I do not give away any details of the plot in this review of the Penguin Classics edition. This edition comprises the original three-volume version of 1878; the work had previously been published in twelve monthly instalments in `The Belgravia' magazine in the same year. (Hardy regularly made changes to his texts in subsequent editions.) The Penguin Classics set tries to use the original text, "to present each novel as the creation of its own period and without revisions of later times."
I've read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Mann and Zweig, Conrad and Trollope, but this is the first time I have read any work of Thomas Hardy. And this was inspired by a Christmas holiday in Dorset close to where Hardy wrote the novel and close too to many of the places in which it is set. (A friend spent much of his childhood living at the Silent Woman Inn on the heath road between Wareham and Bere Regis.) And I must say how impressed I was with the first chapter. Here's an example therefrom of Hardy's descriptive powers:
"To recline on a stump of thorn in the central valley of Egdon, between afternoon and night, as now, where the eye could reach nothing of the world outside the summits and shoulders of heathland which filled the whole circumference of its glance, and to know that everything around and underneath had been from prehistoric times as unaltered as the stars overhead, gave ballast to the mind adrift on change, and harassed by the irrepressible New."
The story is of three men and two women circling each other in a dance of fate and circumstance in rural Dorset. At some points, for example Book 2, chapter 7, it has vestiges of a farce, but I cannot comment as to whether this was Hardy's intention. Sure, there is tragedy here, even - as one commentator argues (see below) - Greek tragedy, but there is some dry Austenesque humour too within these pages.
As with Conrad, I found one has to adapt to reading Hardy. His excellent use of language is not everyday. There are persistent references to biblical, classical, or Renaissance persons and deeds, which presumably meant much to the Victorian reader, but which count for little today. Alas, some extended pieces can become longueurs and some combinations of words grate to the modern mind: "spasmodic abandonment", anyone? He can also be abstruse: "His features were attractive in the light of symbols, as sounds intrinsically common become attractive in language, and as shapes intrinsically simple become interesting in writing."
But there is much glorious writing in this novel too and vividly strong and realistic characterisations of all the main players. This enabled the narrative to move this reader almost to tears on at least two occasions, despite the contrivances of the plot. And it is the narrative plot that is the book's weakest element: too often it cannot carry the burden of its intended direction - a reason, perhaps, for why there has been a lack of film or television adaptations of the book. (And yet Dickens's plots too can suffer from this malady.)
This Penguin edition's sixteen-page introduction by Penny Boumelha - and, as with all `introductions' to classic works, this should be read AFTER the work - digs deep into the novel's workings. She sees it as a novel about failure: "the book seems repeatedly, almost obsessively, focussed on the gap between what its characters want and attempt, and what the world in which they live in will allow." She also cleverly remarks how the returning native becomes ever more isolated as the novel progresses, so that at the end he is virtually blind and withdrawn from society, whereas the journey of Venn the reddleman is the opposite.
On the use and meaning of Hardy's biblical, classical, and Renaissance allusions in the text, Boumelha argues that they underline Clym's quasi-Oedipus status; that "the allusions seek to demand for this realist text and this society of agricultural labourers something of the dignity and grandeur that legendary heroes and tragic forms might be thought to have."
I cannot say that I found Tony Slade's notes in this Penguin edition of particular use, nor his references to Hardy's later emendations of the text. Indeed, often they gave away later details of the plot. But the edition's two appendices are of interest. The first demonstrates the personal reverberations between Hardy's life and his words, that the novel "is something other than a detached historical novel"; the second looks at the original illustrations used for the story's serialisation and Hardy's own map of Egdon Heath. A glossary explaining local rustic terms ends this volume.
So, having read one Hardy novel and enjoyed the experience, I am tempted to move on to another ... but which one?