A novel by Thomas Hardy
, published in 1886. The action takes place in and around Casterbridge, Hardy's fictitious name for Dorchester
, the county town of Dorset
. It tells of the rise and fall of Michael Henchard
, a labourer who makes a terrible mistake early on in life, reforms, rises to prosperity
and to become the Mayor
of Casterbridge, and whose life gradually disintegrates as his past catches up with him.
Normally with a classic novel I assume the story is known to many, and I have no need to warn of spoilers when I mention the mysterious strangers or tragic deaths: and indeed, the surprises in this one are known to the reader long before the characters and town of Casterbridge learn of them. However this is also a finely balanced book. For the most part, there are no things obvious to the reader at the beginning which we can be sure must happen. It unfolds like real events, full of uncertainty of outcomes, even the most desirable, or grimly dreaded. Many things do go as we expect, and seem inevitable, but there are many surprises too.
The great mistake in his early years is to sell his wife, while in drink. Wife sale was a recognised custom, not legal and not approved of, but done, and publicly done: Henchard's suffering wife Sarah has had enough of him, and accepts the sailor Newson's offer to Henchard of five guineas, on the condition that she can also take their infant Elizabeth-Jane. Henchard is neither a bad man nor a drunkard, but flawed enough that he can throw his young wife away like this out of temper. Soon after he regrets it, and swears a solemn oath to abstain from drink for twenty-one years.
Now pass most of those years, and Henchard has worked his way up to affluence and respectability in Casterbridge. He has heard nothing of his former wife and child, nor they of him, until released by news of the sailor's loss at sea Sarah seeks him out once more. She doesn't know what she will do when she finds him, or whether he is well or ill, high or low; but hopes they can get on kindly. Her daughter is a fine young woman, good-looking and unassuming and with other such heroinely virtues. In Casterbridge they make contact, and are both happy to be reconciled. They plan to do some public wooing then contract a second marriage for the eyes of the world.
The complications mount up from this point. For one, Elizabeth-Jane believes the sailor Newson to have been her real father, and neither Michael nor Sarah Henchard has the heart to tell her their sordid secret of the drunken wife sale. Next, Michael had another dalliance in his past, on the island of Jersey, when he was recuperating from illness and a young lady nursed him. It seems to have been fairly innocent (though deciphering nineteenth-century code for degrees of moral transgression can be baffling), but on being known it injured the lady's reputation; so he has a sort of tentative obligation to marry her too, though of course not as strong as the one to be married to his legal wife.
Then there is the Scotchman, a young, vital, honest, impulsive man called Farfrae, romantically pining for his home and charming the ladies, and also being a very sound head at business. He is taken on by Henchard as his manager, and their liking turns to great friendship before souring into rivalry, in which time after time Farfrae gets the better of Henchard. Neither is altogether in the wrong, and they are capable of forgiveness and reconciliation, but the rift becomes deeper. Then when the attractive Jersey lady, now the inheritor of a good fortune, arrives in Casterbridge, the two men become rivals for her too.
The first and second Mrs Henchard has passed away of some form of Victorian Novel Disease, because she was an adulteress even though she didn't realise it at the time; but rules are rules. The new lady, Miss Le Sueur, now Miss Templeman courtesy of her rich relative, is torn between her two suitors. Elizabeth is estranged from her father because of a secret he knows about her but is too pained to tell her -- this sort of thing is a recurring theme --, so goes to live with Miss Templeman as her companion. Alas, the unassuming Elizabeth thought she was the object of Mr Farfrae's budding affection until her new and attractive friend came on the scene; but she is a good girl and swallows her disappointment.
So these are the actors on the stage. It is a beautiful detailed set too, being Hardy: the clothing of the farm labourers, the layout of the streets and market and bridges, the tools, the weather, grimy pub rooms, everything is done as finely as he always does it. But it is not melodramatic: for the most part there are no sudden glaring scenes reflecting the agonists' inner turmoils.
Farfrae's star continues to rise: shrewd in business and lucky in love, he eventually becomes the master of the impoverished Henchard, and at last he too, though young and Scottish, becomes the eponymous Mayor.
When the drunken, greedy, thoughtless lower orders fortuitously get wind of Mrs Farfrae's past involvement with Henchard, they bruit the scandal in an interesting country custom called a skimmington: not quite as Webster 1913 describes it, since in this case the two figures placed on the donkey are both effigies, one of Mrs Farfrae and one of Henchard. They make a great racket carrying these through the town, and there is disgrace and horror and death.
Henchard right to the end vacillates because of his fatal flaws: sometimes proud, sometimes abject, sometimes forgiving, sometimes cruel, never wholly bad. There is some reconciliation with his stepdaughter Elizabeth-Jane, and some with his former man Farfrae, but ultimately no real resolution. This is good: it is realistic.