on 22 August 2009
Loved this book - what a great story showing all the various elements of the human character - greed, love, hate, struggles for power..... I could go on.
It is also a human tragedy, explained at its best by the inimitable Hardy and although it was written many years ago, it does show that human nature remains very much the same as it always was and you could almost put it into a modern setting and alter the scenery a little and it would be up-to-date, so to speak.
All of Hardy's books are great (I was first introduced to them whilst studing for 'O' Levels in the 1950's and have continued to read them again and again since)and although the grammar and syntax are quite dissimilar to that of today they are easy to read and the stories are great.
When I began this book I have to admit that I didn't think the three words I'd be using to describe it would be drama, excitement and intrigue . In fact, I really had no intention of reading this book at all any time soon as a friend of mine had to study it in school as a teenager and told me it's the worst book she's ever read and that had stayed with me and filed into the "don't bother" part of my brain. So then, just before Christmas I saw or heard something about this book and that it was about a man who sells his wife and baby daughter at a fayre and immediately I thought that sounds intriguing and off I popped to pick up a copy. How glad I am that I did - The Mayor of Casterbridge has turned out to be one of my favourite books! I loved it!
Michael Henchard is a young man of twenty-one and walking the countryside of Dorset with his wife, Susan, and their baby girl, Elizabeth-Jane, looking for work. They decide to rest a while in a small village where there is a fayre and several drinks later, Michael starts loudly asking for bidders to buy his wife. After accepting 5 guineas from a sailor he wakes later to realise that they have actually gone and when he realises what he has done he swears not to drink a drop more of alcohol for another 21 years (as long as he has so far lived). He starts to make enquiries about where the sailor and his family may have gone but nobody knows who he is and Michael is too ashamed of his conduct to search too effectively and he sets off on the road once more, alone.
The story then fast-forwards eighteen years and Michael is now the Mayor of Casterbridge (modelled on Dorchester in Dorset). It's difficult to say more about what happens next as I really don't want to give it away - this book is much better read if you know nothing about the characters and what is to come yet as there are plenty of twists and turns along the way. The fuller title for The Mayor of Casterbridge is The Life and Death of a Man of Character, and that is really what this book is based around - Michael Henchard and his fall and rise (and fall again). The main cast of characters is small enough that we really get to know them well and care about them: Susan and Elizabeth-Jane become part of the story again as does a Scottish traveller looking for work, Donald Farfrae and a young lady, Lucetta Templeman, who gets caught up in something that will come back to haunt her in a big way later in the book.
Henchard really is a man of character, as the title suggests, and he is prone to jealousy, impulsiveness and malice but in turn he can be caring, warm and reflective meaning that the reader never hates him, but actually feels for him as he is his own harshest critic. What astounded me was Hardy's understanding of human nature: time and time again I was amazed that he had managed to get it so spot on; to really make me feel as the characters did and understand why they behaved the way they did.
What I really loved about this book, though, was the drama. This is why I love all the Victorian books I have read so far - they're like watching a soap-opera. The Mayor of Casterbridge has it all - love, hate, greed, jealousy, deceit and repentence. And watch out for a scene involving a skimmington-ride (what the Victorians - and those before them - used to do to humiliate people, particularly adulterous women or women who beat their husbands which involved a very rowdy and public parade with effigies of the persons concerned being ridden through town on the back of donkeys) which has extremely tragic consequences.
Verdict: I heart Thomas Hardy! This is the second book of his that I have read (the first being Tess) and I now fully intend to gorge myself on the rest this year. Forget your pre-conceptions about dry and dull Victorian literature - this book has it all! A firm favourite now and one I will definitely read again at some point.
on 29 September 2009
Beginning a Hardy novel is always something of a bittersweet experience. The characters are slowly and carefully introduced, the scene beautifully and evocatively set and quickly you find yourself deeply immersed in nineteenth-century Wessex. And yet, even as you begin to feel yourself almost a part of the story you are filled with a sense of imminent doom. That a protagonist, possibly several, will die, is an absolute given. Hardy's fascination with predestination, whether or not it exists and whether or not, if it does exist, we humans have any agency to influence it, is starkly revealed here. In Michael Henchard he creates a man full of `character', displaying, by turns, impetuosity, reflection , malice, regret, hate and love. If some of these appear contradictory then this is because they are, because such contradictions lie in all people, particularly warm-blooded, instinctive people like Henchard. Yet, despite this, or perhaps because of it he is unable to prevent himself tumbling inexorably towards tragedy.
No clear conclusions about the nature of fate are reached. It is not clear, at least not to me, what Hardy really thought about it, but it is very apparent that he meditated deeply on the subject.
