The Mayor of Casterbridge has been quietly residing on my bookcase (admittedly different bookcases) for nearly two years; a pristine copy just chilling out there between thumbed copies of Frankenstien and Far From the Madding Crowd patiently waiting to be read. Finally, its moment came. I hadn’t planned to read this novel. I hadn’t spend hours agonisingly gazing at my bookcases waiting for a book to leap out at me and be read that instance. Instead I just picked it up, didn’t think about it, and began reading. I relish this pain free method of choosing what to read; it doesn’t happen often, but when it does I appreciate it.
I’m going to pinch a line from the synopsis of my copy, but it is too perfect a summing up of the novel; The Mayor of Casterbridge ‘is about a man haunted by his past.’ Henchard, his wife and small child stop off at village fair, and during their stay in a food tent, Henchard begins to drink:
‘At the end of the first basin the man had risen to serenity; at the second he was jovial; at the third, argumentative; at the fourth, the qualities signified by the shape of his face, the occasional clench of his mouth, and the fiery spark of his dark eye, began to tell in his conduct; he was overbearing – even brilliantly quarrelsome.’
It is whilst he is in this drunken state that Henchard commits the shocking mistake that haunts him for the rest of his life. He quickly swears off alcohol and makes a fresh start in a new village, rising to the position of Mayor. However, his past cannot stay secret forever, and it soon comes back to turn his world upside down and brings new joy, heartache and trials for Henchard to deal with.
I thoroughly enjoyed this return to the beautiful Wessex countryside of Hardy novels. Having grown up and lived in or near the Wessex region of South West England for all my life (thankfully I missed out on the accent) I find a comforting sense of familiarity in Hardy’s writing, despite the fact few places/landmarks are explicitly mentioned. His sheer love and appreciation of the countryside shine through in all his novels, with rural life providing a perfect backdrop for his memorable tales of love, loss and moralistic messages. I currently live just outside a city and every so often I get an urge to move to a bigger city and experience life in the hustle and bustle of a thriving metropolis…and then I read something like The Mayor of Casterbridge and I am reminded that I would miss the beauty and ever changing nature of the countryside, the pheasants pecking about in the fields and the glorious misty mornings where the fog lingers on the hillsides and the valleys for what feels like an eternity. And let’s face it, I probably wouldn’t be allowed chickens in the city, and I really want some. Possibly my favourite description from the novel centres on the countryside: ‘The sun was resting on the hill like a drop of blood on an eyelid.’ Eerie and forboding as well as beautiful imagery.
The narrative was full of many twists and turns, again something I love in a novel, and if I am honest, something I wasn’t quite expecting from The Mayor of Casterbridge for some reason. The rise and fall of Henchard always seems to be balancing precariously on a coin edge, and to a fair degree it is always his own fault and his jealousy and rage that lead to his downfalls. There are many points in the novel where I felt sympathy for Henchard and I could almost understand why it acted in a certain way, and I was delighted by his attempts to come good at the end of the novel. Hardy has created yet another doomed protaganist with a sense of the inevitable clear throughout his novel. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed The Mayor of Casterbridge and it has left me eager to reread Tess of the D’Ubervilles, the subject of my undergrad dissertation…maybe I will aim to get there sooner rather than later.