want him to marry his daughter or to accept him as his acquaintance. Stephen and Elfride try to elope but she refuses to marry him secretly. Stephen leaves England to take a position in India in the hope to come back wealthy and marry her with her father’s consent.

Meanwhile, Mr Swancourt has secretly courted his neighbor, a widowed rich lady. He goes on a trip and comes back married to her. Elfride’s life changes, moving to a nicer house and staying in London during the season. It’s precisely there that Mrs Swancourt gets reacquainted with her cousin Mr Knight. He’s invited to stay some time with them in the country. When he eventually comes, he becomes close to Elfride, enjoying her conversation. Mr Knight is a bachelor who doesn’t intend to get married. He’s the contrary to the Austenian assertion that “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. He’s not flirtatious but Elfride wins him over with her quiet beauty and her personality. He enjoys teaching her things and challenging her. He falls for her in spite of him. (The superfluity had become a necessity, and Knight was in love., that’s as nicely put as a Flaubert sentence). She’s in awe with him and falls for his personality. Stephen Smith can’t measure up with Mr Knight.

How will she sort this out and who will have her in the end?

As always with Hardy, the plot description may seem nice and proper, 19th century equivalent of chick lit. Sorry if that blunt comment shocks the purists. And as always, it’s deceptively simple and romantic. While I was reading, I started noticing that roles were somehow reversed: Elfride behaved like a man and Mr Knight and Stephen had women’s traits. Let me explain this curious thought but beware that there will be spoilers after this part. Here’s Elfride explaining Stephen why she loves him:

I know, I think, what I love you for. You are nice-looking, of course; but I didn’t mean for that. It is because you are so docile and gentle.’ ‘Those are not quite the correct qualities for a man to be loved for,’ said Stephen, in rather a dissatisfied tone of self-criticism.

What? Stephen is nice-looking, docile and gentle. As he notices himself, these are more qualities sought for in a woman, aren’t they? And there’s this incredible scene where Elfride saves Mr Knight’s life in quite a manly manner, a scene that seemed the exact opposite of the one where Willoughby helps Marianne. Knight is suspended in a very dangerous way to a cliff and she makes a rope with her clothes to pull him up. How ironic that a character named Knight (like the best man character in Emma by Jane Austen, btw) is saved from a horrible death by a young girl. So the Knight in distress is saved by a damsel in shining amour. Interesting. Even more interesting is the following paragraph:

On reaching home after the perilous adventure by the sea-shore, Knight had felt unwell, and retired almost immediately. The young lady who had so materially assisted him had done the same, but she reappeared, properly clothed, about five o’clock. She wandered restlessly about the house, but not on account of their joint narrow escape from death. The storm which had torn the tree had merely bowed the reed, and with the deliverance of Knight all deep thought of the accident had left her.

Hmm. Now the man is more delicate than the girl. Hardy doesn’t push as far as putting Knight to bed with a fever or a headache but still, the girl’s resistance is stronger. Elfride keeps her head and wants to be loved for her mind and not for her nice looks. She’s realistic in her love for Stephen:

Stephen, I fancy I see the difference between me and you—between men and women generally, perhaps. I am content to build happiness on any accidental basis that may lie near at hand; you are for making a world to suit your happiness.’

It’s like A Pair of Blue Eyes is a negative from an Austen novel. Stephen doesn’t forget her during his stay in India and his love is unshakable. Usually, you would have a poor girl pining at home for a man who doesn’t remember her. Mr Knight is jealous of the other men who courted her. He would like her to be untouched territory, as he is himself. He behaves like a virgin; he has never sought the company of women before. He’s the innocent person in their couple while Elfride appears to be the more experienced. Quite a change of scenery from other books. We’re far from men corrupting innocent women; Elfride is the one with a secret that backfires on her.

In addition to characters that don’t seem extraordinary at first sight but are if you think of them twice, Hardy excels in describing his beloved Wessex, like here, on a grey morning:

It was breakfast time. As seen from the vicarage dining-room, which took a warm tone of light from the fire, the weather and scene outside seemed to have stereotyped themselves in unrelieved shades of gray. The long-armed trees and shrubs of juniper, cedar, and pine varieties, were grayish black; those of the broad-leaved sort, together with the herbage, were grayish-green; the eternal hills and tower behind them were grayish-brown; the sky, dropping behind all, gray of the purest melancholy. Yet in spite of this sombre artistic effect, the morning was not one which tended to lower the spirits. It was even cheering. For it did not rain, nor was rain likely to fall for many days to come.

