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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
In 1896, following more than 20 years as one of the most popular and most criticized novelists in England, Thomas Hardy announced that he would not write another novel as long as he lived. He kept his word. He refused to give in to critics who had attacked his works as being overly pessimistic and peopled with immoral characters.
Looking back at Hardy's novels today, it is hard to imagine that they sparked such violent responses from Victorian critics. Yet the attacks on Hardy's last two major novels, Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, were particularly fierce. Many libraries banned Jude from their shelves, and one bishop announced that the book was so indecent that he had thrown it into a fire. Hardy responded that the bishop had probably burned the book because he couldn't burn its author.
From his appearance and personality, Thomas Hardy would seem an unlikely man to provoke such controversy. He was small, quiet, and shy. He was a country person rather than a city person, and the characters of his novels have a realistic, earthy quality about them.
Hardy spent only a small part of his life in London. Instead, he built a house in Dorchester, not far from his birthplace in Upper Bockhampton. While the house was being built, Hardy and his wife lived in Dorchester, and there he wrote The Mayor of Casterbridge. Dorchester is clearly the model for Casterbridge. The careful descriptions of the buildings and roads of Casterbridge in the novel are a product of Hardy's many walks through Dorchester.
Nearly all of Hardy's important novels and stories are set in the agricultural areas or towns of Dorset in Southwest England near Dorchester, the region Hardy called "Wessex." This was the area in which he grew up in the mid-1800s. In Hardy's time, Dorset was still a rural and unsophisticated area inhabited by rustic and superstitious people.
For Hardy, Wessex was an ideal location for him to present a world in which nature plays a key role, people work hard for their living, and fate has a strong hold over human life. Hardy's series of works set in the area are known as the "Wessex Novels." Some of the best known of these Wessex novels are: Far from the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, and The Mayor of Casterbridge.
The Mayor of Casterbridge is the least typical of these novels because of its focus on town rather than rural life and because of the concentration on one character. Yet Casterbridge is clearly a Wessex town, caught in the past and just awakening to nineteenth-century social change. And Michael Henchard is certainly a Wessex character, attempting to deal with his fate.
Hardy was born in Upper Bockhampton on June 2, 1840, and wrote most of his important novels between 1870 and 1895. Yet, as in many of his novels, the action of The Mayor of Casterbridge occurs between the years 1830 and 1850. During Hardy's lifetime, British cities were growing and England was rapidly becoming industrialized. However, he chose to write about the rural, preindustrial England of his father's era.
Why did Hardy concentrate on the past? There are several possible reasons. For one thing, he was concerned more with rural than urban customs. England of the 1830s and 1840s was a simpler place in which to live than England of the 1880s. Hardy was not a social critic like Charles Dickens. He wasn't out to change the way people of his time lived. Instead, he wanted to show that important elements of human life are timeless. He once said that what is essential in life is that which is repeated. By linking the past and the present in his novels, he hoped to demonstrate those aspects of human morality that are repeated in generation after generation. By looking at life in a nonindustrial setting rather than in a complicated city, he could view the essential elements of human existence.
Hardy's father was a master mason, which meant the Hardy family was middle class. At age 16, Hardy was apprenticed to an architect whose specialty was the restoration of churches. During his apprenticeship, Hardy developed a greater respect for the simplicities of country life and its traditional institutions and architecture. This appreciation is obvious in the careful descriptions of architectural structures in The Mayor of Casterbridge.
When he was 22, Hardy left Dorchester for London. There he began writing essays and poetry, studying Greek tragedy, and reading modern philosophy. He stayed in London for four years but was never really happy there. In 1867, he returned home to continue restoring churches and to begin his literary career in earnest. His first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, was never published but played an important part in Hardy's career nevertheless. It satirized the trivial nature of London life in contrast with the simple honesty of the country. George Meredith, a major writer of the period, didn't like the book very much and suggested that Hardy give up satire and write more popular, well-plotted novels. Hardy took Meredith's advice. His next novel, Desperate Remedies, was published in 1871 and was only a modest success. But Hardy soon followed with the first three Wessex novels. The third, Far from the Madding Crowd, earned Hardy fame and enough money to marry and become a full-time writer.
