Saturday, 11 July 2015

The Thomas Hardy Experience by John A. A. Logan



It was a strangely popular video in our school in 1982. There would be the weekly Saturday trip to the video shop, and repeatedly Far From the Madding Crowd would be chosen to take back and watch on Saturday night. This was the 1967 film, directed by John Schlesinger, with Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp…a 3-hour kaleidoscope of technicolour delights…but not an immediately obvious choice for early-or-pre-teen Saturday night video fodder.
It had drama, of course…Gabriel Oak’s dog chasing those sheep over the cliff…Sergeant Troy with that flashing sword…but, overall, it still remains a mystery to me how that film was so able to charm us, and somehow fit in perfectly with our usual diet of Frankenstein/Dracula horrors, Bond films, etc.


In 1983, an experiment of sorts took place, and I was the first person selected to be sent out from our school on the high hillside, down by bus into the village of Fortrose, to see if I could slot in seamlessly and join that school’s fifth year classes, despite having missed almost all of the normal secondary school curriculum, and about half of primary school.
The slotting in happened quite well, though, and there in the Higher English class was my old friend, Thomas Hardy, but now in book form. I recognised his name from the video cover for Far From the Madding Crowd. I read the novel, with my new class, every scene familiar from having watched the video perhaps 12 times over the past year…the familiarity was soothing, in that new school.

Next, the English teacher, who had a permanent unshaven look like one of the Anthill Mob from the Wacky Races cartoon, introduced us to The Mayor of Casterbridge, which again I found violently fascinating. The idea of a man selling off his wife and baby daughter…the “karma” that this all sets in motion…early oaths and deeds circling round and round through time, only to erupt later like sharks from a maelstrom, to rip at the throats of those who have forgotten ever performing them…or tried to forget…
This Mayor of Casterbridge book, and the looming figure of Michael Henchard, made solid sense to me aged 15.



That was all the Thomas Hardy I was going to get for a while. Next, the teacher presented us with Shakespeare, Macbeth. I had never read any Shakespeare before, though the children from that “normal” secondary school had been reading him for years it seemed.
Macbeth was interesting, too…but I missed Hardy…
A few months later, there was talk of me perhaps staying on at school for sixth year – “I think you’ll like this writer called Beckett next year,” the English teacher said to me when we were alone one day, showing me the cover of something called Waiting For Godot. I looked at the first pages and felt drawn into the words instantly.
But there were other siren calls signalling to me from the world beyond, I knew I was 16-and-a-half by now, and that no-one could make me stay in school.
So I left, and entered a 1984 world of Thatcherian unemployment everywhere I turned. I couldn’t even get interviews, let alone jobs.
But there was a library, and it was free.
Never have I read so long, deep, and widely, as during that period on the dole. As social and economic rejection deepened, something within the mind seemed to blossom – but, strangely, I could not read Hardy during those years.
I could read authors I’d barely heard of before – Dostoyevsky, Kundera, Kafka, Bradbury, Mailer, Orwell, D. H. Lawrence, Pirsig, Stephen King…but not Hardy.

It was 8 years before I would be ready to meet Hardy again.
By then, despite having had only one year of “normal” secondary education, and leaving school without enough qualifications, I’d had the opportunity to make up some of the difference at a local college, and gained entry to University as a mature student, aged 23.
It had felt like something like a miracle, getting in, despite all the gaps in my earlier history/education, but there I was, and somewhere around the 3rd year of the 4 year course, along came an opportunity to study nothing but Thomas Hardy for several weeks.


 Tess of the d’Urbervilles was first. I would tend to read the novel, not alone in those days, but publicly, while sitting in cafes, not something I think I could manage to do now. But it worked perfectly at the time, some full trance could be entered into during this public/private reading in late 1992…one moment I was in Inverness, or Aberdeen, the next in 1870s Wessex, in a world as rural, and far more, as the one I had experienced on a 1970s Scottish farm…there were other connections perhaps. Like Hardy’s father, my own had worked as a stonemason and builder, before being a farmer, and like many of the folk in Hardy’s world all my family for generations on both sides had been farmers or crofters, yes surely that must have been the Door that allowed me to step through into the world of Hardy, right from that first Far From the Madding Crowd film with its familiar sheep and collie dogs running around…
But with the reading of Tess, I had to turn up to University seminars/tutorials later, and discuss the book, and this was not so easy to do. In fact, I quickly learned to keep my mouth shut, and let others argue over what the book “meant”. Was Tess raped? Half the students were adamant that she was; half the students were adamant that she was not. An hour of vitriolic debate would pass. Even now, on a quick Google search I see the same argument played out decades later: “Tess – Raped – Yes or No?” And then, on one student site, 4 pages of forum comments, all disagreeing on the issue. Fair enough. There must be, somehow, somewhere, a grey area there, in the text, for some, no grey area there for others. To complicate it further, different texts have been in circulation historically, apparently, the serialisation had different scenes omitted/written…Hardy also revised the scene in question so many times over so many years, casting different lights and shadows on the scene some say…and then Polanski’s film was made, and his “version” is then stamped on the soul of the reader…so that they may also subconsciously see the unambiguously filmed scene when they read the text now. (It may be good to keep out of such arguments sometimes. Later, I met a woman, in 1995, in another town, who claimed her brother had been refused graduation by his university’s English dept, because he had come down hard on one side of the issue, and insisted in his essay that Tess had “not been raped”).