The book is full of lovely descriptions of the countryside and the seaside. Peasants speak patois and I had sometimes a hard time understanding them but I’m getting used to it. I noticed that ladies and gentlemen use French words when they speak (“honouring her by petits soins of a marked kind” or “‘Do I seem like LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI?’”). In Is That a Fish in Your Ear? David Bellos explains that at the time, speaking French was the trademark of a good education. Translators always left French words in their English translations from the French because they knew that either their readers would know enough of French to understand them or they would be flattered to read a bit of French and attach themselves to the life style of the upper classes. Hardy’s style gives life to social differences and aspirations through accents and the choice of the words he puts in the characters’ mouths. Clever and realistic. Comments about the English society escape from his pen, taking the novel as an opportunity to write down the changes he catches in his environment:

‘My dear, you mustn’t say “gentlemen” nowadays,’ her stepmother answered in the tones of arch concern that so well became her ugliness. ‘We have handed over “gentlemen” to the lower middle class, where the word is still to be heard at tradesmen’s balls and provincial tea-parties, I believe. It is done with here.’ ‘What must I say, then?’ ‘”Ladies and MEN” always.’

Or:

‘Every woman now-a-days,’ resumed Mrs. Smith, ‘if she marry at all, must expect a father-in-law of a rank lower than her father. The men have gone up so, and the women have stood still. Every man you meet is more the dand than his father; and you are just level wi’ her.’

It seems that the middle class was climbing the social ladder, mimicking the language and manners of the upper class. Necessity led the aristocracy to trade titles against money (women must expect a father-in-law of a rank lower than her father) and the aristocracy tries to abandon old ways to the middle class and find new standards to differentiate from common people. Hardy is a keen observer of the world he lives in and uses it as raw material for his literature with a cheeky angle. I love that, it’s both enlightening and entertaining.

As I said before, this novel sounds like a simple romance but there’s a lot more to it than an easy read, although it is also that. Next step: Far From the Madding Crowd.

PS: I chose the French cover for this post but I read the book in English. I like the English covers less than the French one. I didn’t see Elfride in those.

Hardy_Blue_2Hardy_Blue_1Hardy_Blue_3

Singsong in Wessex

June 15, 2012 14 comments

Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy 1872. French title: Quatre Saisons à Mellstock

I’m still on my reading-all-Thomas-Hardy project and Under the Greenwood Tree was the next to my list. The book is set in Mellstock typical village of Hardy’s fictional Wessex. The plot is rather simple: Dick Dewy falls in love with Fancy Day and the whole book is there to answer this important question: Will Dick manage to seduce Fancy and marry her?

Said like this, the erudite reader who shies away from anything romantic is now thinking Dear, that’s not for me. Don’t stop reading this billet now, please. I suspect that the plot is simple on purpose. Actually, the main character of the book is popular music in the English countryside at the beginning of the 19thC. The French title of the book is Quatre saisons à Mellstock, and it makes sense as this novel is composed of four parts, each being a season.

When the book opens, it’s Christmas Eve and the Mellstock’s choir is preparing for their big night out, singing Christmas carols under the villagers’ windows. With obvious fondness, Thomas Hardy describes the local musicians choosing the songs, rehearsing, preparing their instruments, dressing to face the cold night. This choir is also in charge of the music in church every Sunday. Hardy explains that the choir’s world is rapidly changing, local orchestras with fiddles and string instruments are more and more often replaced by brass, organs or barrel organs.

Hardy describes the decline of the Mellstock quire and their replacement by Fancy at the organ, the new vicar and his different way of managing the parish. A new generation is taking over. It is a portrait of rural life, of its villages, its professions now disappeared. (tranter, I couldn’t find the translation of the word and when I eventually got the book in translation, I didn’t know what a roulier was)

Hardy celebrates the country life of his childhood, the popular music he probably enjoyed. Four parts, four seasons like the parts of a popular song. When I was reading, I thought about those songs passed on from one generation to the other. Songs for drinking, songs with political aim, love songs, dirty songs, satirical songs. Each country has theirs, so I’m not going to mention the French ones that went to my mind. I also remembered some bucolic songs by Brassens, like Brave Margot or La chasse aux papillons.

