One November 5th in 1840’s rural England, several bonfires are lit across the undulating hills and valleys of Egdon Heath to mark Guy Fawkes. One burning particularly impressively is Eustacia Vye’s bonfire. Eustacia grew up in a nearby town but, following the deaths of her parents, has since had to live on her grandfather’s estate on the heath. She hates the slow, quiet life on the heath and yearns for the glamour and sophistication of big cities of London and Paris. Locals are unsure what to make of Eustacia; intelligent, vain, pretentious, some even suspect her of being a witch. Her motive for her impressive bonfire is certainly witchy; she hopes it will summon her former lover.
Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well with a little preparation. She had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman.
But celestial imperiousness, love, wrath and fervour had proved to be somewhat thrown away on netherward Egdon. Her power was limited and the consciousness of this limitation had biased her development. Egdon was her Hades, and since coming there she had imbibed much of what was dark in its tone, though inwardly and eternally unreconciled thereto. Her appearance accorded well with this smouldering rebelliousness, and the shady splendour of her beauty was the real surface of the sad and stifled warmth within her. A true Tartarean dignity sat upon her brow, and not factiously or with marks of constraint, for it had grown in her with years.
He duly arrives. Damon Wildeve was once Eustacia’s lover before she turned her back on him. He has since become engaged to marry another woman. The prospect of losing Wildeve forever has the effect of rekindling Eustacia’s interest in him and, when a bureaucratic bungle postpones the wedding, she decides to consider Wildeve one last time. But Wildeve is a failed engineer who now keeps a local inn. The prospect that he may be able to provide the life she craves is not good and he is a little below her social class. For Wildeve, his fiancé Thomasin Yeobright is a pleasant and good-natured girl from a wealthy family but she has none of the fire of raven-haired Eustacia to excite him. Wildeve even suggests to Eustacia that they could run off together to America. Nevertheless, Eustacia decides to let Wildeve go.
‘This is the pleasure I have won by my trouble,’ she whispered bitterly, half to herself. ‘Why did I try to recall you? Damon, a strange warring takes place in my mind occasionally. I think when I become calm after your woundings, “Do I embrace a cloud of common fog after all?” You are a chameleon, and now you are at your worst colour. Go home, or I shall hate you!’
The postponement of Wildeve and Thomasin’s wedding creates other intrigues elsewhere too. Thomasin’s aunt, Mrs Yeobright, on whom she depends, was never in favour of the union. But she now fears the scandal of the postponement, or even a cancellation, is much worse than the prospect of the original wedding. It is at this point, troubled by how she might reunite the couple, that she is approached by Diggory Venn, who makes an alternative proposal for Thomasin’s hand.
Venn is a reddleman; a tradesman of red ochre, a pigment used to mark sheep. His trade means that his skin and clothes are stained red. Despite his devilish appearance, he is a former sweetheart of Thomasin’s and selflessly cares for her best interests even at the expense of his own. Though he proposed to her two years earlier, he was rejected by Thomasin as his feelings were unrequited even if the difference in their respective social status was not too big a gap to bridge. He now remakes his offer of marriage to Thomasin in an effort to spare her the possibility of scandal.
Mrs Yeobright does not like the prospect of her niece marrying a reddleman any more than marrying an innkeeper, but she sees the advantage of using a rival proposal to get Wildeve to heel which he soon does. Venn, though happy for Thomasin if she is, does not trust Wildeve to stay faithful and decides to stay on the heath, even at the expense of his trade, so that he can keep an eye on Eustacia and Wildeve. Secret meetings between both lovers and rivals, under the cover of night on the rugged heath, are the key setting of the novel.
In the midst of these intrigues, Clym Yeobright, Mrs Yeobright’s son, returns to the Heath. Clym has fashioned a successful career as a jewellery merchant in Paris and is the returning native of the novel’s title. Eager to know more of him, Eustacia schemes to arrange a meeting and the two begin falling in love. Though at first, only the reader appreciates that they are falling in love with their ideas of each other rather than the reality.
A young and clever man was coming into that lonely heath from, of all contrasting places in the world, Paris. It was like a man coming from heaven.
She had undoubtedly begun to love him. She loved him partly because he was exceptional in this scene, partly because she had from the first instinctively determined to love him, chiefly because she was in desperate need of loving somebody.