 The next Hardy novel on my university course was Return of the Native, which I read during a vacation, daily, and seemed to be drawn into its dark world even more powerfully and enjoyably than any of the other novels had caught me…Diggory Venn, red from head to foot, crossing the heath with his van…Eustacia Vye, desperate to escape the hated heath…that ancient heath, steeped in superstition, Eustacia herself suspected as a witch, a murderer, and adulteress…but in the background that seething heath, swirling with ancient portents and forces, Hardy always aware of the Christian world grafted upon the Roman, itself grafted upon the Pagan, and that grafted upon who knows what indeed…old gods living in the earth perhaps, their eyes gazing up from welled pools at the unsuspecting modern passers-by, watching, waiting, judging no doubt…and no character in Return of the Native will escape the Heath, or Destiny, or the cage of their own Natures. A blasting, searing novel to read, whether alone in a bed, or sitting in a café…a trance is a trance after all, and that book sends lightning bolts up from the page, like a keenly raging Zeus…
Interesting, too, that Native, Hardy’s 6th published novel, first appeared as a serialization in Belgravia magazine, in 12 monthly installments throughout 1878…as, of course, did Hardy’s other novels in various magazines…(thus making Hardy, like Dickens, a pioneer of the kind of Kindle Unlimited/Kindle Unlimited 2.0 ebook serialization which may gain a resurgence now perhaps…showing how little things really change over time, in one sense at least…)


 Jude was the last novel Hardy ever wrote, of course, and the last Hardy novel I ever read…which sounds ominous, but isn’t, as I am one of the “enjoyers” of this book. (A quick Google search will find that, nowadays, just as many readers lament their attempt to read Jude as was the case among Victorian readers upon the book’s release in 1895 – though the modern readers generally stop short of burning their copy, as the Victorian-era Bishop of Wakefield is said to have done).
The autodidact, Jude Fawley, yearns to be a scholar, at “Christminster”/Oxford…he moves there and works as a mason, while studying alone…hoping he can enter the university later…
But Fate instead has sent to Jude a wife, Arabella, and then Sue, and then “Little Father Time”…and then ensues a terrible Domino Theory series of Gallows Fall events that will take everything and everyone down with them.
“Enjoyed” perhaps very much the wrong word, then, for this book, but what other word can there be? The enjoyment must be in the depth of the analysis and meditation which Hardy achieves…the gaze into “the horror, the horror”…Hardy’s own version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but set locally, and thus all the more horrific perhaps.



 I never did read another Hardy novel, but instead, just as Hardy himself did, moved on into the Hardy poems, and signed up for a University seminar to study them, and they were good, but somehow I never did find that old friend in the poems, the one who had guided my mind and soul so surely through the novels over that decade of reading – reading that left me with an emblazoned area of brain, full of gas-bloated sheep needing punctured sides, witch-suspected women roaming heaths, stonemasons who think they can enter Great Universities in one lifetime’s leap, and ghostly ancient gods lurking behind the mask-faces of other ghostly ancient gods, themselves lurking behind countless other even older ghostly ancient gods infinitum infinitum, until all the raiments of civilisation and order seem to peel away from the reader’s soul, leaving only some kind of low, howling wind, sent to rack the spirit perhaps, or maybe only warn it off the Rocks, so that it can adventure awhile longer out there, among rolled waves and whirling, aghast birds, diving at a boiled sea for mouthfuls…themselves appearing like gods of Fate no doubt, to the terrified fish roiling away below the surface. 




13 comments:

JO said...

Oh Hardy! I had to study The Return of the Native at school - we were meant to read a section a week but I got caught reading it under the desk in Maths. Read all the others that first term - who needs homework, after all! And now I live a littl to the north of Hardy country, but can't stroll along as sheep drove without thinking that Tess might have walked along paths like this!

Lydia Bennet said...

A passionate post John about the power of reading and the 'right time' to read books and authors - so many have been put off by being forced to study books before being ready to enjoy them. I had my Hardy period too, I devoured them all but I can't read them now. His work stays with you for ever but the sheer misery of the novels is just too much to bear and I don't want to 'go there' again, though who knows, I may be ready again one day! The debates about Tess, was she/wasn't she, is also a tribute to the author - I mean, all that intense arguing about a fictional character and event, as if it was real! Wonderful. I suppose now I'd be asking, did Hardy intend for us to think that... though it's always difficult to judge past events in their own cultural and educational contexts by our own definitions.

