Thomas Hardy is best known for novels and poems but was also one of England's best short story writers. Besides mastering the form itself, Hardy used short stories as a training ground for themes and plot devices that often ended up in the novels, making them all the more interesting for fans and scholars. This has nine stories spread over about 350 pages - about a sixth of his total -, including some of his best and best-known. The selection is strong and representative, proceeding chronologically from Hardy's first published story until 1888's Wessex Tales, his first collection. Fans of the novels will certainly want these, but whether they will want this collection is an open question, as most of the stories are widely available. One plus is that it has two - "Destiny and a Blue Cloak" and "The Thieves Who Couldn't Help Sneezing" that are hard to find. They are very early and minor, but fans will certainly appreciate them. Perhaps more importantly, there is a wealth of bonus material: a general introduction stating the purpose of this Penguin Hardy series; a Hardy chronology; a map of Hardy's fictional Wessex; a scholarly introduction with substantial background on the stories and some critical analysis; suggestions for further reading; a history of the texts; detailed endnotes; a history of Hardy short stories; the original illustrations; and a glossary illuminating the heavy use of dialect and other unusual words. Those wanting more stories must of course look elsewhere, but one would have to search very hard for one of comparable length with as much bonus material. One oddity is that, in contrast to nearly all editions, the texts are from first volume publication rather than final edits. This may deter some, but hard-cores and scholars will probably welcome the distinction, and the notes in any event detail changes.
The stories vary in quality and significance. "Destiny" is Hardy's first real published story and is in many ways the blueprint for not only later short stories but much of his other work. Like more famous work, it has a female protagonist and focuses on forbidden love, but it is truly remarkable how many themes and philosophical concerns later fleshed out are already here. Hardy's interest in fate, chance, irony, and the universe's profound indifference toward humanity are on clear display. Much of the characterization and strong sense of place he became known for are also present. So is Hardy's penchant for complex plots; it is near-astonishing how much he could pack into a short work. This is also a good example of how he used shorts to test elements for novels, as he reused the major plot twist in his novel The Hand of Ethelberta. "Destiny" may lack the grand, tragic sweep of Hardy's best work but certainly has it in embryo; this would be one of most writers' best pieces.
A children's story with an obvious moral and some humor, "The Thieves" is probably the most light-hearted work from a writer synonymous with dark ones. It has little in common with his other fiction and is almost certainly his least significant, but fans will still enjoy it, and those who do not normally like Hardy may well appreciate the interesting variation on a standard template.
"The Distracted Preacher" is one of Hardy's best shorts. The profound sense of place so prevalent in the novels is here in strong force, as he makes the rural coastal setting seem to truly come alive. The plot is also one of his most conventionally exciting, full of mystery and suspense involving the smuggling trade he had heard much about from relatives. The story explores several characteristic major themes; for example, it has perhaps Hardy's subtlest and most ambiguous depiction of rural poverty's consequences and variously examines his lifelong interest in religion and preachers. Many of his views were far ahead of his time, as this dramatization clearly shows. The preacher's conventional morality is contrasted with bold practicality, implicitly questioning much that Victorians took for granted. The ending made it seem palatable but now comes off as distinctly pat, especially to those aware of Hardy's true sympathies. He later admitted that he felt pressured to make it conventional in order to be published and described his far more appropriate chosen ending, thankfully given in the notes.
"Fellow-Townsmen" is probably Hardy's short masterpiece, great enough to justify purchasing the book for it alone. Though only fifty pages, it has the characterization, plot complexity, and thematic depth of most novels and reads much like one. Fans will indeed see several similarities to various Hardy novels, as this vein is so rich he drew on it more than once. Remarkably for such a short work, the story has some of his most memorable characters and scenes. There is a tone of intense drama throughout, and this is one of Hardy's most emotional works - which truly says much. More importantly and notably, Hardy's concern with fate and coincidence so melodramatically ironic that it seems malevolent is at full strength. The story abounds with missed opportunities and regrets, showing the dark sides of love and the human condition. The grand, sweeping feel of immense tragedy that pervades his greatest novels is here, and the town's vivid portrayal is on par with better-known settings. Simply put, the work's greatness is such that Hardy would have to be called a great writer of short stories even if this were his only one.