There is much more to this novel besides, the town of Casterbridge, with its Roman ruins, agrarian economy and civic machinations, is brought beautifully to life. Moreover, in addition to Henchard, Hardy introduces us to several other very memorable characters, not least Elizabeth-Jane who is arguably the novel's true hero or heroine. Quietly, solidly she observes, reads and grows until finally she achieves a degree of happiness that is forever denied to most of those around her, including of course Henchard, her unfortunate `father'. Not an easy read by any standards, but the characters and themes in this book are sure to linger with you long after you close the final page
on 6 April 2000
I received this book as a Christmas present along with various other books. I left this one to last because I thought it might be hard going. It turned out to be one of the best books I've ever read, The characters are brilliant, my interest was held the whole way through, and it most definately wasn't a hard read. Now forTess of the D'urbervilles!
on 31 August 2015
I can't deny that the novel is a page-turner. Unlike many Victorian novels which were more slices of life, Hardy always created a strong dramatic core for his novels. Drunkard Michael Henchard sells his wife Susan and infant daughter Elizabeth-Jane at a fair; fast-forward many years and his wife returns with the daughter, who is now a young woman. Henchard has improved his social position considerably as the mayor of Casterbridge but this past action reveals many secrets and causes many twists of fate that will ultimately cause his downfall.
For me, Hardy is at his best when in a romantic mode; even though romance is confined to a subplot, moments such as when Henchard's Scottish protegee Donald Farfrae blows hay off Elizabeth-Jane's shoulder show that Hardy is still the master at subtle eroticism. Romance is far from Henchard's mind; his greatest and most tempestuous love is his patriarchal feelings for Elizabeth-Jane. He is though not too dissimilar to Jude Fawley in that his noble nature is undone by baser actions. I think that Henchard is a much better version of this Hardy archetype; his weaknesses are more human, despite the initial action.
As for female characters, Hardy's speciality, Elizabeth-Jane is a great creation- one of the strongest and sweetest women that Hardy wrote. Lucetta Templeman, whilst she is pitiable in some respects, is irritating in others; Donald Farfrae, Henchard's friend and rival, is ultimately a bit bland. The characters of Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane go some way in compensating for this but I prefer novels like Far From The Madding Crowd, where there is a plethora of interesting multi-layered characters.
I have the Oxford World's Classics edition. The introduction is interesting and raises some interesting objections to standard beliefs about the novel, such as how much fate has to play in Henchard's downfall. Whilst circumstances certainly act agaist him, Henchard's jealousies and temper are ultimately to blame. We see him repeat the same pattern of love, altered by temper but never fully obliterated by it, with multiple characters. This is an interesting change in Hardy's writing; his other characters relate to different characters in different ways but Henchard's relations with people are largely consistent. Psychologically he feels one of the most plausible of Hardy's creations; those who believe Hardy's characters are too much the victims of fate and their own misery/naivety will enjoy the novel. It's easy to forget that a Hardy novel, even if it's not your favourite, is still one of the greatest and most modern pieces of Victorian literature.
on 15 November 2009
I don't know why it has taken me so long to decide to read this book, it is very easy to read and a very good story. I saw the TV mini-series years ago with Alan Bates in the leading role and all the way through the book I imagined Alan Bates as Michael Henchard. It was Alan Bates speaking Michael's lines, that did not put me off in the least since I was always a fan of Alan Bates and he was very well cast in the part.
The story, as most people probably know, starts off about a drunkard who sells his wife and daughter at a country fair to a sailor for five guineas. He then, when sobered up, becomes full of remorse and vows in the nearest church never to touch a drop of alcohol for as long as he has been alive, 21yrs. He keeps his promise, works hard and makes good in the town of Casterbridge becoming a very rich merchant, land owner, and mayor. Of course as time goes by his past catches up with him, and a large part of the story is about his subsequent downfall. We see this so often in public life today, how many so called "pillars of society" do we know, or have heard of, who have ended up in jail? The difference, refreshingly, is that Michael Henchard in that day and age is truly wretched for his misdeeds, and one can't help feeling sympathy for him in the end. His last will and testimony says everything:-
Michael Henchard's Will.
That Elizabeth Jane Farfrae be not told of my death,
or made to grieve on account of me.
& that I be not bury'd in consecrated ground.
& that no sexton be asked to toll the bell.
& that nobody is wished to see my dead body.
& that no murners walk behind me at my funeral.
& that no flours be planted on my grave.
& that no man remember me.
To this I put my name
This is a good book to take on holiday with you. It is not depressing (although his Will sounds depressing). Michael Henchard is a spirited unusual character that Thomas Hardy develops to the full. Even though he has done bad things one cheers him on at times and feels that he more than pays his dues for his transgressions. But time does not wash away guilt does it? We have only to turn to the Roman Polanski case at the present time.
