Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Novels of Thomas Hardy

When I was a teenager, one of my favorite books was A Long Way from Verona, by Jane Gardam. There's a bit near the end where the protagonist is feeling rather depressed, so she decides to take her mind off it by reading all the Classic English Novels in the library. All goes well until she gets to H and discovers Jude the Obscure. According to her, the main point of this book is that nothing good ever happens to anyone, "BECAUSE IT NEVER DOES."

This convinced me that I ought to avoid Hardy, and I have kept that resolution until just lately. One of the things that slowly changed my mind was this comment in the memoirs of an Edwardian gentleman:
" . . . 'romantic love' is ceaselessly vaunted in novels, films, tooth-paste advertisements and in all other available media. Self-deception is widely encouraged and, when marriage intervenes before the rainbow colours fade, couples find themselves in chains. It has often struck me as ironical that Thomas Hardy, some of whose novels movingly illustrate this theme and give such clear-cut warning to romantic lovers, was in his day accused of corrupting young readers' minds! Our parents and grandparents would have done better if they had made him compulsory reading for everyone on the brink of marriage."
Finally, a friend kept telling me that Tess of the D'Urbervilles was a really good book. So I read it. He's right.* I have also read Jude the Obscure, and I highly recommend both of them.

Normally I prefer books with happy endings, but these didn't bother me as much, perhaps because society is different now and people who have sex outside of marriage are not ostracized (in fact, it seems to be accepted that everybody does it.) Of course, in Hardy's day lots of people did it too -- he was condemned only for putting facts in writing.

I admire his commitment to the truth (and the beautiful venom of his rants about his critics in the introduction to Tess, amounting to "only people with dirty minds see things like that in my book.") His style is definitely ponderous, but that makes it clear that he wasn't just writing to titillate. He took these problems seriously. In short, that girl in A Long Way from Verona didn't understand Hardy at all.

* Don't you hate it when people have been telling you all your life "You really should read such-and-such" and then they turn out to be right? The same thing happened to me with The Woman Warrior and The Country of the Pointed Firs. Stupid people knowing stuff.

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