Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The Woodlanders – Return of the reader to Hardy

Hardy is master of woodland landscapes

A strong but silent woodsman, a flirtatious man of manners, a fickle girl and impending tragedy hinted at in the pathetic fallacy of whispering beech leaves... When I think of Thomas Hardy nowadays I see images from my mother’s favourite film, Far From the Madding Crowd, with Julie Christie as an evenly-tanned Bathsheba and Terence Stamp as the devastatingly dashing Sergeant Troy. I once fell in love with someone who looked a bit like this movie version of Troy, and Stamp is probably partly to blame for that. Nevertheless, it was with some trepidation that I returned to Hardy’s written word.

I read my way through Hardy’s pastoral canon when I was far too young to penetrate either the style or the emotional content. All I really remembered from my early teen readings was that whole pages could be taken up with descriptions of branches creaking and mists descending. This had been overlaid with the repeated assessments of Hardy’s novels as dismal, depressing tomes that serve as reminders that life never turns out how we would wish.

However, I wanted to read a writer who excels at descriptions of the natural world and placing his characters in relation to it, and apart from Laura Beatty and her 2008 novelPollard, which I’ve devoured twice already, Hardy was the main contender. I have begun my reacquaintance by reading The Woodlanders, whose main characters are those listed in the first sentence of this post. They may mirror the key players in Far From the Madding Crowd, playing out their tragedy in a tiny wooded hamlet of the kind Hardy so often pays tribute to, but it still came as a shock.

Firstly, I had forgotten how funny Hardy can be, not always intentionally. He may have had affection for the country folk and their domains on which he based his characters and places, but he also appears unafraid of mocking them, which jarred at first. His narrative voice is knowing, and slides from inner monologue to outsider observations in a way contemporary writers are taught to avoid. In fact, many aspects of his style seemed indigestible against the tenets of modern literary writing. He deploys horribly clunky metaphors inappropriate to the setting, falls back on (then) commonly-known poetry as a shortcut to describing a character’s sentiments, and shifts between the vocabulary of the woodlander and the kind of concepts that would have been unknown to those people. It all implies a sort of superior but inadequate narrator, who is not Hardy but is not anybody, unlike the narrative voices that appear in novels like Wuthering Heights and belong to characters reported by characters reported by characters.

And yet, this sliding from showing to telling, from condensed report to blow by blow accounts of scenes, all adds up to an irresistible tale. Yes, there is melodrama that makes me giggle as a 21st century reader, and some of the more romantic pronouncements of Grace the overeducated daughter of a timberman are overwrought to the point of cliché, but when tragedy strikes (as it must) it is genuinely moving. I baulked at the introduction of an ill-placed man-trap in the final chapters, but I could not stop turning the pages. And while Hardy did not let me down when it came to pastoral description, it never took over in the way I thought I remembered.

Here’s one of my favourite passages, in which Grace’s father and step-mother discuss the perils of marrying off their educated daughter to the local woodsman:

'“But I can’t bear the thought of dragging down to that old level as promising a piece of maidenhood as ever lived – fit to ornament a palace wi’, that I’ve taken so much trouble to lift up. Fancy her white hands getting redder every day, and her tongue losing its pretty up-country curl in talking, and her bounding walk becoming the regular Hintock shail-and-wamble.”
“She may shail; but she’ll never wamble,” replied his wife decisively.'

It’s outrageous, it’s frankly silly, but it is part of Hardy’s charm for a modern reader that these things only contribute to the richness of the read. Next up: Return of the Native.