In one chapter Hardy pictures a dance at the tranter’s house. It’s vivid and realistic. Instead of describing graceful young women dancing with propriety, he shows joy, frantic dancing, sweat, breathlessness. Men drop their jacket because they’re too hot. Women’s hairs get undone. I bet all these bodily details were frowned upon when the book was published. People of all ages share the dance floor. I could imagine the musicians growing red from playing buoyantly, the fiddlers moving bows with passion, the sound of the music and its pace increasing to get the dancers crazy.

The plot is as simple as a story told in a popular song. That’s why I think it is simple on purpose, it is a way to celebrate common people’s music, to put forward this part of culture that makes a country as much as the “fancy” music listened to in nice salons of the upper classes.

A word about Dick and Fancy, though. The characters aren’t as deep as the ones in other books by Hardy – at least, the ones I’ve read. There were few ironic comments about life in here but I was happy to find again Hardy’s sharp tongue when it came to describing people:

This was addressed to the young man before mentioned, consisting chiefly of a human skeleton and a smock-frock, who was very awkward in his movements, apparently on account of having grown so very fast that before he had had time to get used to his height he was higher.

or

“Hee—hee—ay!” replied Leaf, letting his mouth continue to smile for some time after his mind had done smiling, so that his teeth remained in view as the most conspicuous members of his body.

Fancy sounds vapid while Dick is a good country guy, solid in his body and in his mind. He’s madly in love with her but has enough insight not to imagine her flawless. She’s intelligent, reasons herself and acts sensibly in the end but on instinct, she’s rather shallow. Dick, young and in love looks at married people through the eyes of young love:

Dick wondered how it was that when people were married they could be so blind to romance; and was quite certain that if he ever took to wife that dear impossible Fancy, he and she would never be so dreadfully practical and undemonstrative of the Passion as his father and mother were. The most extraordinary thing was, that all the fathers and mothers he knew were just as undemonstrative as his own.

Who, as a teenager, has never thought about married couples that way?

I wasn’t able to read Under the Greenwood Tree in English. I started but after a while, I thought I spent so much energy on the language that I wasn’t fully enjoying the atmosphere and the plot. So I read it in French, in a new translation published in 2011. A delight. I wish that the translator, Bernard Tourres read my billet. I thank him for translating this novel so well. He managed to give back the dialect, looking for equivalent words in French patois, like boisson for water-cider. In my French copy, the villagers don’t speak proper French, just as they don’t speak proper English in the original. It sounds like Hardy, it’s excellent.

Do I recommend this book? Not for the psychological development of the characters, not for the plot. I recommend it for Hardy’s ability to describe the country, the people, the customs and the music and for bringing to life a way of living often neglected in literature. One more quote, pour la route:

It was a morning of the latter summer-time; a morning of lingering dews, when the grass is never dry in the shade. Fuchsias and dahlias were laden till eleven o’clock with small drops and dashes of water, changing the colour of their sparkle at every movement of the air; and elsewhere hanging on twigs like small silver fruit. The threads of garden spiders appeared thick and polished. In the dry and sunny places, dozens of long-legged crane-flies whizzed off the grass at every step the passer took.

Lovely, isn’t it?

Incidentally, Max from Pechorin’s Journal read it at the same time as me. You can read his thoughtful review here.

Desperate Remedies by Thomas Hardy

January 5, 2012 18 comments

Desperate Remedies by Thomas Hardy. First published in 1871.  It is out of print in French but used copies are available.

But loving is not done by months, or method, or rule, or nobody would ever have invented such a phrase as “falling in love.”

Desperate Remedies is my third Hardy in twelve months. I’m now reading them in chronological order and this one has been published in 1871. I read the 1896 edition, reviewed by the author. According to his foreword, he mostly changed names of places to be consistent with his other works and create a plausible Wessex.

The first chapter takes place in 1835-1836. The young Anbrose Graye stays in London with a friend and falls in love with Cytherea Bradleigh. When he makes his love known, she refuses him for no understandable reason. Although Ambrose will marry and have two children, he will never forget her. His daughter is named after his lost love and his children Owen and Cytherea know about his first love story.

