This is my third Hardy novel, but I’m getting the feeling I should have stopped after my first. Both A Pair of Blue Eyes and Far from the Maddening Crowd are very different to the more nuanced, and at times dark, Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The former two read more like very typical Victorian-era, romantic fiction, where as the latter is much richer in both its content and gorgeous prose.
That said, I enjoyed A Pair of Blue Eyes much more than Far From the Maddening Crowd. The heroine Elfride Swancourt (who was based on Hardy’s first wife Emma Gifford) is flawed, but immensely likeable. The male leads are slightly annoying though, especially Henry Knight and his rather possessive and condescending nature. Knight’s views on women certainly highlight the oppressive and sexually-prejudiced atmosphere women existed in during that time. His attitude comprises one of the main themes of the novel and provides plenty of material that will aggravate modern readers, but is interesting from a theoretical perspective.
The bulk of the plot was pretty predictable and didn’t really grasp my attention that well. But this meant I was taken by complete surprise when Hardy chose to end the story in a way totally contrary to my expectations, which I loved.
Ever since I read and loved Tess of the D’Urbevilles last January, I’ve been meaning to check out some of Thomas Hardy’s other work. Unfortunately I found Far from the Madding Crowd nowhere near as enjoyable as Tess.
The plot revolves around the beautiful and flighty Bathsheba Everdene, who must choose between three suitors: the lovely, constant and only likeable character in the entire book Gabriel Oak, the heart-breaker Sergeant Troy or the middle-aged farmer Boldwood.
Hardy starts out lavishing the reader with the same gorgeous prose about country life that I loved in Tess, but as he gathers speed with the story this falls away.
In terms of the books plot, I disagreed with all of the choices Bathsheba made and found her annoying rather than endearing, I didn’t like the way any of the action played out and the only character that I even remotely cared about was Gabriel Oak. I also found it to be a very slow moving novel.
It seems reading Tess of the D’Urbevilles first may have been a mistake, it’s possible everything I read from now on will pale in comparison.
My Cousin Rachel is my third Daphne du Maurier, and the first I’ve read told from a masculine perspective. It’s told by Phillip Ashley, an orphan brought up by his older cousin Ambrose Ashley, as his heir. The narrator Phillip is older and looking back on events past knowing there is no altering them now. He opens his story by recounting a time that as a young boy he was goaded by Ambrose into throwing a rock at the hanging corpse of a man who was strung up for murdering his wife. As he recalls the episode, he ponders how to endure his life: “No one will ever guess the burden of blame a carry on my shoulders; nor will they know that every day, haunted still by doubt, I ask myself a question which I still cannot answer. Was Rachel innocent or guilty? Maybe I shall learn that too, in purgatory.” We learn of Phillip’s intense desire as a young boy to be just like Ambrose. We read his thoughts that “The boy who stood under her window on his birthday eve, the boy who stood within the doorway of her room the evening that she came, he has gone, just as the child has gone who threw a stone at a dead man on a giblet to give himself false courage. Tom Jenkyn, battered specimen of humanity, unrecognisable and unlamented, did you, all those years ago, stare at me in pity as I went running down the woods into the future? Had I looked back at you, over my shoulder, I should not have seen you swinging in your chains but my own shadow.” And so the first chapter concludes, and in just a few pages du Maurier has foreshadowed the events of the novel and set an intensely gothic and dramatic tone.
Then the plot commences with Phillip as a young man in his twenties, who gets left behind at the estate as Ambrose leaves for Florence due to his poor health. Before long Phillip learns that Ambrose has married Phillip’s cousin Rachel, whom Phillip has never met, and he feels overcome with an intense jealousy and hatred. He imagines Rachel as a hundred different women, all completely detestable. Before long Phillip receives a worrying letter from Ambrose which indicates that he is unwell and expresses concerns about his doctors and suspicion of Rachel. Phillip leaves for Florence, but by the time he arrives Ambrose is dead and Rachel has left. He returns to Cornwall and eventually receives word that Rachel is coming and, believing her responsible for his cousin’s death, he intends to make her pay. But once she arrives he becomes completely obsessed and infatuated by her. But what are her motives? What happened in Florence? Is she Phillip’s evil seductress, or is she a victim? Is Phillip naive? Paranoid? A victim? Mentally ill? As Phillip indicates in the first chapter, the reader will never completely know the answer.
