Scenes at the Fair, Thomas Hardy

Dorset

It is 1840 or thereabouts. Michael Henchard, a hard drinking, unemployed hay trusser, is walking towards a village with his wife Susan and their baby daughter. Along the way they meet a labourer who tells Henchard neither work nor shelter is to be found there. Noticing a crowd, Henchard asks him what is going on?

“Tis Fair Day. Though what you hear now is little more than the clatter and scurry of getting away the money o' children and fools, for the real business is done earlier than this. I've been working within sound o't all day, but I didn't go up — not I. 'Twas no business of mine.”

When Thomas Hardy wrote The Mayor of Casterbridge in 1884 he was forty-four and the themes that were to shape the rest of his life and work had stirred. His closest friend Horace Moule, a brilliant and sensitive man like himself, had committed suicide. It was an appalling loss, for Moule had been at the centre of Hardy’s artistic development and was his only true confidante. Hardy’s biographer Gittings observes that after his death ‘Hardy never portrayed a man who was not, in some way, maimed by fate.’

He was also deeply disillusioned by the widening gulf of unhappiness between him and his wife Emma after their earlier happy years (there is a story about their marriage here). Emma had just turned forty-five and their childlessness would become a source of lifelong regret for each of them. He was deeply lonely and as he took leave of his youth and the illusions of love, he embraced a fatalistic melancholy.

Hardy had lost confidence in his work, deeming his last three novels lightweight. Of the five novels he had written since his marriage, none had matched the success of Far from the Madding Crowd (1874). An over-reliance on literary short cuts to meet the demands of serialisation had produced a certain scrappiness, attracting poor reviews. He wanted to improve and deepen his work, writing to a friend of his desire to demolish ‘the doll of English fiction’, with its social conventions and happy endings, and create a more ‘virile’ type of novel. The modernist writing that was emerging from France had seized his attention. He was particularly impressed by the way in which Émile Zola was radically confronting the moral and aesthetic sensibilities of his readers. But in order to make a similar shift in his own work, he felt he needed the Dorset of his childhood.

Back to his Roots

Hardy and Emma had already been living on the fringes of Dorset but in the summer of 1885, they moved into their newly built house ‘Max Gate’, which was located a little more than two miles from Hardy’s childhood home in Higher Bockhampton (there is a story about his childhood here). Now they were in the heart of Dorset, a county that Hardy was making famous as the slightly altered, fictional version which he named Wessex in such novels as Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) and The Return of the Native (1878). But although Hardy was back among old friends and a wide web of extended family, the class-conscious struggle that had first emerged when he married Emma was again apparent.

Hardy had married up from his peasant origins and had taken pains to hide from Emma much of his past. So, like his mother before him, he refrained from mixing with the locals. As the dutiful oldest son, he still saw his immediate family, visiting his parents in Higher Bockhampton every Sunday without fail. But it appears that Emma was not welcome there, as she and his mother Jemima did not get along. Some years later, when considering the causes of a failed marriage, Emma alluded to the damage that can be done by a relative, and it is clear the relative she had in mind was Jemima.

One activity that did bring them together was their craze for bicycling. Locals from Puddletown remembered the couple cycling stiffly down the main street of the village on their way to church. The village was full of Hardy’s relatives and old friends, but they ignored all approaches, staring straight ahead with great determination, their union a picture of rigid respectability. At church Hardy would often be asked to read the lessons. On a warm summer’s morning, after a ten-mile cycle, his balding head sometimes softly steamed while he stood at the lectern. The locals thought him odd.

A Change of Direction

In his pursuit of a more serious novel, Hardy scrapped the comic irony and upper-class settings of his recent novels and turned aside from the alluring, sometimes coquettish heroines that had been at the core of his work. He felt the new story required a masculine presence. In Michael Henchard, tall and leonine, he created a hero worthy of a Greek tragedy. By turns black tempered, jealous and superstitious, he towers above the other characters in the novel, moving like an enormous tree in the wind, but eventually he is ‘defeated by his own defects.’

