Hardy & Me…

I’m madd not to have read more Hardy!

I’m just back from the cinema where I saw Far From the Madding Crowd. For anyone suffering from Poldark withdrawal, it has lots of galloping along clifftops and through fields, and scything! Seriously, it was a wonderful film, with a screenplay by David Nicholls. I’ve come away with a serious crush on this Gabriel Oak (Mattias Schoenaerts, a Belgian), I gasped when his sheep became lemmings, I felt so sorry for poor anguished Mr Boldwood (Michael Sheen) and hoped that Katniss Bathsheba wouldn’t marry Sgt Troy (Tom Sturridge). You see despite being in my mid 50s now (eek!) I’ve never seen the earlier film with Christie, Bates and Stamp – just odd clips, I never knew the whole story. I could hardly bear to look at the screen when she nearly let him get away at the end, and had tears of joy rolling down my cheeks seconds later.



The thing is I love reading Thomas Hardy but I’ve only read two: Jude the Obscure for book club a couple of years ago and Tess of the D’Urbervilles back in autumn 2008. Should I read FFTMC now so soon after the film, or another of his novels – I have quite a few of my late mum’s copies on the shelves.

Which would you suggest I should read next?

A ‘Hardy’ Christmas for our Book Group

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

jude Our book group more often than not picks a classic to read over Christmas. This year we picked possibly the least Christmassy and most draining novel in a long time for our festive read – Jude the Obscure is not a book for the faint-hearted. So, when we met and discussed it a few days ago, it was great to find that everyone had enjoyed at least some aspects of it, and we had a great discussion.

Published as a novel in 1895 after prior serialisation, Jude caused a furore over it’s subjects of class and sex.  Its reception caused Hardy to give up writing novels, turning to poetry instead.

It tells the story of Jude Fawley, a young country lad with intellectual aspirations to somehow study at the university of Christminster (Oxford).  He buries his nose in his books after work as much as he can, but still one day manages to get trapped into marriage with Arabella, a former barmaid who hopes for betterment too. Jude’s aunt had warned him, ‘The Fawleys were not made for wedlock: it never seemed to sit well upon us.’

Arabella abandons him as soon as she realises that his books are his first love. This allows Jude to move to Christminster where he becomes a stone mason, and meets and falls for Sue Bridehead, his cousin.  Sue is studying at a training college to become a teacher, under the patronage of Mr Phillotson, her ageing suitor.  Meanwhile Jude’s ambitions are thwarted when he is rejected by academia. Sue is outraged by this:

‘It is an ignorant place, except as to the towns-people, artizans, drunkards, and paupers,’ she said, hurt still at his differing from her. ‘They see life as it is, of course; but few of the people in the colleges do. You prove it in your own person. You are one of the very men Christminster was intended for when the colleges were founded; a man with a passion for learning, but no money, or opportunities, or friends. But you were elbowed off the pavement by the millionaires’ sons.’

Jude and Sue are madly in love, but Sue insists that it is kept platonic. They set up house together, but live as brother and sister. After a lapse on Jude’s part Sue decides to marry Phillotson after all, but detests him physically so much that she jumps out of the window rather than submit to him in the marital bed!  Phillotson, realises that she’ll never be his and releases her despite it costing him his own career advancement, and Sue goes back to Jude – both of them still being married.

I won’t summarise the story further, save to say that both Phillotson, and Arabella put in further appearances, and tragedy will visit Jude and Sue with grave consequences.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is the only other Hardy novel I have read, back in the early days of this blog (review here). I loved Tess, so I was looking forward to Jude. I must admit I struggled with it at first, finding that it took ages to get going. I was mostly reading it before going to bed, and regularly fell asleep after a handful of pages. When I started reading it in the morning, and then Sue jumped out of the window, I was finally hooked. By the time the tragedy happened I was so immersed, I immediately jumped to conclusions and had to read the page three times – before turning over and finding out that a) I’d been wrong, and b) that the reality in the book of what happened was even more sad.  I read the last 150 pages in one go, and ended up drained by it.

At book group, Sue Bridehead initially got the lion’s share of the discussion.  We tried to decide whether she was a tease, frigid, or just flighty?  Regardless of the modernity of her thoughts on marriage, she kept Jude on tenterhooks with her commitment-phobia.  In contrast, although Arabella was also an arch manipulator, she was more straight-forward – there’s a lovely passage about Arabella later in the book, as she’s described by a family friend …

 ‘Well,’ said Tinker Taylor, re-lighting his pipe at the gas-jet. ‘Take her all together, limb by limb, she’s not such a bad-looking piece – particular by candlelight. To be sure, halfpence that have been in circulation can’t be expected to look like new ones from the Mint. But for a woman that’s been knocking about the four hemispheres for some time, she’s passable enough. A little bit thick in the flitch perhaps: but I like a woman that a puff o’ wind won’t blow down.’