My Cousin Rachel is a novel of considerable technical skill. I think the most accurate analysis of Phillip’s character was given by Sally Beaumont in the novel’s introduction “Phillip Ashley is twenty-three, but old before his time, willingly imprisoned by the reactionary, chauvinistic, anti-intellectual and misogynistic beliefs of the older cousin-guardian he worships.” This aspect of the character and Phillip’s male gaze that both imprisons and obscures Rachel’s true character from the reader were the most interesting aspects of the novel for me. Beaumont described this aptly when she said “We see Rachel, and hear her speak yet she remains essentially unreadable, her features distorted by the male gaze of the possessive, jealous and infatuated man describing her. We can never see her because Phillip Ashley, blind to his own Oedipal impulses, obscures her – in which context, the semiotics of the possessive pronoun used in the title is not, one feels, accidental. As that “My” signals, an act of appropriation takes place in this narrative, one that denies Rachel autonomy. Forced to fit inside the fictive prison Phillip Ashley constructs around her, she cannot be herself; she has to be his belonging, his adjunct and chattel – and she is merely another item on a long privileged Ashley list: my house, my estate, my money, my family jewels… my cousin Rachel.”
All this takes place in the subtext of the novel, in the foreground the reader analyses whether Rachel is corruptive or pure. But who is really doing the poisoning? It seems the whole story is poisoned by Phillip’s point of view. And how much can the reader trust Phillip as a narrator anyway? He is, after all, no objective bystander. And so in a novel seemingly about a mysterious, dangerous woman and a naive boy, du Maurier explores the concept of male authority.
I think I preferred the My Cousin Rachel from an analytical perspective to the reading experience, partially because Phillip was so damn annoying and his voice permeates the novel. It was such an interesting read though and so different to Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. I think it’s the most interesting examination of male authority I have ever read in a fictional novel.
Having gorged myself on a literary diet of predominately young adult and vampire fiction for the past few months, last week I felt it was time for another classic. I’ve always wanted to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles and was lusting after the pictured new penguin classics hardcover edition, so I settled on it. Hardy’s gorgeous writing, tragic heroine and moving story did not disappoint.
All I’d ever heard about the plot of Tess of the D’Urbervilles was that involves a rape, and I assumed wrongly that this was to be the crux of the story. Tess of the D’Urbervilles opens on John Durbeyfield’s discovery that, despite his current poor state, his ancestors were the D’Urbervilles, who are descendants of one of the Knight of The Royal Oak, and that Durbeyfield is a corruption of this grand name. He informs his family and, following a tragic event further depleting the Derbeyfield’s income, his wife hatches a scheme to send his daughter Tess to a nearby rich branch of D’Urbervilles to claim kinship and hope for help in forging an advantageous marriage. In doing so Tess is put at the mercy of the abhorrently amoral Alec D’Urberville, who takes advantage of her situation and forces himself upon her, obliterating her maidenhood and perhaps any chance she had of happiness in her conventional society.
Challenging conventional values is a major concern of Hardy’s and he uses Tess’ fall to call them into question. The following passage conveys both this theme and the rich writing he utilises to convey it:
“A wet day was the expression of irremediable grief at her weakness in the mind of some vague ethical being whom she could not class definitely as the God of her childhood, and could not comprehend as any other. But this encompassment of her own characterisation, based on shreds of convention, peopled by phantoms and voices antipathetic to her, was a sorry and mistaken creation of Tess’ fancy – a cloud of moral hobgoblins by which she was terrified without reason. It was they that were out of harmony with the actual world, not she. Walking among the sleeping birds in the hedges, watching the skipping rabbits on a moonlit warren, or standing under a pheasant-laden bough, she looked upon herself as a figure of Guilt intruding into the haunts of Innocence. But all the while she was making a distinction where there was no difference. Feeling herself in antagonism she was quite in accord. She had been made to break a necessary social law, but no law known to the environment in which she fancied herself such an anomaly.”
Years pass and eventually Tess takes a position as a milkmaid at Talbothays Diary, set in a luscious part of the country side. There she finds relative mental peace, until attraction blooms between her and Angel Clare, a pastor’s son learning the art of farming. Hardy’s descriptions of the settings in the narrative are always artful, but never more than at Talbothays Dairy, where he mingles love with milking cows, leafy green trees, vast pastures and the hum of nature. Here are two of my favourite passages from the section:
“They met continually; they could not help it. They met daily between that strange and solemn interval, the twilight of the morning, in the violet or pink dawn; for it was necessary to rise early, so very early here. Milking was done betimes; and before the milking came the skimming, which began at a little past three… The gray half-tones of daybreak are not the gray half-tones of the day’s close, though the degrees of their shade may be the same. In the twilight of the morning light seems active, darkness passive; in the twilight of the evening it is the darkness which is active and crescent, and the light which is the drowsy reverse. Being so often – possibly not always by chance – the first two persons to get up in the dairy-house, they seemed to themselves the first persons up of all the world. In these early days of her residence here Tess did not skim, going outside at once after rising, where he was generally awaiting her. The spectral, half-compounded, aqueous light which pervaded the open mead, impressed them with a feeling of isolation, as if they were Adam and Eve.”
