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My new favourite Hardy
on 29 July 2008
The other Hardy novels I've read, Return of the Native and Tess of the d'Urbervilles, centre around exotic, sensual women who stand out like a sore thumb in their community. Grace Melbury is no such heroine - she's more real. Instead of heaping superlatives on her, Hardy tells us early on that she looks completely unremarkable and that "what people therefore saw of her in a cursory view was very little; in truth, mainly something that was not she". She's a cautious, intelligent but sometimes naive girl, who's been alienated from her rustic roots through the faraway education and travels that her proud father insisted upon for his only, adored child. There's nothing innately special about Grace, but she bears her unwanted position gracefully. Then suddenly, she finds herself in a situation where resignation and grace are not enough. She takes responsibility for her actions, rebels and finds her passions. And then, in the end, she makes the best of her lot in an unexpected way. She's no idol, but a woman we can sympathise with, who finds she has to make tough choices and sacrifices as she grows up.
Typically, there is no neat happy ending. The book is filled with images of unilateral taking and longing. Each character aspires to someone 'superior'. Felice Charmond, the lady of the manor at the top of the scale, doesn't even know what she wants, as long as it will stave off her boredom for a few hours. She lives a rootless, vain life, involving herself in Little Hintock only to exploit it. Nobody has much to call their own - it's life for rent. Marty's hair, the life-hold cottages which must revert back to Mrs. Charmond, even the villager's own dying bodies which Fitzpiers tries to buy for scientific experiments. For me, it underlined the unfair lot of those who are tied to the land and held in contempt by their so-called betters. Considering the ill effects of Grace's 'over-education', Mrs. Charmond's ennui and Fitzpier's dissatisfaction and dilletantism in abstract philiosophy, I think Hardy felt that closeness to nature and a simple, focused life were the best way to happiness and integrity.
I also found The Woodlanders quite daring in its relative openness about sex and divorce. However, the more dramatic, emotional parts of the novel only really kick in after half-way through. I would still reccommend sticking with it in the slow first half, and absorbing the overlooked sadness of Marty South and the hapless, noble Giles, as well as the woodland atmosphere.
The witty side of this book needs to be spoken up for, too. It really isn't a misery-fest - several times I laughed, and not just in compartmentalised "rustic" parts, either. Unlike perhaps in Return of the Native, the main characters are not godly creatures living out their destiny on a superior plane, but are gently poked fun at every now and again. Giles' party and the man-trap incident spring to mind.
It is also beautifully written and I found it a little more immediately accessible than 'Native' and 'Tess'. It's not too long either, at 305 pages. I would definitely recommend it for somebody wishing to try Hardy out - after all, it was his own favourite!