Eustacia hopes that Clym will whisk her away to a life of glamour and luxury in Paris. Clym, though, has no intention of ever leaving the Heath again. He is weary of the phoniness and materialism of that life and perhaps feels guilty at the privileges his high birth has afforded him. Clym’s ambition is to use his family’s wealth to found a school where he will teach. Though well-meaning, Clym has no credentials, little knowledge, nor any appreciation of whether the education he hopes to provide will be of any practical use to rural children on the heath. His idea of Eustacia as a woman of simple inclinations, an ideal partner for his new life, fuelled by the ignorant suspicion held by locals that she is a witch, is just as deluded as her idea of his cosmopolitanism.
Was Yeobright’s mind well-proportioned? No. A well-proportioned mind is one which shows no particular bias; one of which we may safely say that it will never cause its owner to be confined as a madman, tortured as a heretic, or crucified as a blasphemer. Also, on the other hand, that it will never cause him to be applauded as a prophet, revered as a priest, or exalted as a king. Its usual blessings are happiness and mediocrity.
Take all the varying hates felt by Eustacia Vye towards the heath, and translate them into loves, and you have the heart of Clym. He gazed upon the wide prospect as he walked, and was glad.
Clym’s mother is appalled by both her son’s future ambitions and by his choice of wife. Misunderstandings become arguments which become irreconcilable differences between Eustacia and Mrs Yeobright and drive a wedge between Clym and his mother. Over the course of a year, from one Guy Fawkes to the next, marriages become strained, the fortunes of some rise while others fall and jealousies, rivalries and tempting prospects invite tragedy.
The Return of the Native is the second Thomas Hardy novel I have read and, while I did not enjoy it nearly as much as I enjoyed Far From the Madding Crowd, it still provides plenty of material for thought and discussion.
The most obvious is a comparison between the two novel’s respective heroines. As tempting as it is in the twenty-first century to celebrate Far From the Madding Crowd’s Bathsheba as a strong, independent, wilful and ambitious young woman; The Return of the Native’s Eustacia reminds us that, for the 19th century, Bathsheba has had the luxury of fulfilling these traits due to the good fortune of a timely inheritance. Eustacia, in contrast, is trapped, unfulfilled and powerless. That being said, they are not of the same character. If Eustacia were to come into an inheritance she would most likely spend it very differently; escaping rural England for life in Paris, such are her superficial ambitions.
Another aspect worth contemplating is what we today would call the ‘complexity’ of the characters. Particularly Venn and Wildeve. The reader is tempted to regard Wildeve as a scoundrel for his wavering and duplicitousness, but his loyalty to Eustacia shows the sort of man he could be in different circumstances. Meanwhile, Venn’s selfless determination to protect Thomasin’s happiness appears to do him credit though the lengths he goes to – meddling in another couple’s relationship, taking pleasure in defeating his rival – suggests otherwise.
Like Far From the Madding Crowd (and I suspect, most of Hardy’s work), the blurring of social lines as material fortunes change is a theme here as well. With the blurring of the social strata comes the blurring of the appropriateness of chivalry as shown by the actions of Venn and Wildeve towards another man’s wife, or towards a woman who is not his wife, respectively. Also like elsewhere, Hardy shows a lot of consideration for all the intricacies of the problems created by the situation the characters find themselves in. Their traits and motivations, possibly actions and outcomes are far more complex than I can describe here and add richness to the story.
Another aspect of this novel that readers cannot fail to notice is that it is saturated with references – Biblical, classical and pagan; religious, historical and mythological. In her introduction to this edition, Penny Boumelha suggests that the aim of this metafictional device is to elevate the story and its characters. With his frequent use of references, Hardy is suggesting that powerful stories are not reserved only for heroes, kings and deities but also for ordinary people in rural backwaters. That being said, because of its setting, The Return of the Native does not offer the insight into the lives of the rural working class that Far From the Madding Crowd does.
A final point I want to raise comes from an appendix to this edition (it is not clear who the author of it is). The point being that it is unclear what the context for The Return of the Native is. Though first published in 1878, the novel is set in the 1840’s, during Hardy’s childhood, and the conflict between a man and his mother over a woman not approved of is somewhat unique in Hardy’s fiction. There is some speculation that this aspect is drawn from Hardy’s own life experiences but the details which may prove it are unknown and may never be known.
The Return of the Native may not be as entertaining as Far From the Madding Crowd. Its flawed characters may not provide the reader the satisfaction of hoping for an outcome that will be best for all. And its tragic heroine invites comparisons to Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. But Hardy continues to give plenty of food for thought; on the lack of self-determination and fulfillment for women, the difficulties of choosing the right partner, the futility of thinking people will change and the poor correlation between goodness and material success.