Book Review: The Mayor of Casterbridge

Michael Henchard, a young hay-trusser, walks down a lonely country road in 1820’s England with his wife, Susan, and infant daughter, Elizabeth-Jane. They walk in silence, exposed to the sun, an arduous enough journey for a young man let alone a young mother carrying a baby. Henchard, though, has little sympathy. Beneath the quiet exterior, he is an angry and frustrated man. Henchard’s status as an unemployed farm labourer, when he feels he is worthy of much more, and his belief that his wife and child are impediments to his ambition, are the sources of his spiteful discontent.

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Coming across a country fair, the young family take the opportunity to rest. But Henchard starts drinking and, once inebriated, begins boasting to the patrons of how loathsome it is to be burdened with his wife and child. Not to be dismissed as hyperbolic, Henchard even claims that he will gladly sell his wife and child if a good enough offer was made. Though the practice has been made illegal, it still endures in some rural settings, and when a man appears with money ready to take up the offer, Henchard’s pride forbids him to back down and the man walks out with Susan and Elizabeth-Jane.

Morning sobriety reveals to Henchard the horror of what he has done. His attempts to undo his actions prove fruitless. The man who took his family was a stranger; no one knows where he has come from or gone to. Henchard too is anonymous. A stranger on the road, if he moves on now he has the chance to reinvent himself; no one would know the disgraceful thing he has done. Before he can, though, Henchard makes an oath to not drink for twenty years.

Newson, the man who bought Henchard’s wife and child, is a sailor. Though he provides well for his new family, it is not a happy marriage and when he is lost at sea, many years later, it placed Susan and Elizabeth-Jane in a difficult situation. Susan never told her daughter the truth about her past; Elizabeth-Jane believes Newson is her father. Susan is also keeping the fact that her health is failing to herself. Her plan is to seek out Henchard and hope that he may be in a position to support them. It is her only hope for her daughter’s future.

They find Henchard in the town of Casterbridge where he is now the mayor. Industrious and opportunistic, Henchard has managed to work his way up from a hay-trusser to a gentleman farmer in his own right, dominating the town’s corn and wheat crops. Being a successful businessman he is naturally given a seat on the town’s council from which he has also won a term as mayor.

Grateful as Henchard is to be reunited with his wife and daughter, the scandalous truth of their past could upset everything he has built in Casterbridge. Meeting in secret, Henchard resolves that he will support Susan and Elizabeth-Jane in Casterbridge in secret while courting Susan in public until they can (re)marry.

And so, a romantic 19th century story thus seems to have been tied up quite nicely. And at just over 70 pages, much sooner than expected! But Hardy is no romantic and from here he allows us to witness the tragic unravelling of the life Henchard has made for himself on all fronts.

At the same time that Susan and Elizabeth-Jane find Henchard in Casterbridge, Henchard is having to deal with the failure of the wheat crop which threatens the livelihood of the town’s bakers and brewers. When Donald Farfrae, a young Scot passing through Casterbridge, shows Henchard how he may salvage most of the crop, Henchard is impressed and strives to convince Farfrae to stay in Casterbridge and work under him. Farfrae eventually agrees and his new scientific methods prove to be a success. But even though this is to Henchard’s material benefit, his pride cannot abide the credit for the success going Farfrae’s way, not to mention the attention given to the eligible young Scot by the women in his life. Once again, Henchard’s weakness for angry, prideful, self-serving impulse overrides his better judgement.

And though Henchard has promised to remarry Susan, he is not completely available himself. During one of his bouts of depression over the years, he was aided by a young woman, Lucetta, in a nearby town. Lucetta’s reputation was destroyed when it became known that she was on close terms with a stranger while Henchard, again, managed to escape anonymously. He had promised Lucetta he would marry her to remove the stain he had a role in placing on her but the unexpected return of Susan has scuppered those plans. Henchard needs to break things off with Lucetta and hope she won’t be so scorned as to use the considerable correspondence she has in her possession against him.

But Susan has a secret of her own. One that she is not prepared to reveal but neither is she willing to take to her grave. Meanwhile, the twenty years of Henchard’s oath of sobriety is about to lapse.