Susan Price said...

Beautiful post, John.

Hardy does evoke strong feelings, doesn't he? I have to admit that I had no idea there was this big controversy about whether or not Tess was raped. I assumed, when I read it, that she was - and that one of the twists that Hardy creates is that she was, eventually, better treated and loved by her rapist, who she murders, than by that useless creep Angel Clare, who she's fixated on. (There's those strong feelings. I wanted to kick Clare and slap Tess.)

Even if it wasn't rape, then Alex is guilty of what a lot of young men did then - there are stories in my own family - of using a 'lower class' girl for sex and then deserting her. I think that view makes better sense of the story and characters' motivations, in many ways.

I threw Jude the Obscure across the room, so great was my exasperation. Much of the characters' misery is their own creation, caused by adhering to 'respectability' or 'morality', or what was considered moral. I was so exasperated because I knew that, at the time the book was written, my own family were happily ignoring such morality and nobody, as far as I can tell, gave a stuff. So it all seemed like a Force 12 in a thimble.

But certainly, I can't think of another novelist who's got under my skin to that extent - and I love his poetry.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Such an excellent, interesting post, John. I too read Hardy when I was younger - and at university as well. Our lecturer was passionate about the poems and I suspect we were all a bit bemused by his passion because we all preferred the novels. For me, Jude was a bridge too far. Just too grim. I liked Under the Greenwood Tree a lot though. Always wanted to dramatise one of his novels for radio, but somebody else always got in first!

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks for the memories, John. I'm still a huge fan of Hardy and you reminded me of how powerful some of his set pieces are: the sheep being chased over the cliff, Henchard selling Susan, the sounds of music outside as Jude is dying. Some of them even had a strange sort of Beckettian humour, as when Jude walks out onto the ice and jumps up and down but it doesn't break so he wanders off and Hardy writes 'He supposed he was not a sufficiently dignified person for suicide'.
Incidentally, I was also lucky enough to live in Dorchester for 3 years, my daughters were born there, and Hardy and his characters were everywhere.

Áine said...

“Be a good boy, remember; and be kind to animals and birds, and read all you can." Thomas Hardy - Mr. Phillotson to Jude.

Wonderful post!

julia jones said...

What a terrific post John - thank you

Dennis Hamley said...

Wonderful post, John. Hardy has meant so much to me too over the years. I first read Jude when I was just going into the 6th form at school and identified with him completely. Unlike him, I was so lucky about when I was born, so itt worked out well for me. But there will be many, many more Judes in the future. but now, there will be many, many more Judes. Yes, I suppose it was more 'droit de seigneur' than rape for Tess - but then, what's the difference? I agree with Sue: Alex has a lot more about him that horrible hypocrital rat Angel Clare. Thanks to Kindle, I've downloaded Hardy's complete works for free. I've just tried reading his very first novel, Desperate Remedies. I doubt if I'll finish it because it's AWFUL.

Dennis Hamley said...

Wonderful post, John. Hardy has meant so much to me too over the years. I first read Jude when I was just going into the 6th form at school and identified with him completely. Unlike him, I was so lucky about when I was born, so itt worked out well for me. But there will be many, many more Judes in the future. but now, there will be many, many more Judes. Yes, I suppose it was more 'droit de seigneur' than rape for Tess - but then, what's the difference? I agree with Sue: Alex has a lot more about him that horrible hypocrital rat Angel Clare. Thanks to Kindle, I've downloaded Hardy's complete works for free. I've just tried reading his very first novel, Desperate Remedies. I doubt if I'll finish it because it's AWFUL.

Dennis Hamley said...

Sorry about weird unproofed repetition. But it may make the point more strongly.

Dennis Hamley said...

Sorry about weird unproofed repetition. But it may make the point more strongly.

cally phillips said...

If you like Hardy, John, I think you would really like S.R.Crockett! He's Galloway's version of Hardy - the 19th century based novels and stories especially and his natural description of Galloway landscape equals Hardy any day. Why not give him a go? Kit Kennedy, Kid McGhie and Rose of the Wilderness as well as Banner of Blue, Lilac Sunbonnet, Lads Love and Love Idylls, Banner of Blue and Strong Mac all good for Hardy Lovers.
Cleg Kelly for Dickens lovers, and for Stevenson Lovers: The Raiders, The Dark o' the Moon, Silver Sand (The Raiders Trilogy)... and that's just biting the surface of his 32 Galloway novels - not to mention the European ones. Truly, Scotland's Forgotten Bestseller.

Sue Purkiss said...

Really enjoyed this. Have taught Tess and Far From The Madding Crowd a fair few times - like Sue, I get furious with Angel Clare. But Jude - I couldn't be doing with the dreariness - and Old Father Time was a step too far for me. But your post has made me thing I must read, or re-read The Return of the Native...