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.