From his opening sentence, Thomas Hardy portrays the hypnotic power of the bleakly beautiful, unchanging Egdon heath which influences so strongly the lives of those born and raised there, so that even the talented Clym Yeobright who has become a man of the world in Paris, is drawn back to it magnetically, with the desire to live a simpler life of greater social value. Outsiders forced to live on the heath feel more oppressed by it, like the capricious Eustacia Vye who would like nothing better than to be transported to Paris.
The heath forms the backdrop to the relations between the six main characters which, as we have come to expect from Hardy, prove fateful owing to the conflict between their natural inclinations, differing ambitions and the rigid social conventions which constrain the women in particular. A cast of local rustics provide the comedy in a structure which keeps closely to the classical framework of unity of time and place: events take place over the course of a single year, between two bonfire nights, and the drama never strays beyond the boundaries of Egdon Heath.
Having read all Hardy’s other “major” novels, I was at first disappointed by the tedium of overlong, wordy, initially leaden descriptions, punctuated by the disruption of pompous literary references of often doubtful relevance which obliged me to keep flipping to the notes at the back. Eventually, I was worn down or reeled into submission. Undeniably, many passages expanding in minute detail on the changing weather, the vegetation, the past history and present activities on the heath are brilliant, original and memorable. For instance, in Chapter VI, “The Figure against the Sky”, Hardy describes how the wind creates a kind of music with “the general ricochet….over pits and prominences” combined with “the baritone buzz of a holly tree” and “a worn whisper, dry and papery” from “the mummified heath-bells of the past summer, originally tender and purple, now washed colourless by Michaelmas rains, and dried to the dead skins by October suns”. And so on – Hardy was of course also a poet.
Hardy has a gift for conveying complex emotions and trains of thought in minute detail, arousing sympathy for all except perhaps the philanderer Wildeve. Bearing in mind how our assessment of the characters is likely to be very different from what even Hardy may have intended, writing a hundred and fifty years ago, he gives us the material to make up our own minds. Eustacia may seem to us an object of sympathy since she is not directed to any solid purpose in life – by default, her beauty leads men astray and she gets the blame for it. Clym may be found wanting in failing to consider enough the impact on others of his well-intentioned actions. Diggory Venn, the reddleman, bizarrely red from head to foot from the ochre he sells to farmers to dye their sheep, often seems meddlesome and manipulative, although Hardy apparently intended him to retain an “isolated and weird character” until obliged by the publisher to use him for a partially happy ending.
The plot is often implausible, relying on overheard conversations and coincidental meetings to feed the accumulation of misunderstandings. Scenes slip into melodrama, particularly the ludicrous final climax. One is left with a vague sense of dissatisfaction, but perhaps it mirrors real life when one feels this over the way matters often work out. Despite this, the quality of some of the writing is remarkable, so that certain images and reflections on these imagined lives, linger in the mind.
Required to read this in three days for a book group, I was left stunned by the welter of impressions received in a short space of time. I suspect that to read this slowly, savouring some of the best passages, is the most rewarding approach to this novel, which will take you out of the fast-paced world of sound bites, Twitter tweets, Snapchat and easy instant gratification, in which Eustacia would probably have revelled.