Then we move forward. Mrs Graye passes away in 1861 and Ambrose Graye dies in an accident in 1863. His children discover he poorly managed his fortune and that they are left without resources. Owen is a learning architect and they move away to Budmouth Regis where Owen has found a temporary position at an architect’ office. Cytherea is resolved become a companion or a maid and advertises to find employment.

Edward Springrove works in the same office as Owen and soon the two men befriend. Edward and Cytherea fall in love and he moves to London to make a career and be able to support a family. When Edward leaves, the reader knows he has a secret which may prevent him from marrying Cytherea. Meanwhile Cytherea is hired as a maid by Miss Aldclyffe in Knapwater House. Miss Aldclyffe hires her on a whim despite her lack of references. She has an instable temper,

Like Nature in the tropics, with her hurricanes and the subsequent luxuriant vegetation effacing their ravages, Miss Aldclyffe compensated for her outbursts by excess of generosity afterwards.

Cytherea isn’t quite at ease with her, living in the fear of her outbursts. Cytherea soon discovers that Miss Aldclyffe is actually Cytherea Bradleigh. The older woman recognizes the daughter of her former lover in her young companion. Both women know they are linked by Ambrose Graye but they don’t mention it. Then with no apparent reason, Miss Aldclyffe intrigues to hire Mr Manston as her steward. She pushes Cytherea in his arms while doing everything to erase in her any memory of Edward Springrove. We know that a secret bond ties Miss Aldclyffe and Mr Manston. She’s fond of him and he has some sort of power over her. What is that secret? Things get complicated for the pretty Cytherea when Mr Manston falls madly in love with her and when she discovers that Edward has been engaged to his cousin Adelaide for years.

The novel is full of twists and turns, unlikely Victorian coincidences, secrets and passion. I totally fell for it. The last third of the story is particularly suspenseful and I didn’t expect it in a novel by Hardy. It was a great read, recreating, well-written and with the right dose of thoughtful visions of humanity.

It’s not without flaws though. I could feel Hardy was at his beginnings. His talent isn’t fully developed, especially in characters descriptions. But the roots of his future masterpieces are already there: the subtle irony (She was, at the distance from which they surveyed her, an attractive woman (…). But to a close observer it was palpable enough that God did not do all the picture.), the little statements on life (A great statesman thinks several times, and acts; a young lady acts, and thinks several times.), the exploration of human flaws and especially the impact of passionate characters on their life and the poetry of some descriptions. (Their hearts could hardly believe the evidence of their lips.)

In addition, I recognized elements I’d already noticed in The Mayor of Casterbridge and Life’s Little Ironies: the power of music that carries someone away and results in an impulsive and stupid move, the importance of a tiny decision in sealing a future, sex and desire (Concentrated essence of woman pervaded the room rather than air.) in a society where it was improper for a man to give his chair to a woman because she’d feel his body warmth on it.

I thought the author put something of himself in Edward Springrove, relaying his thoughts in the character’s mind (I often think, that before I am ready to live, it will be time for me to die.) and making fun of his own ambitions as a poet:

Poetical days are getting past with me, according to the usual rule. Writing rhymes is a stage people of my sort pass through, as they pass through the stage of shaving for a beard, or thinking they are ill-used, or saying there’s nothing in the world worth living for.’ ‘Then the difference between a common man and a recognized poet is, that one has been deluded, and cured of his delusion, and the other continues deluded all his days.’

He also employs self-irony and slightly mocks the strings he pulls to move the plot forward.

Whether, as old critics disputed, a supernatural machinery be necessary to an epic or no, an ungodly machinery is decidedly necessary to a scandal.

As always, I enjoyed Hardy’s insight and hindsight. All these little sentences spread in the text change a banal page-turner into a great novel. Highly recommended except if you have a strong allergy to coincidences and secrets. My next Hardy will be Under a Greenwood Tree.

 

The Mayor of Casterbridge: Lost in translation

June 13, 2011 18 comments

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy. 1886.

I didn’t plan to write a whole post about the French translation of The Mayor of Casterbridge but there were so many things to say that it couldn’t be included in the review. I’ve read The Mayor of Casterbridge partly in French and partly in English. I was settled to read it in French but I soon had doubt about the translation. So I downloaded the English original and discovered it wasn’t that difficult to read. Then I switched from one language to the other depending on how lazy or tired I was.