The Story

Michael Henchard, his wife Susan and baby daughter Elizabeth-Jane head for the fair. While there, on a drunken impulse, he sells his wife and child to a sailor. Awakening from his drunken stupor, he bitterly regrets his action and swears an oath to abstain from drink for twenty-one years, the number he has lived so far. He settles in nearby Casterbridge (Dorchester) where he recreates himself as a wealthy corn merchant and is elected mayor, becoming ‘a pillar of the town’. But he remains haunted by his secret past and by the ‘unruly volcanic stuff’ that remains part of his personality, no matter how hard he tries to suppress it. Henchard’s life unravels when Susan, his now sick wife returns, with a grown-up Elizabeth-Jane.

Early in the writing of the novel, Hardy saw a performance of Othello by a group of strolling players in Dorchester. Its influence is likely found in the fierce rivalry between Henchard, the traditionalist who relies on rule of thumb, and Farfrae, the modernising newcomer who succeeds by means of science and system. Their opposing forces dramatise the historical changes that were occurring in the countryside. The climate of deep uncertainty that was brought about by the demise of old agricultural practices and institutions would pervade the rest of Hardy’s novels.

Hardy used the town of Dorchester, that he remembered from his childhood in the 1850s, as the setting for the tragedy. Its shops and old-fashioned houses of ‘subdued reds, browns, greys’, act as a channel for its rural surroundings. In summer, the bees and butterflies from the cornfields at the top of the town fly straight down the High Street to reach the meads at the bottom. And in autumn, thistledown floats down the same street, catching in shopfronts and blowing into the drains. The livelihoods of the town’s inhabitants depend on the fortunes of the surrounding farms with their trade in corn and cattle, their fluctuating harvests and the vagaries of the weather. It is the favouite topic of converastion in the pubs and at the dinner parties of the town’s professionals.

While writing The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy had been elected as a Justice of the Peace for the Borough of Dorchester which brought him into close contact with the affairs of the town. He packed the book with incidents from old family tales and those he found in the Dorset County Chronicle of the 1850s, including an account of wife selling which still existed in England as a form of divorce for poor rural men. Hardy also noted down details of people’s clothing, their poverty, the enormous distances they walked, and their entertainments at fairs and wrestling matches. All are chronicled and played out against the rhythms of rustic daily life, from the town to the surrounding ‘wide expanse of cornland and coombe.’

This was one of Hardy’s most tragic novels. Henchard’s bitter experiences reflect the belief of Hardy’s mother Jemima’s that there is always a figure in our path ‘to knock us back’. In this case, the figure in the way is a mixture of fate and Henchard himself: his impulsiveness and excessive pride. As Hardy’s biographer Ralph Pite observes, he makes Henchard survive in Casterbridge in the same way that Hardy himself survived in Dorchester: by suppressing his feelings and practicing self-restraint. Yet in spite of Henchard’s efforts to become an honourable man, he is never able to escape the consequences of his disastrous action in the opening chapter, and fate intervenes to defeat him.

Hardy seems to suggest that all efforts are futile and we are powerless in the face of the natural forces that shape our destiny. Henchard gives up his struggle partly because the odds are set against him by ‘that ingenious machinery contrived by the gods by reducing human possibilities of amelioration to a minimum’.

The novel closes with Elizabeth-Jane’s thought that happiness is only ‘the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.’ Hardy suggests that, as much as possible, we should be resigned to the fact that hope will lead to disappointment and our lives will lead nowhere.

Success

In the summer of 1886, to Hardy’s surprise and enormous relief, The Mayor of Casterbridge received a flood good reviews. Although some were taken aback by the story’s grimness, most critics judged it a triumph, and Hardy’s sagging reputation was restored. Robert Louis Stevenson told him he was thinking of dramatising the novel, which made him feel ‘several inches taller’. Following its success, he felt rejuvenated. He revived old friendships and began to make new literary friends. The Mayor of Casterbridge moved him into a new phase as a novelist. His greatest work was still to come.

