Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

I broke a promise to myself with this book. I had sworn I wouldn’t read any more Hardy because he’s depressing and has a fairly narrow-minded view of life. Granted, he lived during the latter half of the 18th century when people were more religious so he probably didn’t really fall out of the ranks, but I got a little tired of being preached at by him. So, why, you ask did I read this one? Well, it was all down to the narrator, Alan Rickman. I could listen to the man read me the phone book.

Do I regret it? No, for two reasons. The first is that I got to listen to Alan Rickman speak into my ear for something like 14 hours, always a plus, the second is that the story was quite good and a lot less of a moral diatribe than his others have been. OK, the characters are still hung up on what would seem right and proper, but it felt more like a story told in the set time than a Bildungsroman. The characters who suffered did so through their own stupidity and not because they were being punished for being amoral.

The book revolves around 4 young people. Clym Yeobright, his cousin Thomasin, Eustacia Vye and Damon Wildeve. Thomasin Yeobright is “jilted” at the alter by Damon Wildeve because of a technical problem with the licence. Damon, who is actually in love with Eustacia, with whom he had a love affair the year before, isn’t overly keen on marrying Thomasin and leaves her in a state of limbo for several weeks while he tries to persuade Eustacia to run away to America with him. Thomasin, in the meantime, realizes that her relationship with Wildeve was a mistake, but that she has no honourable way of reneging on the marriage without besmirching her name and sanguinely maintains she must now go through with it and make the best of the situation. Enter Clym who returns from Paris where he had a successful business, which he has given up in preference for a scheme to educate the heath folk’s children. His arrival on the Heath changes everything for all parties as decisions are made which affect the whole community.

According to Wiki, Hardy shocked Victorian England with his more or less open references to illicit sex. He also bowed to the public by adding on a happier ending than he originally intended to. Personally, had he stuck to his usual doom and gloom, I think this novel would never have become as popular as it did.

Hardy had actually wanted to become a poet and not a writer, but his prose was better than his poetry and the man had to make a living, ergo his novels. There were love scenes in this book which made it abundantly clear, or at least strongly hint at, why he never really succeeded as a poet. If his poetry was anything like his novels, the love scenes were sickly sweet to the point of being an emetic (even with, or perhaps because of, Alan Rickman reading them), but then tempered with a good dose of morality. It felt a bit like saying Love is Sweet and Wonderful, but only if conducted in a properly monitored setting with appropriate chaperones and in full light of day.

Finally, having said that I don’t like Hardy’s preachy style, you could actually look at his books, not as a lesson in morals, but as a lesson in not fixating on the acceptable. The morals of the time dictated that Thomasin must marry Wildeve to save face, but had she bucked the trend, a lot of trouble and heartache would have been saved. So in a sense, his books could be looked on as a plea for common sense mingled with morals, even if that’s not what he intended.

All in all, I liked this one and would read it, or listen to it again. If you’re looking for an introduction to Hardy, try this one. It is the best I’ve read by him by far. For the record, Tess of the D’Urbervilles was good, but terribly depressing.


Jeane said...

I'm glad to know your assessments! I used to have this one on my shelf, never got around to read it, and lost it in a shuffle once years ago. I've long had Tess on my TBR, but maybe it sounds like I should go back and find Return of the Native first. It would be my first Hardy.

Lula O said...

Well thought out review blacksheep! I thought this one was equally as depressing as Tess, but the description of the landscape here did me in. It's like its own character in the book.
And I still like Tess too. sick I know.

Try Far from the Madding Crowd. It actually ends happily. I hear Hardy was in a good mood when he wrote it.