He experienced not only the bitterness of a man who finds, in looking back upon an ambitious course, that what he has sacrificed in sentiment was worth as much as what he has gained in substance; but the super-added bitterness of seeing his very recantation nullified. He had been sorry for all this long ago; but his attempts to replace ambition by love had been as fully foiled as his ambition itself. His wronged wife had foiled them by a fraud so grandly simple as to be almost a virtue.

This is the third Thomas Hardy I have read on my journey to read his six most enduring novels. I was surprised by how engrossing and entertaining the novel is. The rapid pace of the plot and the frequent unexpected turns made it quite the page turner. The extraordinary opening where Henchard sells his wife and child had me hooked from the beginning.

The Mayor of Casterbridge includes the features that I have come to expect from a Hardy novel; women faced with a difficult choice between suitors; weddings not going ahead as proposed; social confusion as tradition struggles to accommodate a new world where people rapidly rise and fall in material wealth; frequent references to other literature; a rural, isolated setting; fate as a consequence of character. Yet, there are some new elements in this novel from the earlier ones I have read – Far from the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native.

One obvious difference is that the story takes place in a town rather than the countryside. Some early passages are even reminiscent of a Dickensian town. But Casterbridge more of a town of country folk, and very much part of the country, than a true urban centre with no trace of the rural.

Casterbridge, as has been hinted, was a place deposited in the block upon a cornfield. There was no suburb in the modern sense, or transitional intermixture of town and down. It stood, with regard to the wide fertile land adjoining, clean-cut and distinct, like a chess-board on a green table-cloth. The farmer’s boy could sit under his barley-mow and pitch a stone into the office-window of the town-clerk;

Within the town, and more so than the earlier novels, is a real sense of creating a setting to complement the events of the plot. Secret meetings take place at night by the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre. Lonely moments of introspection and melancholy take place on a stone bridge at the edge of town. There are contrasting taverns from the respectable and less respectable parts of town. Much of the novel takes place in a country mansion, around which the town has grown, and from which the daily lives of ordinary townspeople can be witnessed, while a back door leads to an alley and the shadier part of town. The most powerful setting concerns Henchard’s late night visit to a fortune teller, living in an isolated hut outside town, on a stormy night. It is a scene that would feel more at home in a Gothic novel and will stay with me for some time.

In the introduction to this edition, Keith Wilson points out that this novel represents a comeback of sorts for Hardy. The novels published just before The Mayor of Casterbridge, now poorly remembered, were a disappointment coming after the early success of Far from the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native. The Mayor of Casterbridge is a return to form, a return to the fertile ground of his fictional Wessex and an unexpected turn in Hardy’s career towards great tragedy which would mark the rest of his major novels.

‘Tragedy’ almost feels like an understatement for Henchard’s downfall. It is not simply a case of his past catching up with him. Repeatedly compared to Cain and Faust, Henchard creates new disasters for himself as he lacks the self-control to restrain his impulse for self-interest and self-preservation as well as his short temper. It is only an impulse as he always realises his wrong but too late to prevent catastrophe. Other characters in the novel seem to behave well without any self-awareness. It is only Henchard who is cursed with consciousness.

But most probably luck had little to do with it. Character is fate said Novalis, and Farfrae’s character was just the reverse of Henchard’s who might not inaptly be described as Faust has been described – as a vehement, gloomy being, who had quitted the ways of vulgar men without light to guide him on a better way.

Wilson also makes the point that some of the events that bring about Henchard’s downfall only have impact because Henchard, like Hardy, has become a public figure. The price of fame is therefore a theme of the novel as well.

As I say, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this novel given that it is not as popular as some of Hardy’s others. The novel’s pace, the revelations and turns of plot, the drama of certain scenes all contributed to my enjoyment. I should add that I also enjoyed the wonderful illustrations by Robert Barnes. Twenty illustrations were included in this edition for the first time since the original serialised publication of The Mayor of Casterbridge in 1886. If I have a criticism of the novel it is that the pace I enjoyed slowed down considerably towards the end of the novel and the story dragged on a little long. I am now half way through the six Hardy novels I set myself and if this is a taste of the tragedies to come, I wonder what I am in store for.

See also, my review of other Hardy novels: Far From the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native

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8 thoughts on “Book Review: The Mayor of Casterbridge

  1. I didnt know that this was not universally applauded. It’s one of my favourites. My least favourite is Jude – i just find the main character so intensely irritating. you are definitely in for a treat when you get to Tess…

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