I have at last finished reading Return of the Native, the novel by Thomas Hardy which we had to read when we were doing our A-levels. Although i hadn’t enjoyed it very much, and in fact got to rather dislike it, it has some powerful scenes and images which I’ve remembered all my life. The main characters of Eustacia Vye, Clym Yeobright, his mother, and his cousin Thomasin remained vivid, even though it’s such a long time since I last read it.
Although I admire much of Hardy’s work, especially his poems, each time I read a novel I’m usually left with gloomy feelings because of the miseries some of the characters suffer – particularly of course, Jude and Tess. So m book club were surprised when i suggested we choose it; I guess I wanted to challenge my prejudices, and also revisit those characters I’ve known since I was eighteen.
SPOILER ALERT! – I’m not deliberately mentioning any incident, but I might inadvertently reveal something which if you haven’t read the book might take away some of your enjoyment!
I was surprised at the beginning how easy i found it, I didn’t feel as if i was ploughing through it, but maybe when i was younger and read it the characters were all older than me, now I’m older than most of them so possibly have a different perspective. I really struggled with the villagers and country folk when i read the book as a student, now although in some way characters i did find them interesting. I remember arguing passionately with friends about Eustacia – but whether I was ‘for’ or ‘against’ her, I really can’t remember. I know now I don’t have much sympathy for her, although she is believable. Similarly neither Clym nor Wildeve, the two men who love her are very sympathetic, although I think a greater understanding for Wildeve, he did seem to genuinely love her – as I read it ow. Clym was so boring, and so self-righteous and so slefish that I hadn’t much patience with him. The mysterious reddleman, as i read it now seemed sinister, spying on people even though it was to protect Thomasin who he loved from the start.. I also surprised mys elf by feeling a great deal of sympathy for Clym’s mother, who truly did think she was doing the best for those she loved.
I know many novels have aspects which aren’t believable, but there were some contrived scenes which stretched my ability to believe them. From the start Christian Cantle is a foolish, unreliable, impetuous and easily scared man so it seemed ridiculous to imagine that a sensible and careful person like Mrs Yeobright would trust a hundred gold guineas to him, fifty to be given each to Clym and Thomasin. Of course as soon as we read that she makes this out of character decision, we know it’s going to end in disaster, and although it does allow Hardy to write a wonderful scene which I will mention in a moment, it also leads to the deaths of Mrs Yeobright, Wildeve and Eustacia, and Clym’s life blighted.
The fantastical epsisode which strangely I’d forgotten until I reread the book is where Christian loses the golden guineas in a cardgame with Wildeve., played at night, out on the moor by the light of a lantern. Venn the reddleman secretly observes the game and, armed with a pistol challenges Wildeve to play again, and he wins the money back. It is wonderfully described and Joseph Wright of Derby would have painted a wonderful chiara oscura version of the scene – if had had still been alive of course!
The other scene which made a lasting impression on me was where mrs Yeobright goes to Clym and Eustacia’s home to try and make up with them after a terrible damaging quarrel. It is a dreadfully hot summer’s day, and the old lady struggles to walk the six or so miles. When she gets to their house she doesn’t realise that Wildeve is visiting, and Clym is unknowingly asleep. When Eustacia sees her mother-in-law knocking on the door she hastily sends Wildeve away out of the back door. The old lady knows Clym is at home, seeing his working boots by the door, and sees Eustacia glance out, so when she is not admitted she thinks they both have turned against her. Broken-hearted she sets off to walk home but is overcome by the heat (imagine her in her Victorian old lady clothes with a bonnet and long skirts, petticoats and tight shoes) She virtually collapses and as she lies against a bank she is bitten by an adder. The bite of course, is fatal, and her death scene – which I had forgotten is extremely poignant, a little boy leads his mother and the villagers to her, a shelter is erected round her as she is too ill to travel and her son arrives too late to say goodbye. It’s an extraordinary lantern-lit scene (another for Joseph Wright!) as eels are caught, killed and their oil extracted to make a poultice – which of course cannot cure an adder bite.
Another scene which I remember but did not fond on rereading – so maybe imagined? Maybe skip-read the page it was on? – is of the dominating “character” of the novel, Egdon Heath, the vast rolling Dorset heathland covered in furze (gorse) and ferns, inhabited by heath croppers – the wild ponies of the southwest. I remembered a description of the vast heath and a single man working on it cutting furze as the sun begins to go down and the landscape darkens; e is bent to his task and see what is before him as the light leaves the sky. It’s a powerful picture of a puny human and a vast landscape; however i couldn’t find it in the boo… maybe i fell asleep at that point!
I’m not sure I will read another hardy for a while, but I enjoyed this more than I expected, and certainly much more than when i studied it for my exams!