The Mayor of Casterbridge has been translated into French in 1922 by Philippe Neel. There is no recent translation and the book is out-of-print in paperback. It’s strange; usually it’s easy to get English classics in French. Though the translation isn’t outdated in the vocabulary, it belongs to those old translations where first names are translated (Michael Henchard thus became Michel, Susan became Suzanne) and names of places too. (Mixen Lane became La rue du Fumier, Peter’s Finger, le Doigt-de-Pierre and The Three Sailors, Les Trois Matelots). I really don’t like when the translator changes first names but for places, it’s convenient sometimes.

Other things were mysterious in this translation: the months and days of the week had capital letters, like in English but unlike the usual French. Il viendrait Dimanche ou Lundi : is that correct in French? When there were French words in the text, it wasn’t mentioned in the translation, like here:

Sérieusement mon ami, je ne suis pas si folle que ces lignes pourraient vous le faire croire. Seriously, mon ami, I am not so light-hearted as I may seem to be from this.

 Or here,

Ma conscience m’a fait impérieusement sentir la nécessité de vous prier de tenir votre promesse et de dissiper ainsi la brume que mon étourderie a amassée autour de mon nom. I ought to endeavour to disperse the shade which my etourderie flung over my name, by asking you to carry out your promise to me.

I regretted that Philippe Neel didn’t manage to translate the description of Henchard’s face: “The rich rouge-et-noir of his countenance underwent a slight change.” is translated into “Le visage coloré d’Henchard pâlit légèrement”. So many things are lost in this translation: the French words, the reference to Le Rouge et le Noir by Stendhal (The Red and the Black), and the real colour of his face. The reference to The Red and the Black is important. Hardy uses the image twice (Here his red and black visage kindled with satisfaction) and I don’t think it is a coincidence. There is a likeness between Henchard and Julien Sorel: they are driven by passion and pride. Their relationships with women are crucial in their fate and yet, in spite of them, as they are no womanizers. It would be really interesting to search for the parallels in their destinies but it’s not the point here. However, I liked Henchard better than the deceitful Julien Sorel.

But the major flaw is that the translation fails to give back the accents and some of Hardy’s images. The accents and the patois are why I chose to read Hardy in French, fearing it would be hard to understand for a non-native English speaker. Here is Farfrae talking to Henchard:  

« Oui, mais il n’y a rien à faire » constata l’autre sur un ton de philosophie résignée.. « Il faut écrire à Jersey, et dire nettement et explicitement à cette jeune personne que vous ne pouvez plus l’épouser, puisque votre première femme est de retour ; et que vous ne pouvez plus la revoir… et que vous lui souhaitez d’être heureuse » “Ah, well, it cannet be helped!” said the other, with philosophic woefulness. “You mun write to the young lady, and in your letter you must put it plain and honest that it turns out she cannet be your wife, the first having come back; that ye cannet see her more; and that—ye wish her weel.”

In French, the accent is gone. Farfrae speaks perfect French. Of course, it’s impossible to translate literally the English accent but a “Y faut” instead of “Il faut” or “qu’vous” instead of “que vous” would have let the French reader taste Farfrae’s language. In the original, I noticed two different types of accents/patois, the one coming from geography and the ones coming from social classes. In the English, it is clear that Farfrae (Scottish) and Henchard (English) don’t speak the same way. It’s inaudible in the translation. The difference of accents according to social classes is more commonly used in English literature than in French. Inaudible in French too.

Sometimes the translation betrays the original image. When Hardy writes “She started the pen in an elephantine march across the sheet”, it isn’t flattering for Elizabeth-Jane’s handwriting. When the translator writes La plume parcourait le papier en une marche majestueuse, which literally means The pen ran on the paper like in a majestic march, I think he betrays Hardy’s idea. Elephantine is negative whereas majestic isn’t. Traduttore, traditore.

As always I wonder if there are generally accepted rules for translators about translating names or not, about indicating the foreign words in the text… As always this kind of experience only reinforces my will to improve my English and read the original texts. I also wonder why this wonderful novel doesn’t have a more recent translation. I think it deserves one. I’ve seen that a new edition of The Woodlanders has been released in 2009. Hopefully it’s a new translation.

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.

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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