“How very loveable her face was to him. Yet there was nothing ethereal about it; all was real vitality, real warmth, real incarnation. And it was in her mouth that this culminated. Eyes almost as deep and speaking he had seen before, and cheeks perhaps as fair; brows as arched, a chin and throat almost as shapely; her mouth he had seen nothing to equal on the face of the earth. To a young man with the least fire in him that little upward lift in the middle of her red top lip was distracting, infatuating, maddening. He had never before seen a woman’s teeth and lips which forced upon his mind with such a persistent iteration the old Elizabethan simile of roses filed with snow. Perfect, he, as a lover, might have called them off-hand. But no – they were not perfect. And it was the touch of the imperfect upon the would-be perfect that gave the sweetness, because it was that which gave the humanity.
But how will Tess’ past affect Angel’s feelings? Should she tell him of her violation at the hands of D’Urberville?
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell was first published in England in 1955 and is a bit like a Jane Austen novel (Gaskell called it an industrial rewriting of Pride and Prejudice), but in my opinion more complex; both emotionally and due to its political facets.
Here is the plot description from the back of my Vintage edition:
“Milton is a sooty, noisy northern town centered around the cotton mills that employ most of its inhabitants. Arriving from a rural idyll in the South, Margaret Hale is initially shocked by the social unrest and poverty she finds in her new home town. However, as she begins to befriend her neighbors, n her stormy relationship with the mill-owner John Thornton develops, she starts to see Milton in a different light.”
I enjoyed North and South, but I think I would have liked it much more had I not seen the fantastic 2004 BBC miniseries. As a 550 something pages long book the storyline really dragged on in places, by contrast the BBC adaption was taut, polished and full of sexual tension, while remaining largely faithful to the book. Margaret and Mr Thornton FINALLY getting together was so drawn out in the book that it felt very anticlimactic, but because the series was much faster paced its conclusion didn’t give off that impression. It’s very unusual an adaptation of something would overshadow it so much for me!
I’m not sure I liked Margaret’s character in the book, she had very little insight into her own feelings and into the hearts of those around her for the majority of it. Thornton, on the other hand, was very likeable. He was strong, decisive and steady.
The politics surrounding the mills and the manufacture of cotton were very interesting in places, but could drag on at times. One character, Bessie, was dying from the fluff that got into her lungs while working in a mill. Apparently this was common in the mills in England during this time period. Gaskell mentions how some masters would install fans to prevent this, but some of the workers would complain because the lack of the cotton filling their lungs left them hungrier and meant they would have to spend more money on food. Apparently this was the reality for a lot of mill workers at that time.
The book was first published in serialised form in Charles Dickens’ Household Words magazine. According to the introduction, Gaskell was furious when Dickens wrote Hard Times, also about cotton mills. She felt he was ripping off her work. I thought this was an interesting piece of trivia!
The following are my favourite quotes, the first two show the ongoing motif of hands throughout the book, and all of them show Gaskell’s poetic way of writing.
“She looked as if she was not attending to the conversation, but solely busy with the tea-cups, among which her round ivory hands moved with pretty, noiseless daintiness. She had a bracelet on one taper arm, which would fall down over her round wrist. Mr Thornton watched the replacing of this troublesome ornament with far more attention than he listened to her father. It seemed as if it fascinated him to see her push it up impatiently until it tightened her soft flesh; and then to mark the loosening – the fall. He could almost have exclaimed – “There it goes again!””
“She handed him his cup of tea with the proud air of an unwilling slave; but her eye caught the moment when he was ready for another cup; and he almost longed to ask her to do for him what he saw her compelled to do for her father, who took her little finger and thumb in his masculine hand, and made them serve as sugar tongs.”
“These dinners were delightful; but even here Margaret’s dissatisfaction found her out. Every talent, every feeling, every acquirement; nay, even every tendency towards virtue, was used up as materials for fireworks; the hidden, sacred fire exhausted itself in sparkle and crackle. They talked about art in a merely sensuous way, dwelling on outside effects, instead of allowing themselves to learn what it has to teach. They lashed themselves up into an enthusiasm about high subjects in company, and never thought about them when they were alone; they squandered their capabilities of appreciation into a mere flow of appropriate words.”
In short, enjoyable, worth a read, but encapsulated pretty well in the BBC mini-series.