82. ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ by Thomas Hardy

I have four favourites of Hardy’s Wessex, Return of the Native, Tess of the D’Urbevilles, A Pair of Blue Eyes, and The Mayor of Casterbridge. Each has their own protagonist, each their own hero, and each a dark secret that will come to the centre of our attention at some point.

As with Tess and Eustacia (Return of the Native), the story of Michael Henchard and his estranged wife, Susan, has all the twists and turns we come to expect from stories these days: alcohol, deceit, secrets, lies, etc. But for a book written in the 1800s this must have really been something different, almost risqué? From the start we are set to read a hard story when Michael shocking and drunkenly sells his wife and daughter to the mariner Mr Newson, only to realise his drunken mistake too late the next morning and then swear himself off all liquor. Fast forward some twenty years and we find a prosperous yet lonely Henchard and the story continues to unfold with his relationships with Lucette Le Sueur and Donald Farfrae suffering when Susan and his daughter Elizabeth-Jane return to his life. Still not admitting to the history of their relationship, but wanting to right his wrongs, he courts and marries Susan. Throughout the story Hardy gives his characters the opportunities to do the right thing, even though they will suffer under the truth and their actions, yet they rarely take the right course (even though they understand the choices they make and the consequences). Even here, when Henchard marries Susan again he’s not quite done the right thing, even though he thinks it’s for the right reasons.

The final act of the story sees the story twist dramatically for everyone. Henchard falls on hard times, finds out Elizabeth-Jane is not his daughter and she marries his former friend and mentee, Farfrae , Mr Newson lives, and his pregnant lover Lucette dies. Henchard dies before Elizabeth-Jane and Newson can find and forgive him, he leaves no will and requests no funeral.

The importance of the nature of Hardy’s Wessex takes centre stage at different points within the story, sometimes reflecting the narrative and events, sometimes seemingly to lead them. At other times the backdrop of nature brings the story and characters together, maybe not physically but through it’s harshness.

For me the world Hardy has created with Wessex is such a powerful one. When reading Hardy’s books, and once you’ve read a few of them, you can almost imagine his characters interacting with each other from different books at different points of their journeys across Wessex. Whilst the main characters from each book often travel very little, they do come into contact with many incidental characters who do cross Wessex.

Coming back to the book, and to Hardy, after all these years has had a strange affect on me. I hold this and all Hardy’s books in such high regard that I was slightly disappointed. Clearly I had more time and more interest in such a winding story when I first read it, but it’s also that the book reminded me, as with Tess of the D’Urbervilles, of the events of my later teenage years, the changes in friendships, etc. I will re-read Casterbridge again someday, and I hope it’ll be soon, so I can try and recapture the magic that the story and characters held over me, but for now it’s been more a disappointing journey back to my youthful days than an enjoyable one. This is not the fault of the book, merely my recollection of the many times I’ve read it before.

Held my interest: 6/10
Captured my imagination: 6/10
Worth reading: 7/10
Overall: 6/10

Image source: Stephen Hall (CC BY-SA 2.0)


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