Between 1871 and 1897, Hardy published 14 novels and three volumes of short stories. The novels became progressively darker and more pessimistic over time as Hardy showed characters increasingly dominated by fate and by guilt over their misdeeds. Far from the Madding Crowd (an early novel) ends on a happy note, with Bathsheba finally marrying the right man, Gabriel Oak. The Mayor of Casterbridge (a middle novel) ends on a calm note, with Elizabeth-Jane marrying Farfrae and living a peaceful, if dull, life. Jude the Obscure (his last important novel) ends on a totally bleak note, with Jude Fawley's life completely shattered.
Hardy's work was very popular, but it was also often attacked by critics. They were shocked by the earthiness of some of the characters and by the sense of hopelessness within the environment. Hardy found himself having to change some of his characterizations or some of the scenes in his novels in order to please publishers of magazines serializing his works, his readers, or his critics. Making these changes annoyed him. Finally, when the criticism became too intense, he chose to stop writing novels entirely. From 1897 until his death on January 11, 1928, in Dorchester, Hardy wrote poetry and stories exclusively. He published more than 800 poems, the most famous of which was The Dynasts, a long epic poem about the Napoleonic Wars.
Hardy also had a severe critic inside his own home- his wife. Emma Hardy was the niece of an archdeacon in the church of England. As such, she considered herself socially superior to her husband. At first their marriage was happy, but it deteriorated. For one thing, she never liked living in Dorchester and wanted to stay in London. She was also ambitious and wanted Hardy to be more ambitious as well. Some readers wonder if Hardy's pessimistic outlook in his novels may have been influenced by his unhappy marriage.
Hardy may have felt strong links to the past but he was also a writer of his time. Like many Victorian writers, Hardy was troubled by a dwindling of his religious faith. He had carefully read the writings of Charles Darwin and other scientists and had lost some of his belief that a controlling force governed the universe. This loss of faith is reflected in the bleakness of the landscape in Wessex and the harshness of the fate that plagues many of Hardy's major characters.
Hardy's novels also reflect Victorian realism. They are filled not with knights and other Romantic characters, but with real people encountering their own weaknesses and trials. Yet for all their realism, there is also a certain sensational quality in Hardy's novels. Most of his books were serialized in magazines before being published as books. Magazine readers demanded a carefully developed plot and at least one major event, such as a crime, murder, seduction, or desertion, in every episode. Hardy was sometimes annoyed by having to "overplot" his books, but he didn't really care that much in the long run. He felt that his novel writing was "mere journeywork" and not art. He reserved his true artistry for his poetry.
Hardy's novels are still popular today largely because of their qualities and themes that seem particularly modern. It was these themes that caused much of Hardy's problems with his critics. His works are deeply psychological, filled with misguided love, and closely concerned with the thoughts and feelings of women. All of Hardy's major works deal with unhappy relationships and several with divorce. Tess (of Tess of the D'Urbervilles) and Jude (of Jude the Obscure) are both seduced by the "wrong" mates. Because of her seduction, Tess becomes the victim of sexual double standards and is deserted by a husband whom we might label a "male chauvinist." Jude's ill-fated marriage fails, and he contemplates suicide. Eustacia Vye (of The Return of the Native) drowns or commits suicide as she attempts to rendezvous with her lover. Michael Henchard (of The Mayor of Casterbridge) deserts his family and can never quite escape the psychological guilt that plagues him throughout the rest of his life. Hardy's critics were shocked by what they regarded as wantonness and pessimism, but most modern readers are more surprised by how contemporary Hardy's themes and characters seem.
The Mayor of Casterbridge brings together all of the elements of Hardy's style, thinking, and background. It is episodic, filled with coincidences and sensational events, yet carefully plotted. Its characters are real people who demonstrate human weaknesses. Fate, rather than God, dominates the environment and directs the action. Architecture and artifacts are carefully examined. Yet this novel, more than any of Hardy's books, deals with the attempt of one human being to control his own life. In that sense, The Mayor of Casterbridge makes the most positive statement about the power of human personality of all of Hardy's work.
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