"The Mayor of Casterbridge"

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

What can I say about this book? It's quintessentially Hardy, with characters not being what or who they are thought to be and hoped-for meetings just missed because someone has arrived a week, or a day or an hour too late. Hardy is nothing if not predictable, but still, I love his books.

The Mayor is a man called Henchard, who in a state of temporary drunkenness and rage sells his wife, Lucy, and child to a sailor called Newson. The next day in a fit of regret, he is unable to find them and he swears an oath to not touch alcohol for 21 years, the age he was when he did the despicable deed. Eighteen years later, the child has died, Newson has died and Lucy and her daughter Elizabeth have returned to seek out Henchard, who has risen in circumstances and is now mayor of the town. Henchard thinks Elizabeth is his daughter, but she thinks Newson is her father so Henchard, in order to keep her from ever knowing that he had, as he believes, sold his own daughter, agrees with Lucy to pretend they're just getting to know one another now and that they'll marry after the appropriate amount of time has passed. Henchard grows fond of Elizabeth as does Henchard's foreman, a young Scot named Donald Farfrae.

Spoiler alert - I will be talking about the book's ending, not that it's much of a surprise as it was written in 1886. However, if you'd rather not know, it's best not to read any further.

Now things begin to get complicated. Henchard isn't really Elizabeth's father, Newson is. Newson isn't really dead, and he comes looking for his family. Henchard's old girlfriend, who has been waiting all these years for Lucy to die so she could become Mrs. Henchard, ends up through a series of oh-so-Hardian circumstances becoming Mrs. Farfrae - for a time. Farfrae surpasses Henchard in just about every area of life, robbing him (in Henchard's mind) of his woman, his home and even his position as mayor. He doesn't care about Elizabeth anymore once he learns she's not his daughter. Henchard, bitter, mean and disappointed in the human race, leaves the town and all its bad memories behind him.

Things do eventually sort themselves out, everybody finds out who they are and who they love, and Farfrae ends up with Elizabeth. They go looking for Henchard, ready to forgive and love him again, but of course they are, inevitably, too late. Henchard has died, alone and unloved, leaving this one request - that he be forgotten.

Everything about this book and the rest of Hardy's books can be easily found online. They've been reviewed and analyzed countless times, but reading about the book is not the same as reading the book. Yes, his books are sad and, in my opinion, closer to real life than some other authors ever take you, but his writing is what keeps me coming back. I love the way he tells a story. The guy knows disappointment and pain, and he isn't shy about writing what he knows into his stories. His characters are lonely, hurt, angry and real, and I appreciate that they suffer without slobbering all over you. Sure there is some Victorian drama, but generally the sufferers contain it within themselves rather than pouring it out all over the other characters and the reader. I still like the strong, silent type, out of date or not.  

I downloaded The Woodlanders onto my Kobo the other day so that will be my next Hardy, though not my next book. I have Margaret Laurence's The Prophet's Camel Bell to read for book club, and I'm part way through The Hobbit and Lady Audley's Secret, both of which I'm thoroughly enjoying. After that I'm dying to get to The Skin Map by Stephen Lawhead, a book that was recommended to me on another book blog, the name of which escapes me at the moment, but whose recommendations have led me to other books I might never have chosen on my own.


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