Music

The Mellstock Band, Dribbles of Brandy

The Mellstock Band play music of old rural England on authentic musical instruments. They have taken the fictional name Hardy used for his home village of Higher Bockhampton in Dorset and play the songs and tunes he knew and loved.

I thought the name of this piece was apt, seeing as it was alcohol that helped bring about Henchard’s downfall, although in his case it was the furmity laced with rum.

Notes

I must confess that when reading The Mayor of Casterbridge at school I was put off by its grimness and the blows of fate that seemed cruel and insurmountable. Now I can see where this came from: it is a book seemingly written out of despair. Yet, as always with Hardy, that grimness is offset by exquisite evocations of town and country which catch my breath:

…a windless morning of warm November rain, which floated down like meal, and lay in a powdery form on the nap of hats and coats.

And as someone who loves a fair, the powerfully atmospheric description in the opening chapter has always stayed with me.

The trusser and his family proceeded on their way, and soon entered the Fair-field, which showed standing-places and pens where many hundreds of horses and sheep had been exhibited and sold in the forenoon, but were now in great part taken away. At present, as their informant had observed, but little real business remained on hand, the chief being the sale by auction of a few inferior animals, that could not otherwise be disposed of, and had been absolutely refused by the better class of traders, who came and went early. Yet the crowd was denser now than during the morning hours, the frivolous contingent of visitors, including journeymen out for a holiday, a stray soldier or two come on furlough, village shopkeepers, and the like, having latterly flocked in; persons whose activities found a congenial field among the peep-shows, toy-stands, waxworks, inspired monsters, disinterested medical men who travelled for the public good, thimble-riggers, nick-nack vendors, and readers of Fate.

The fairs that are still popular today originally served to provide farmers with the opportunity to buy and sell animals and supplies. They often heralded the onset of summer and always had a touch of carnivalesque about them, with their bands, Morris dancers, maypoles, performers and side-shows.

While in England I took the opportunity to visit as many fairs in the South West as possible. Here are photographs from the Dorset Country Show, The Royal Cornwall Show, the Tavistock Goose Fair and the Widecombe Fair. I was thrilled to discover that much of what Hardy described is still here, more than one hundred and fifty years later. As someone who was deeply attached to the old ways and traditions, I think he would be quietly pleased.

Weblinks

The Thomas Hardy Society

Hardy’s cottage in Higher Bockhampton is managed by The National Trust.

So too is his house Max Gate.

The trailer for an ITV adaptation of The Mayor of Casterbridge, starring Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy and Polly Walker.

British director Michael Winterbottom in his film The Claim, relocates The Mayor of Casterbridge to California’s Sierra Nevada in the 1860s.

A glimpse of the inaugural Thomas Hardy Victorian Fair in Dorchester.

Visit England features details about Thomas Hardy country and accommodation in the area.

Sources:

Gittings, Robert. The Older Hardy, Penguin Books, 1980

Hardy, Thomas. The Mayor of Casterbridge, Penguin Books, 1981

Norman, Andrew. Thomas Hardy: Behind the Mask, The History Press, 2011

Pite, Ralph. Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life, Picador, 2006

Tomalin, Claire. Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, Viking, 2006

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  1. Adam on

    Thank you for such a fascinating article. Thomas Hardy is a favorite writer, and The Mayor of Casterbridge is an outstanding example of his work. I think you’ve caught the crux of Hardy – his plots and characters are dour, cynical, and filled with unlucky coincidences, but his Dorset landscapes shine. These have a way of offsetting one another. The landscape takes some of the sour bite from his stories, and the hard-luck narratives add an unexpected edge to the landscape. The photo montage is a perfect visual illustration, mixing landscape and village, the modern and the old, just as Hardy does in his writings. Thanks again!

    Reply
    • Jo Wing on

      Thank you Adam for such thoughtful comments – ‘The landscape takes some of the sour bite from his stories’ – you are so right. They keep me reading through the bleakness. And you feel his deep love for it don’t you? When I wrote about his childhood I could see how richly that landscape had formed him. It came from his very core. I’m glad you liked the photos too! I had a lot of fun at those fairs.

      Reply