Bitten by an Adder

Tim Parks

  • The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy, edited by Simon Avery
    Broadview, 512 pp, £9.50, April 2013, ISBN 978 1 55481 070 3

What a pleasure to return to Thomas Hardy. For about a hundred pages. Then the torment begins, and we’re not even halfway through. From now on each turn of the page will expose the reader to greater unhappiness. There’s a moment in The Return of the Native where the main character, Clym, already deeply troubled by his mother’s mysterious death, goes out of his way to find a little boy who may be able to tell him exactly what happened. When he asks the boy’s mother for permission to speak to the child, she looks at him ‘in a peculiar and criticising manner. To anybody but a half-blind man it would have said, “You want another of the knocks which have already laid you so low.”’ As the boy then tells his tale, stringing together facts that will destroy Clym’s life, the woman ‘looked as if she wondered how a man could want more of what had stung him so deeply’. At this point many readers may realise that the same question is on their minds: why am I persevering with a novel that is so painful to me? This will become the central issue in all Hardy’s mature fiction, above all Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure: why are these stories so much more painful than anything I have read, painful in the reading that is, the agonising unfolding of events? Why did Hardy insist on making them so? Why do people have an appetite for this?

The Return of the Native is set on Egdon Heath. A ‘vast tract of unenclosed wild’, infertile and intractable, its community left behind by 19th-century progress, without even a church, Egdon is at once overwhelmingly real and a place of the mind, a landscape of ancient burial mounds and prehistoric remains, ‘unaltered as the stars’, subject to intemperate weather, seething with plant and insect life of the most resilient and unprepossessing varieties. Hardy conveys the atmosphere of such a place better than anyone and shows how remorselessly it belittles human experience, how hard it is for the heath’s inhabitants to create any emotion or community that isn’t overshadowed by this implacable landscape. Anyone who wants to make anything of him or herself in the modern world must leave Egdon. But as the title tells us, the novel is about someone who has come back.

Against this all-affecting backdrop, complete with its rustic chorus of those happy to live on the heath and accept its limitations, their lives entirely submissive to its seasons and rhythms, the novel presents six characters who in seeking to lift themselves above it will make one another as miserable as people ever could. The bland young orphan Thomasin, ‘a pleasing and innocent woman’, is timid and sensible in all things except her determination to marry the shifty Mr Wildeve, almost the only eligible bachelor on the heath. Wildeve is a qualified engineer who for reasons never explained now runs the heath’s only inn and is looking to bring either security or excitement to his life through marriage. Thomasin would bring security; the more striking, passionate, raven-haired Eustacia, another orphan, is more alluring, but her determination to leave the heath for a fashionable city life would require Wildeve to abandon his economic safety and take a risk in the world.

Clym, Thomasin’s cousin, is the native whose return to Egdon seems so inexplicable – above all to his widowed mother, Mrs Yeobright, who is also aunt and guardian to Thomasin. Clym has been working in the diamond business in Paris, at the very heart of modern fashion and culture, but having decided this world is superficial he now wishes to set up a school for the poor of Egdon. So he returns to the heath in order to put others in a position to leave it; or rather, since the peasant folk are one with the landscape, to change the nature of the heath itself, manifestly an impossible task. Already unhappy that her niece wants to marry a man she feels is unworthy, Mrs Yeobright is appalled that her son should renounce his good fortune in Paris for rural philanthropy. Middle-class and struggling to keep her family upwardly mobile, Mrs Yeobright is invariably correct in her assessment of Clym and Thomasin’s poor choices but clumsy in her attempts to change their minds: every move she makes is counter-productive. When Clym and Eustacia fall in love, and the energies of the man most determined to stay in Egdon and the woman most determined to leave it collide, Mrs Yeobright’s dismay knows no bounds. To complete the picture there’s the mysterious, quaintly named Diggory Venn. Originally a dairy farmer, Venn once dared to ask for Thomasin’s hand in marriage and was rebuffed, because not of the right class. Since then he has become a reddleman, an itinerant tradesman selling red dye to sheep farmers; he himself is permanently stained by it. He is resilient, cunning and still set on Thomasin.

How on earth, you ask, could an experienced reader find painful the antics of such an unpromising set of characters? Our sympathies are ‘never … strongly enlisted in any of the three [major characters]’, one contemporary reviewer complained. Another felt the book’s disregard for realism reached levels ‘repugnant to our sense of the probable’. Its ‘people talk as no people ever talked before’, wrote a third, and ‘the story strikes us as intensely artificial.’ Crucial moments in the novel seem incredibly contrived, not only because the events themselves are so improbable but because Hardy makes his manipulation of them so evident: there are a dozen points where the plot turns on a character’s overhearing precisely the part of a conversation that will give the wrong impression and lead to calamity. The tragedy is ‘arbitrary and accidental’, yet another reviewer wrote, the sadness ‘unnecessary and uncalled for’, ‘mournful and cruel’, so that for those ‘who have the weakness of liking to be pleasantly interested in a book it is also very disagreeable’.

When critics quote the first reviews of classic novels it is usually to suggest the naivety of the initial reception, the superiority of our own understanding. Yet all these comments address aspects of Hardy’s fiction that demand a response, if only because, despite all the mournfulness, cruelty and disagreeableness, The Return of the Native is more engaging and more painful than the famously superior tragedies with a great and noble character whose fatal flaws make his or her downfall inevitable. But why?

This new edition of the novel, edited by Simon Avery, has appendices that include those early reviews, as well as Hardy’s own prefaces to various editions, maps, extracts from contemporary works of science and philosophy that Hardy read, a small selection of his poetry, pertinent passages from his essays, the complete script of a mummers’ play which has a part in the plot and the illustrations that accompanied the novel’s first serialisation in the magazine Belgravia in 1878. Abundant footnotes elucidate the frequent archaic and dialect terms and wide-ranging references to myth, scripture, ancient history, local customs, 19th-century politics and much else. At the beginning of the book a ‘brief chronology’ of Hardy’s life runs to seven pages while a textual note discusses amendments he made to the book in later years.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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