Re-reading a set text

When I was doing A-levels, the English set text was ‘Return of the Native’; at that I think the syllabus was more flexible then, and to help appreciate Hardy, or maybe to fill the two years of the course, we first of all read ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’. The film came out the same year and of course it was such an amazing film with Julie Christie, Terence Stamp, Peter Finch and Alan Bates and made such an impression on us sixteen and seventeen year old girls. Julie Christie, although glamorous was someone we identified with – we knew glam girls in the year above who were (in our unsophisticated imaginations) like her. There was a fall out between the Terence Stamp/Alan Bates fans, which looking back was an echo of the Stones/Beatles divide. It was the first Hardy I had read and totally engaging, even though we all felt as if we were wading though some Hardy’s dense descriptions.

In the second year of the A-level course we set to with ‘Return of the Native’, which seemed so heavy and ponderous to us Madding Crowd fans. The characters were vivid, but I don’t think we engaged in the same way. The younger characters, Thomasin Yeobright, Eustacia Vye, Clement ‘Clym’ Yeobright, Damon Wildeve and the mysterious reddleman Diggory Venn, did capture our imaginations – especially their fantastic names, but we didn’t fall into two camps as we had with ‘Return of the Native’ . We mostly thought Thomasin was wimpy, Eustacia was annoying, Clym a wet blanket, Damon a con and the reddleman may have been mysterious, but he was a bit dull. We didn’t – or most of us didn’t feel for them, their predicaments seemed  their own fault for their foolish and frankly unbelievable actions. There was the usual set of country folk and I don’t think we teenagers found any of them interesting or amusing. However, there were set scenes which did make an impression – and I’ve mentioned them when writing about it before, Egdon Heath, the furze cutters, the poor woman who was bitten by an adder while trying to do the right thing – and the other woman whose unknowing actions led to her death, and of course the reddleman. Reddle was ochre used to mark sheep.

Maybe it was the way it was taught – not our teacher, but the way literature was taught then, but I think many of us ended up hating the book, and certainly it was a long time before I read any Hardy again. I’ve now read most of his books, but I do find them very depressing, and I think if anyone asked me if I liked Hardy, I would reply with a heartfelt ‘no!’ However at our last reading group, we were casting round for something to read for next time, and as usual our minds went blank, and I said how about a Hardy. People laughed in surprise, but I said, I really ought to challenge myself and overcome my prejudices and have another go, and no-one else seemed to have read ‘Return of the Native’ so we decided on it.

Well, I must say, I am jolly surprised by it; I must have read it and reread it so many times when I was at school, and so much of it came back as I was reading. Maybe because it was choice, not forced, but I found I did begin to see it very differently. When I was reading it the young characters were all older than me, and seemed a world apart, the older ones even more so. Now I’m older than most of them and view them very differently. I feel sorry for Eustacia trapped on top of the moor with only her very elderly grandpa for company; I see that Mrs Yeobright, Clym’s mother and Thomasin’s aunt and guardian, may be a repressed woman, but she is kind and loving and cares greatly for her son and niece, and wants only the best for them. She allows Thomasin great freedom in choosing who she should marry, and she’s able to go out and go where she wants. I see her now as a tragic figure, and her death the greatest tragedy of all – she was on a mission of reconciliation when events led to her death.

I’m enjoying the descriptive writing – of locations, but the page after page of describing the characters’ appearance is still… well, to be honest, boring! I’m finding it most interesting from a social history point of view, how the different classes of people relate to each other in a much more flexible and nuanced way than we generally think of in the nineteenth century. Maybe this was true only of country folk and small isolated communities, but it’s interesting all the same.

I am about Hathaway through… maybe by the time i get to the end my opinions will have changed again!

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