"The Three Strangers" is likely Hardy's most famous short story, so popular that he turned it into a one-act play decades later. However, I do not think it is one of his best and regret that it overshadows greater work. It is enjoyable to be sure - deftly plotted and superbly executed - but lacks the vibrant dramatization of weighty themes that characterizes his best work, relying primarily on a clever plot twist. Still, the opening has some of Hardy's most unforgettable prose, the suspense is unusually high, and the plot can perhaps be seen as a more conventionally exciting depiction of his central concerns. This is another that those who do not usually like Hardy may especially enjoy.
"The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid" is of novella length, another great work and one that probably influenced the novels more than any other short story. It is in many ways a prototype for Tess of the D'Urbervilles and the contemporaneous short stories in A Group of Noble Dames, not least in its female protagonist. Hardy portrays farm labor's harsh reality with stunning realism, and the contrast with rich society life is movingly striking. However, the story also has obvious fairy tale elements; this combination and the intermediate length make it unique. It is on one level among Hardy's most affecting and thought-provoking rural poverty depictions, but there are many other dark elements. Its portrayal of love as an essentially self-destructive force leading to hopeless obsession anticipates his late novelistic masterpieces, and the ambiguous Baron is one of Hardy's most fascinating characters. He is in one sense a hedonistic creature of almost pure, even archetypal, evil like Desperate Remedies' Aeneas Manston or Tess' Alec D'Urberville, yet deep melancholy and a tragic nature make him sympathetic. The plot is deliberately one of Hardy's least realistic, but the symbolism - not least in regard to class issues - inherent in his encounters with the milkmaid is patent, and the tackling of higher themes is well-executed. Like Paula Power in A Laodicean, the Baron's nature is essentially ambivalent, and so is the story's conclusion. Hardy later significantly revised it, but this tantalizing yet undeniably appealing quality remained. This is in many ways one of his most subtly complex works and also one of his most overlooked.
"Interlopers at the Knap" is a minor story covering very familiar Hardy territory, but an exquisitely drawn setting and fine characterization make it very readable. We get yet another sympathetic heroine, and the story makes a push for female independence in an area where they had little. Regret and missed opportunities are again ubiquitous, though the plot and conclusion are less dark than many other works', and the strong protagonist's ironclad will recalls more famous Hardy female leads. In contrast to prior works like Far from the Madding Crowd, though, the ending does not bow to convention, making this a near-inversion of typical Victorian courtship stories and thus more interesting and complex than it may first seem.
"The Waiting Supper" is far more substantial - indeed, a near-masterpiece. Many elements again recall other works, but this wayward love is so movingly and believably depicted that the story is one of Hardy's most pathos-drenched. Place and characterization are superb as always, and the plot is one of the most adventurous and suspenseful among Hardy shorts. The story is another ambiguity exercise, particularly the ending, and the depiction of happy marriage as near-unattainable is characteristic of later Hardy fiction. This is a work that first seems conceived only to bring tears - which it likely will -, but the ambivalent conclusion is quite thought-provoking. "The Waiting" again essentially inverts the Victorian love template, but Hardy lets us decide if the ambivalent outcome is the best possibility.
"The Withered Arm" rivals "Fellow-Townsmen" as Hardy's best short work; though lacking the latter's novelistic sweep, it is more tightly written and thus a better success in pure short story terms. This may even be Hardy's most superbly plotted and masterfully executed tale of all; the mysterious and foreboding threads coalesce in a dark, seemingly inevitable ending exemplifying Hardy's cruel fate twists. It does not take on grand concerns to the extent most of his best work does but is in many ways one of his bleakest stories; its vision of humanity headed toward a tragic end with little or no control over events is unforgettable. Hardy's best novels are replete with such drama, but no prior short story conveyed it so fully or well. "The Withered" is also an appropriate close for the book, being in many ways the culmination of Hardy's fiction to that point. It is one of his few works to have central scenes in both Casterbridge - the largest town in Wessex - and the surrounding countryside, while the cast of milkmaids, hanging judges, wronged women, and nervous new wives seems to have stepped out of a myriad Hardy stories. Not least interestingly, though much of Hardy's work is steeped in rural Southwest England folklore, this is virtually his only fiction with a strong supernatural element. His editor and friend Leslie Stephen criticized the element's ambiguity, saying he was unsure whether to believe or not, but this was surely Hardy's point; he again lets us judge. Far more important in any case are the dark forces at the story's heart - forces that soon dominated the little fiction he had left to write.
This brings up one of the book's most important virtues - it leads to other Hardy fiction, particularly his overlooked short works. Readers must choose how they want to read the stories, but they should certainly be read. Though less important and acclaimed than his novels, they are an essential part of his genius and will delight fans of the longer works.