on 26 September 2013
Thomas Hardy: The World of His Novels (Frances Lincoln, 2013) is the latest in a long line of captivating books Barrie Bullen has written and edited in the last thirty years on nineteenth-century literature and culture. The book is exquisitely crafted and its material presence enhances the reading experience by supporting the central argument: that the world Hardy created in his work, the `dream country' of Wessex, is the result of a fine process of artistic transformation, where real places and experiences are recorded, recalled, distilled and modified to become essential elements in the narratives of the novels and in the fabric of the poems.
The book is issued in hard covers bound in sage-green cloth with gilt lettering on the spine. The text block is encased between two copies of the Map of the Wessex of the Novels and Poems printed on the end papers, which re-enacts visually the metaphor of defining and exploring Wessex. The headband, chapter headings and text on the dust jacket flaps match the cloth, in a lighter shade of sage, adding to the sense of distinct identity. The front of the dust jacket is entirely taken by J. A. Grimshaw's picture of The Timber Waggon (c. 1870-90), an eerie interplay of light and shadow in greenish sepia hues. The picture is aptly set with no borders, so the world it presents appears contiguous with ours. This makes it even easier to succumb to the illusion of being physically drawn into the picture towards the point where the perspective lines meet, to accompany the `woodlander' and his waggon deep into the hills, between the moonlight filtered through the night forest mist and its reflection on road and river. The couloirs described by the reflected light are literally sign-posted `The World of [Hardy's] Novels,' as the subtitle sits just above the line where these two access ways disappear into the hills. From the back of the jacket a mature Hardy looks straight out, into a scene his gaze locates just beyond our left shoulder; the intensity of his gaze bestows the weight of reality unto the surveyed scene. The title page photograph of an older Hardy, this time contemplating an inner scene in front of two poppy plants with vigorous seed heads - full of illusions, as it were - complements the cover portrait, pointing to the imaginative transformations out of which Hardy's `dream land' was born.
The seven chapters of the book address six of Hardy's best known novels, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Woodlanders, Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, and some of his poems, mostly written after the death of his first wife. As each chapter unfolds, Bullen traces the transformation of real places and personal experiences into the `settings' of Hardy's work, and shows how the various aspects of the lovingly constructed Wessex intertwine with the nature and actions of characters, lending symbolic meaning to the narrative. Thus, for example, the great barn where the sheep shearing scene takes place in Far from the Madding Crowd is much more than the Cerne Abbas barn relocated to fictional Weatherbury. It brings together several symbolic strands, uniting `ancient and modern, architecture and rural life' (p. 34) in its fullness, vigour and harmony with the seasonal cycles. In The Return of the Native the darkness and loneliness of Egdon Heath indicate more than Eustacia's sense of entrapment. The gaunt natural beauty of the heath encapsulates in its sombreness the condition of a god-forsaken humanity. Consequently, Eustacia's death appears rooted in her failure to recognise that Egdon is also symbolic of her own darker side. In his new reading of Tess, Bullen identifies the heroine's final resting place on the Sacrifice stone at Stonehenge as an apotheotic rather than an elegiac metaphor for the end of human life brought about by blind, senseless fate. Hardy punctuates the trajectory of Tess's development with references to the sun and to ancient, pre-Christian sun-worship rites. Tess is governed by natural instincts too primaevally strong and `pure' to be accounted for within the framework of Victorian morality. At Stonehenge Tess leaves behind the `angelic', and therefore weak, flawed and ultimately false Apollo, Angel Clare, whose name connotes the narrowness of Christianity and the illusion of enlightenment. Here she finds her `true pagan resting place' and becomes the focal point in the final re-enactment of the broader thematic battle between light and darkness (p. 178).
Thomas Hardy: The World of His Novels is a book as much about the Wessex hills, valleys, heaths, people and their ways, as it is about the nature of Hardy's imagination. For Hardy, `art was "a changing of the actual proportions and order of things" to reflect "the idiosyncrasy of the artist"' (p. 236). In this new book Bullen gives an impeccably researched account of the `things' and `changes', and accompanies it with refreshing insights into the `idiosyncrasy of the artist' - in a series of explorations seeking to reveal the alchemy by which Hardy gave form to what he called `the poetry of a scene' and made it express both the universality of human joys and sorrows, and the `intellectual ache of modernism' (pp. 236-37).