We also felt for Phillotson, who did make a mistake in grooming and marrying Sue originally, but redeemed himself when he realised she detested him. He let her go, against the advice of his friends, and paid the price for his equally modern gesture.

On the issue of the class divide – ’twas ever thus, the majority of places at Oxford are still taken by pupils from independent schools. Jude was fated to remain ‘obscure’, an outsider.

We all marvelled at the mechanics of getting around in the late Victorian era.  In the first sections, Jude in particular did an awful lot of walking, journeys on foot of several miles were the norm.  Later everyone goes everywhere by train – fully embracing the improved transport arising from the industrial revolution.  Likewise the postal system was super efficient with post really taking just a day, (unlike today’s!).

Finally, local colour added to the reading for the novel is set in and around Oxford, Reading and Wantage, (but not Abingdon where we’re centred sadly); some of the landmarks mentioned are identifiable today.  Hardy’s descriptions of the countryside are always lyrical – often contrasting with the actions of the country folk who live in it.

Jude was originally serialised in twelve parts. The novel is split into six parts, each anchored geographically in one of the towns or at Christminster. My one quibble is that in each of the six parts, Jude moves, restarts his career, etc etc – this aspect was a little repetitive, but that’s small beer compared with the major themes.  All in all, Jude the Obscure was a great choice for discussion, and has renewed my enthusiasm for Hardy. (8.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy – paperbacks available from Penguin Classics or Oxford World’s Classics

A Farm Girl’s Tale …

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon

this is my book and i am writing it by my own hand.
in this year of lord eighteen hundred and thirty one i am reached the age of fifteen and i am sitting by my window and i can see many things. i can see birds and they fill the sky with their cries. i can see the trees and i can see the leaves.
and each leaf has veins which run down it.
and the bark of each tree has cracks.
i am not very tall and my hair is the colour of milk.
my name is mary and I have learned to spell it, m. a. r. y. that is how you letter it.
i want to tell you what it is that happened but i must be ware not to rush at it like the heifers at the gate for if I do that I will get ahead of my self so quick that I will trip and fall and anyway you will want me to start where a person ought to.
and that is at the beginning.

Mary’s tale is a story simply told by the girl herself. The youngest of four sisters in a farming family that needed sons, she works from dawn to dusk as hard as her crippled leg allows.  However her father tells her one day that she will go to live and work for the vicar helping to take care of his ill wife.  Mary has never left the environs of the farm, except to go to church, and even though the vicarage is only the other end of the village, she cannot expect to see her family often, if at all.

It takes her a good while to adjust to the different work and Mary really misses her old grandfather, and her favourite cow.  Mary is a very forthright girl, and despite her sharp-tongue, Mrs Graham takes to her, but it is not to last.  Mary is surprised to be kept on after she dies, and when Mr Graham offers to teach her to read and write, she can’t wait, but there is a price to pay …

This beautifully crafted short novel was a total delight, easily readable in one sitting, (it held well too, being a petite-sized edition).  Mary was instantly likeable, and her lack of skill in writing didn’t hamper her story at all.  It brought the plight of women from poor families at this time to life vividly. All the characters were well-rounded, from Mary’s violent father and subservient mother, to the kindly yet ‘needy’ vicar and his predatory son. There was a lot of story in this little volume, and comparisons with Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles come to mind, but with the story being told by Mary herself, there was a real freshness to it. I thought I knew what was going to happen, as certain elements are predictable, but the climax was  a surprise in the end, and I loved this little book. (9/10)

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My ARC was kindly supplied by the publisher. Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon. Pub by Fig Tree on 31st May 2012. Small hardback, 170 pp.

Gaskella’s Midweek Miscellany

In today’s Miscellany…

  • A visit from the Fairy Hobmother
  • A funny nearly literary moment from my Dorset holiday
  • And the latest book arrivals at Gaskell Towers.
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Firstly, I had a lovely surprise e-mail whilst I was on holiday. It was from the Fairy Hobmother who granted my wish when I commented on my friend Ali’s blog.  I asked for some new knives – and this lovely new set arrived within days. Thank you very much Fairy Hobmother!

Actually the Fairy Hobmother is a nice chap called David at Appliances Online, and he travels around blogs in the UK granting wishes.  What a nice job to have!

