A novel by Thomas Hardy, published in 1886. The action takes place in and around Casterbridge, Hardy's fictitious name for Dorchester, the county town of Dorset. It tells of the rise and fall of Michael Henchard, a labourer who makes a terrible mistake early on in life, reforms, rises to prosperity and to become the Mayor of Casterbridge, and whose life gradually disintegrates as his past catches up with him.

Normally with a classic novel I assume the story is known to many, and I have no need to warn of spoilers when I mention the mysterious strangers or tragic deaths: and indeed, the surprises in this one are known to the reader long before the characters and town of Casterbridge learn of them. However this is also a finely balanced book. For the most part, there are no things obvious to the reader at the beginning which we can be sure must happen. It unfolds like real events, full of uncertainty of outcomes, even the most desirable, or grimly dreaded. Many things do go as we expect, and seem inevitable, but there are many surprises too.

The great mistake in his early years is to sell his wife, while in drink. Wife sale was a recognised custom, not legal and not approved of, but done, and publicly done: Henchard's suffering wife Sarah has had enough of him, and accepts the sailor Newson's offer to Henchard of five guineas, on the condition that she can also take their infant Elizabeth-Jane. Henchard is neither a bad man nor a drunkard, but flawed enough that he can throw his young wife away like this out of temper. Soon after he regrets it, and swears a solemn oath to abstain from drink for twenty-one years.

Now pass most of those years, and Henchard has worked his way up to affluence and respectability in Casterbridge. He has heard nothing of his former wife and child, nor they of him, until released by news of the sailor's loss at sea Sarah seeks him out once more. She doesn't know what she will do when she finds him, or whether he is well or ill, high or low; but hopes they can get on kindly. Her daughter is a fine young woman, good-looking and unassuming and with other such heroinely virtues. In Casterbridge they make contact, and are both happy to be reconciled. They plan to do some public wooing then contract a second marriage for the eyes of the world.

The complications mount up from this point. For one, Elizabeth-Jane believes the sailor Newson to have been her real father, and neither Michael nor Sarah Henchard has the heart to tell her their sordid secret of the drunken wife sale. Next, Michael had another dalliance in his past, on the island of Jersey, when he was recuperating from illness and a young lady nursed him. It seems to have been fairly innocent (though deciphering nineteenth-century code for degrees of moral transgression can be baffling), but on being known it injured the lady's reputation; so he has a sort of tentative obligation to marry her too, though of course not as strong as the one to be married to his legal wife.

Then there is the Scotchman, a young, vital, honest, impulsive man called Farfrae, romantically pining for his home and charming the ladies, and also being a very sound head at business. He is taken on by Henchard as his manager, and their liking turns to great friendship before souring into rivalry, in which time after time Farfrae gets the better of Henchard. Neither is altogether in the wrong, and they are capable of forgiveness and reconciliation, but the rift becomes deeper. Then when the attractive Jersey lady, now the inheritor of a good fortune, arrives in Casterbridge, the two men become rivals for her too.

The first and second Mrs Henchard has passed away of some form of Victorian Novel Disease, because she was an adulteress even though she didn't realise it at the time; but rules are rules. The new lady, Miss Le Sueur, now Miss Templeman courtesy of her rich relative, is torn between her two suitors. Elizabeth is estranged from her father because of a secret he knows about her but is too pained to tell her -- this sort of thing is a recurring theme --, so goes to live with Miss Templeman as her companion. Alas, the unassuming Elizabeth thought she was the object of Mr Farfrae's budding affection until her new and attractive friend came on the scene; but she is a good girl and swallows her disappointment.

So these are the actors on the stage. It is a beautiful detailed set too, being Hardy: the clothing of the farm labourers, the layout of the streets and market and bridges, the tools, the weather, grimy pub rooms, everything is done as finely as he always does it. But it is not melodramatic: for the most part there are no sudden glaring scenes reflecting the agonists' inner turmoils.

