January 17, 2018

Hardy, Casterbridge and Virginia Woolf

On this day in 1885, Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge began serialization. This was the first novel Hardy wrote for weekly rather than monthly serialization, and his journal entry for this day expresses his worry that he had overplayed the need for a steady stream of drama by incorporating too many "improbabilities of incident." More than one early reviewer did indeed find the novel "too improbable," Hardy's famous wife-selling opening being particularly "impossible to believe." In fact, Hardy's notebooks show that he had found three such incidents in the local records for the 1820s time period, two of them describing not only that the wife was sold but that she was also led through the streets with a halter around her neck. Beyond this, Hardy gave Henchard too many basins of rum-laced "furmity," a personality which, when under the influence, tended down the jocose-bellicose-comatose path, and a wife who had seen more than her fill. This is the crucial moment in the furmity-tent:
    She waited and waited; yet he did not move. In ten minutes the man broke in upon the desultory conversation of the furmity drinkers with, "I asked this question, and nobody answered to't. Will any Jack Rag or Tom Straw among ye buy my goods?"
    The woman's manner changed, and her face assumed the grim shape and colour of which mention has been made.
    "Mike, Mike," said she; "this is getting serious. Oh!-- too serious!"
    "Will anybody buy her?" said the man.
    "I wish somebody would," said she firmly. "Her present owner is not at all to her liking!"
    "Nor you to mine," said he. "So we are agreed about that. Gentlemen, you hear? It's an agreement to part. She shall take the girl if she wants to, and go her ways. I'll take my tools, and go my ways. 'Tis simple as Scripture history. Now then, stand up, Susan, and show yourself."
    "Don't, my chiel," whispered a buxom staylace dealer in voluminous petticoats, who sat near the woman; "yer good man don't know what he's saying."
    The woman, however, did stand up....
In her diary Virginia Woolf tells the amusing story of going to see Hardy in 1926, just a year and a half before his death. She had just finished a draft of To the Lighthouse, one of those novels that would speak for modernism as much as Hardy's "Wessex" novels spoke for the past. She took The Mayor of Casterbridge with her on the train, found she could not put it down and, "beset with desire to hear him say something about his books," told Hardy so. He was cheerful, welcoming and animated, but "delivered of all his work [and] not interested much in his novels or in anybody's novels." Especially ones written by those who had given up on the old ways:
    "They've changed everything now," he said. "We used to think there was a beginning and a middle and an end. We believed in the Aristotelian theory. Now one of those stories came to an end with a woman going out of the room." He chuckled.
Though less than the torch-passing it might have been, their visit did not go unmarked: as a parting gift, Hardy presented a copy of his story collection, Life's Little Ironies, inscribed to "Virginia Wolff."

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