If any of you have any kitchen related wishes, do leave a comment below, because he might then visit you too …

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I spent last week on holiday in Dorset, based at West Bay – the harbour of Bridport, a little town ten miles east of Lyme Regis.

Juliet and I walked the famous Cobb at Lyme (right) – immortalised in Austen’s Persuasion and Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman. We also went fossil hunting at Charmouth, remembering the Victorian pioneer Mary Anning who featured in Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures.

Notably missing from my Dorset literary canon was Thomas Hardy of course, and on our last day on the way back from sandcastle-building at Weymouth, I saw a sign to the ‘Hardy Monument’.

A couple of miles up the winding country road to the hilltop, and we reached this…  It was shrouded in scaffolding and the site was completely closed – a shame as the view from the top would have been marvellous.

When we got home, I looked it up on Wikipedia – and discovered that I’d got the wrong Hardy!

The Hardy Monument was erected in memory of Vice Admiral Sir Thomas Hardy – he of ‘Kiss me Hardy,’ reputedly said by Nelson as he lay dying at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Oh Well…

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And finally, a selection of the latest additions to my TBR piles.

    • Doc by Mary Doria Russell. Given my current love of westerns, I couldn’t resist ordering this one from the US once I read Teresa’s post at Shelf Love on Russell and her new novel about Doc Holliday.
    • Sherry Cracker Gets Normal by D J Connell – an oddball comedy that sounds really fun.
    • The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. When this was first published I remember reading some positive comments on various blogs, so I picked up the paperback.
    • It Had to Be You by David Nobbs. Any new novel by septuagenarian Nobbs is cause for celebration, and this tale of one man and the five women in his life sounds no exception.
    • The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield with an eleven year old tomboy heroine called Swan Lake – she sounds adorable.
    • Other People’s Money by Justin Cartwright. This is my bookseller friend Nicki’s Booker shortlist tip.
    • Wait For Me!: Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister by Deborah Devonshire – new out in paperback.
    • Damned Busters (Angry Robot) by Matthew Hughes. I couldn’t resist this Faustian comic fantasy with unlikely superheroes!
    • … and finally The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell – in a signed, numbered edition of the paperback given to the first 500 subscribers to a new quarterly books magazine called We love this book. The mag is rather good too – you may be able to pick up a free copy in indie/specialist bookshops.

I’m a Hardy convert!

Back in September on this blog I confessed that I had never read any Thomas Hardy. As this admission coincided with the recent BBC adaptation I chose Tess of the D’Urbervilles to read. I only watched the first two episodes on TV though, and can honestly say I didn’t know the second half of the story at all.

Although the book is verbose and overlong, I couldn’t deny it five stars because it made me cry a little, not once, but twice! The big theme is social injustice, with the pastoral idyll ever present in the Wessex background. Tess herself is innocence and vulnerability personified, (a friend of mine said she has ‘victim’ written all over her).

Without spending too long on the story’s details, Tess’s once-noble family is now impoverished and they have to work hard for a living. Tess meets and is unwillingly deflowered by a bad but rich ‘cousin’ Alec, then meets a good man, Angel and is allowed to be happy for a while – the scene where Angel carries the farm-girls across the ford was lovely. But it doesn’t last and Angel rejects her when she tells him her shameful secret on their wedding night – I was reading this in bed with tears rolling down my cheeks. Angel leaves her to go to the Americas and Tess, too proud to ask his family for help, goes back to toiling on farms, where Alec finds her again and pursues her with a vengeance, leading to such a sad ending upon Angel’s return that I cried again, not believing that it could end this way.

The Wessex countryside was beguiling, and the influence of the industrial revolution is just beginning to make some inroads with the railways in the distant towns, and inventions like the steam-powered threshing machine. For families such as the D’Urbeyfields, life is hard and mobility is limited; but when Tess throws away the opportunity of moving up the ladder by making Alec marry her, she reinforces the class divide from her side too.

Result! I’m definitely a Hardy convert.

Guilty Secrets #1

This is the first in an occasional series where I am going to risk ridicule and tell you which books and authors I really ought to have read but haven’t.

I am enjoying the new BBC adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles immensely and it’s young star Gemma Arterton is just the part with her Pre-Raphaelite tresses. Here comes my first confession – I’ve never read it. In fact I have never read any Thomas Hardy.

I was talking about this to a friend yesterday and she recommended her favourite which is also one of his darkest – Jude the Obscure. I’m determined to make amends by reading some Hardy so should I take a deep breath and start with Jude, or can you suggest another to me …