In the midst of a book fug at the end of 2016 (read: I had read no decent books for at least a month), I decided to keep calm, and reach for a classic. The Mayor of Casterbridge had been sat on my shelf for far too long, and so I decided to let Mr Hardy be the hero of my plight and rescue me from said fug.
TMoC deals with the lifetime of one Mister Michael Henchard – a chap who through an ill gotten drinking habit sells his wife and child in the opening scene (it really does all kick off in taverns in the South West, doesn’t it?), and thereby sets about a life devoted to trying to make amends for such a cruel and ill-thought out act.
Our man does well, redeeming himself through a teetotal decade and building a fortune and a reputation in Corn-Law ridden England (for those not blessed with the privilege of GCSE British History, it’s a basic situ where those naughty landed gentry arrange with an elitist Parliament a set of laws that rather allow legitimate exploitation of the humble worker.). But just as Michael thinks all is well, and just as he begins to even devote himself to another lucky maid (one who he doesn’t intend to out to the nearest bidder this time), who should return but… the previously sold goods (i.e. The Missus.)
I won’t spoil the plot, but needless to say that good Old Hardy doesn’t disappoint. This is a novel heavily entrenched in the perils of fate, the cruel turns life can take, and the often perplexing moral dilemmas we all have to consider as part of the deal of being human. It’s an interesting story in and of itself – but beware it lacks the more evocative Somerset images and warm country hues of some of Hardy’s other novels (I mean – let’s face it – even some of his darker books have moments of light within them.). This is a much more character driven endeavour, and is certainly not one for a ‘glass half empty reader’.
To a point, you could call this an important book. It’s real and unflinching in dealing with bad luck – but it’s also a text that tends to dwell on the point that ‘sometimes, it’s just a bad day’, and can occasionally begin to feel a bit mournful. Whilst it’s not Hardy at his literary best either, it’s a good yarn with an important lesson; broadly speaking, Thomas is telling us all to Keep Calm and Carry On.
If you like stories of mercantile Britain, an increasingly fractured society, and the politics of a fast disappearing agricultural rural West Country band of men and women, TMoC is no bad shout for you. Just make sure you have plenty of positive affirmations and mottoes kicking around for you when you’re not reading this uniquely pessimistic book.