Farfrae's star continues to rise: shrewd in business and lucky in love, he eventually becomes the master of the impoverished Henchard, and at last he too, though young and Scottish, becomes the eponymous Mayor.

When the drunken, greedy, thoughtless lower orders fortuitously get wind of Mrs Farfrae's past involvement with Henchard, they bruit the scandal in an interesting country custom called a skimmington: not quite as Webster 1913 describes it, since in this case the two figures placed on the donkey are both effigies, one of Mrs Farfrae and one of Henchard. They make a great racket carrying these through the town, and there is disgrace and horror and death.

Henchard right to the end vacillates because of his fatal flaws: sometimes proud, sometimes abject, sometimes forgiving, sometimes cruel, never wholly bad. There is some reconciliation with his stepdaughter Elizabeth-Jane, and some with his former man Farfrae, but ultimately no real resolution. This is good: it is realistic.

The Mayor of Casterbridge is a novel by Thomas Hardy, published in 1886, and set sometime in the middle of the 19th century. It is a work of realism, depicting the life of Michael Henchard, the Mayor of the town of Casterbridge (apparently a fictionalized version of Dorchester). I was surprisingly unfamiliar with both Hardy and this novel, and was happy to find that it was (in comparison to much of classic literature) easy to follow. The book is written in a poetic but not pretentious style that presents just enough complexity in vocabulary and grammar to be interesting, while not being overwhelming.

The first chapter of the book sets up the basic plot: Michael Henchard, a irritable young hay trusser, searching for work, "sells" his wife and child to a stranger. This begins as a joke, but Henchard is unable to back down from the challenge his wife and their daughter depart, and then Henchard faces the magnitude of what he had done.

The plot of the book proper begins some two decades later. Henchard, feeling shame over the incident, and sworn off liquor and through hard work, had ascended to being a wealthy grain merchant and also the mayor of Casterbridge. But right as he has reached his zenith, his wife returns to town, with her daughter, giving Henchard a chance to atone for his mistake, but also threatening his position of respectability. At the same time, a clever and honest young man from Scotland, Donald Farfrae, shows up and begins to work for Henchard. A fifth character, at first only in the background, is Lucetta, a woman from the Channel Islands who Henchard had some sort of compromising relationship with in the past. (But this being a book written in the 19th century, it is hard to tell just what that entails.) The book is told as a story between these five characters, which is a refreshingly light list of characters for a 19th century novel. The only other characters are a few local personalities that function mostly as plot devices and a chorus to comment on what is happening.

My main interest in this book came to be how it straddles the line between realism and romance. The review above concludes with the statement that "this is realistic", and in many ways, I have to agree. Michael Henchard, the focus of the book, is shown as a complex character, generous yet envious, sensitive to the feelings of others but unable to prevent himself from harming them. He makes mistakes, and feels remorse for them, but is unable to face the root cause of his anger and insecurity. That part of the book is described very realistically. What surrounds it, however, seems to be more in line with what could be expected from a soap opera. Without giving away too much of the plot, there are multiple love triangles, cases of mistaken parentage, people seemingly returning from the dead, secrets revealed through eavesdropping, purloined letters, deaths by Victorian Novel Disease...I found much of the plot of the book, as distinct from the psychological core, to be constructed in a rather predictable and unrealistic fashion. Whether that distracts from reading, or is something the reader expects and enjoys, is really a matter of taste.

What is most interesting for me is looking at this book in terms of the development of the modern novel. Some parts of this book read as quite modern, while others show it still dependent on Victorian conventions. While Hardy is considered an important developer of modernism and realism, if you compare this book to a work like Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane, published a scant seven years later, in 1893, it reads much more like Jane Austen or Charles Dickens than a 20th century novel. (Although, it is also a much more pleasant and interesting book to read than the dark and unenlightening "Maggie".) This book provides an interesting example of a work between a melodramatic Victorian novel and a psychologically and socially realistic novel.

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