For me reading Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge comes hot on the heels of Hardy's A Laodiciean - the latter was a dreadful reading experience so The Mayor of Casterbridge was intended to at least attempt to put it out of my head and move forward. As it turns out I doubt anything could make me forget how much I disliked A Laodicean, but I did, to my relief, very much enjoy The Mayor of Casterbridge.
The Mayor of Casterbridge: The Life and Death of a Man of Character was Hardy's tenth published novel, first published in 1886 after Two on a Tower (1882) and in this he returns to his South Wessex, or Dorset. He tells the story of mother and daughter Susan and Elizabeth-Jane Henchard, beginning "One evening of late summer, before the nineteenth century had reached one-third of its span": we meet Susan and her husband Michael Henchard who have been walking for quite some time on their way to Casterbridge. They stop for rest at an inn where Hardy reveals the nastiness of Henchard. Half-jokingly he offers to sell his wife to the highest bidder, and to his surprise a passing sailor offers to buy her and the child for five guineas and Henchard accepts. Susan and the child leave with the sailor and the next morning Henchard, full of remorse, solemnly swears an oath not to drink for twenty-one years:
"I, Michael Henchard, on this morning of the sixteenth of September, do take an oath before God here in this solemn place that I will avoid all strong liquors for the space of twenty-one years to come, being a year for every year that I have lived. And this I swear upon the book before me; and may I be strook dumb, blind, and helpless, if I break this my oath!"
Time moves on and we are forwarded to eighteen years later and we see Susan and Elizabeth-Jane returning to Casterbridge. Susan, following the death of the sailor, Newson, wishes to see Henchard, Elizabeth-Jane believing he is a long-lost relative. The find him and learn that Michael Henchard is now the Mayor of Casterbridge. He is ashamed of what he did, and so he decides he and Susan, concealing the facts from Elizabeth-Jane, must appear to court each other and then marry, putting right the wrongs he did those eighteen years ago. When Susan dies not long after, the complications really begin to rise: Henchard, on discovering something about Elizabeth-Jane (I'll not reveal what), grows very cold towards her and so she leaves and goes to live with Lucetta Templeman, little realising Lucetta is another woman from Henchard's past. Meanwhile Henchard has confided in his friend Donald Farfrae of all his wrongs, something he comes to regret, and after he alienates himself from Farfrae his business begins to fail. His life slowly but surely begins to irredeemably fall apart.
This is a very bleak tale: we are a long way off now from Hardy's first novel, the sensationalist Desperate Remedies (1871) and quickly entering into Jude the Obscure (1895) territory. Fate and coincidence play a great part in The Mayor of Casterbridge and solace and hope are slightly out of grasp, circumstance and personality (which is framed by the inescapable past) make it nearly impossible to attain them. A redemption of sorts is possible but only by giving everything else up (bringing in the question of determinism). Another interesting aspect of the novel is what it has to say on marriage - Susan Henchard was married, sold, kept by another man, then married again - it seems marriage is for outward appearances and love is a different matter altogether existing very often outside of marriage. Furthermore love is a difficult concept in itself in Hardy's later novels - it's confused, betrayed, fragile, and abused. However miserable I'm making it sound, though, it is a very well-crafted novel and one of Hardy's best. As ever the descriptions of the Wessex countryside and its inhabitants are beautiful and nostalgic, and I loved reading it for that. As for the story, it's very impressive and I do admire it and was quickly hooked into it. It's an interesting thing, reading Hardy's novels almost in order of publication (there has been a little deviation) seeing the slow build up to the crescendo of Jude. Hardy's next novel was The Woodlanders (1887) which I read almost a year ago (I remember finding it fairly grim): after The Woodlanders, his next work was his short story collection Wessex Tales (which I'll be reading in June, ending the '1880s phase' of Hardy's fictional writing), and following that Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) which I'm very excited to read.