Personally I never read the introduction until after I have read the book. I always think introductions spoil things, I prefer afterwords. This introduction is rather long, written in April 2008 by Elliot Perlman, but it is a good summary to read AFTER reading the story.
on 4 July 2008
This for me is Hardy's greatest novel, written at the peak of his career. The character of Henchard, although deeply flawed, nonetheless captures the reader's attention both during and after reading the novel. His journey from young and despondent husband and father, through to his time as the mayor and his eventual demise, prove most gripping. This novel along with Tess, Jude the Obscure and The Return of the Native make up Hardy's tragic Wessex novels, and although all of them are rather sad and to an extent depressing, The Mayor of Casterbridge really does stand out as the most satisfying read that chronicles the shift away from older models of masculinity towards the beginnings of modernity that Hardy himself lived through during his long life. Don't forget about the genius of this man's writing!
on 24 January 2016
This is the well-known story of Michael Henchard, a hay-trusser in early nineteenth century Wessex, who sold his wife and infant daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, at a country fair. He was a drinker, and so appalled was her by his actions that day, that he took a pledge to no longer drink alcohol for another twenty-one years. His wife, Susan, was taken to live in Canada by the sailor who “bought” her – fortunately a kindly man. Henchard went to live in the small roman town of Casterbridge (Dorchester) where he became a leading citizen as a corn merchant and general factor. Susan is widowed and she returns to Dorset, to try to find her erstwhile husband. She succeeds, and “remarries” Henchard and lives with him and their daughter, who is not told about the true state of affairs between her parents. But this is a story by Thomas Hardy, and thus the leading characters will be tested by all that a belligerent fate can throw at them. Henchard takes on Donald Farfrae as his business manager. Farfrae, a Scot, is very efficient and soon reshapes and models Henchard’s business, as well as winning the hearts and mind of the Casterbridge folk. Henchard, who is comparatively uncouth, though not an unkindly man, resents Farfrae’s success and his jealous of his popularity in the town; which matters are made worse when it seems that his Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae are attracted to each other. Susan Henchard dies after an illness and Michael, on looking at his wife’s effects, learns something very surprising about his daughter. Matters come to a head when a newly wealthy young woman comes to stay in Casterbridge – one whom had a former connection with Henchard.
Henchard’s affairs quickly sour as those of Farfrae prosper and Henchard returns to the state of poverty twenty-one years ago when he first came to Casterbridge. All goes wrong for him, and Farfrae becomes the new mayor of the town. While men are agents of their own destruction, as is always the case in Thomas Hardy’s world, fate and chance play a major part in the lives of men, and we sometimes can appear to be put playthings of a godless nature. Another of Hardy’s themes is how the events of the past will never go away, and can catch up with us anytime and cause problems for our current circumstances. The secrets we would best be suppressed will out, just when it is most unsuitable!
on 23 November 2015
This is the first Hardy novel I've completed. I did make a start on Tess D'ubervilles but, though I was enjoying it, for some reason I failed to finish it. I chose to listen to this novel via Audible as I had a bunch of unused credits available and was unimpressed by the books available (largely popular fiction and thrillers/crime titles).
Thomas Hardly was clearly a man with a good handle on psychology. His understanding of human nature is impressive and shows not a lot has changed in many ways. However, much has changed within society and this novel shows how different life was for women in such times. Indeed, the premise of the story relies upon the fact that Henchard's wife, though somewhat simple, believes herself to be the property of her husband and therefore allows herself and her child to be sold to a stranger.
I didn't find Hardy's prose particularly impressive but the old-fashioned style of writing may be partly responsible for my feelings.
Characters are in most cases realistically drawn, but the reader is generally unable to get into their heads which is unfortunate. For the most part people exist only peripherally to enable the plot to continue in the way Hardy wished, although I agree with a previous reviewer that the story unravelled slightly towards the end.
I'm not sure that so many people dying quite so young of what appear to be emotional complaints, rather than physical issues, is particularly plausible. Lucetta's death was explained as epileptic in nature but this is the first we hear of such an illness and the woman is well into adulthood at the time she is taken ill. Elisabeth Jane's mother also seems to die very early in life and tiredness fails to adequately explain this outcome.
End of Spoiler!
Overall I enjoyed the book and will now return to reading Tess D'ubervilles.
on 22 November 2015
On the quiet, I'm a bit of a fan of novels of the late 19th and early 20th century. Thomas Hardy I would imagine needs little introduction to most and I expect that many of those reading this will have come across his work at school. I even liked him then!
Briefly, this is a story of a west country man's fortunes throughout his adult life and we experience his ups and downs. By no means is he a perfect character. But despite having many faults we are still drawn to him, I think because when it really matters, he does the right thing.
Of course a lot has been written about this novel, from the splotchy pens of generations of school children to the typewriters and latterly the computers of professional reviewers and I doubt I could aspire to adding much new. However, I think it's worth noting that Hardy's language in relating this tale is fascinating. Looking at it in the second decade of the 21st century, I find the words and phraseology fascinating. There are words that over time have changed in meaning, some have disappeared from use and phrases that you can discern from their surroundings that you therefore understand and only serve to delight. For this reason, this book is a historical record of a past time, not only in the way that they live, but of the ever changing English language. But even further than that, we learn how the poor were treated with a rudimentary facsimile of a welfare system and also the state of development of the criminal court system in that period.
But above all, I'm sure that Hardy wanted to produce a book that provides entertainment, interest and provokes thought. Through the ages, it has done that and still does.