The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Life and Death of a Man of Character, by Thomas Hardy, Read by Pamela Garelick, Blackstone Audio, 19—
This book begins with a mesmerizing scene in which a drunken hay-trusser named Michael Henchard enters a pub tent during a fair, proceeds to get drunk and abusive, then sells his wife Susan to a sailor, Mr. Newson, for five guineas. It is an immediately gripping beginning, and the scene fades out with Susan renouncing Henchard in turn as the hay-trusser tips over toward black out.
In the next chapter when he sobers up he swears off liquor and begins his search for his wife and child. Losing track of them at a port, he gives up and then travels to Casterbridge. There we lose him for the moment, we allow at least eighteen years to pass before we catch up with Susan and her daughter Elizabeth Jane. We are to understand that Susan is a widower at this stage, and we learn that she and her daughter come around where she was sold to find Michael.
It is a shocking discovery, after all these years to find that Michael Henchard is now in fact, the title character, Casterbridge’s first citizen, sober these last eighteen years, as well as a successful grain merchant. Secretly at first, he embraces his wife and sort of adopts his daughter, then when it is made known publicly, they are rejoined. The stress of this new situation is thus applied to Henchard’s oath.
But this is not Henchard’s only new consideration. From another direction comes his sinking status in relation to his former business partner/agent, Donald Farfrae, a clever young Scotsman. Where Henchard is intemperate and gruff, Farfrae is smooth and sedate, never making bad decisions in a rage. He is also blessed with an almost preternatural ability to gauge the market’s future and what will appeal to From this little bit of action, we begin to see how the mayor’s life unravels bit by bit.
Hardy subtitled the novel “The Life and Death of a Man of Character” which is somewhat interesting a categorization. Henchard is, by many of his actions, a man of low character, though it may be that his earlier actions prejudice against him too strongly to successfully advocate for his later behavior. But, oh, his later behavior — it is not much better. Can one be considered a man of character if one lies to a girl’s natural father and tells him that she has died, sending the grieved man away? Can one be considered a man of character if he deliberately crushes others’ happiness solely out of his own fear of being alone?
When Henchard’s collapse socially, economically, and morally occurs, you actually feel rather sorry for him, so degraded is he. He returns to being a journeyman hay-trusser working on Farfrae’s farm, the boss now the peon. In many ways Henchard comes to repent nearly all of his actions, sometimes repenting of them even as he’s committing them, and we watch with a kind of horror-struck fascination as he wrestles with his inner demons. True, at the novel’s end, after Henchard’s death, we are treated to possibly the single saddest last will and testament in all of English literature:
MICHAEL HENCHARD’S WILL
“That Elizabeth-Jane […] be not told of my death, or made to grieve
on account of me.
“& that I be not bury’d in consecrated ground.
“& that no sexton be asked to toll the bell.
“& that nobody is wished to see my dead body.
“& that no murners walk behind me at my funeral.
“& that no flours be planted on my grave,
“& that no man remember me.
“To this I put my name.
You can’t ask for a greater sense of shame to be brought home to a man, a greater sense of self-loathing, or a much more thorough wish to be obliterated in all aspects. Despite all of his horrendous behavior, Henchard is somehow made compelling, moving, if not warm and cuddly, and this final act of his has a kind of tragic melancholy.
The various levels of revelation throughout the book and the curious psychological portraits of Harding’s are quite keen. The mid-book unveiling of the true patronage of Elizabeth-Jane is so unexpected entirely that, when the girl makes a friend of a beautiful young woman who stands in a churchyard staring at Susan’s tombstone, the suspicion that the woman is the real Elizabeth-Jane overcame me, even if Susan had said she was no more. To find out later that it was Henchard’s earlier mistress Lucetta (from when he thought his wife was dead), that she takes on Elizabeth as her secretary, the plot most definitely thickens.
A great many of nineteenth century novels have this type of convoluted structure, the kind of plot that is now the provenance of soap operas and other such televised melodrama. Where they miss out is on Hardy’s psychological acumen (Lucetta’s collapse near the end may seem a trifle hysterical to modern sensibilities, though it was not unheard of for people in those times to fall ill through public shame and humiliation, and the sort of injured pride she displays throughout is pitch-perfect, being both grating to others yet weirdly admirable), as well as his poetry:
Henchard pushed to the door, and for some seconds made no other movement. He rose to his feet, and stood like a dark ruin, obscured by “the shade from his own soul up-thrown.”
Many of the active set pieces of the story, such as the opening scene, the pursuit of Lucetta and Elizabeth-Jane by an old, angry bull, the scene in court where Henchard’s secret is revealed, the conflict between Farfrae and Henchard, are quite gripping and compelling as a dramatic reading. Harding’s rather long sentences and descriptive passages focussing on the town and philosophical concerns are rather difficult to read and bring home the fineness of his prose. On the page, this book reads rather beautifully, in the ear much of it lies flat, though this could be a weakness of reader merely.
Otherwise though, reader, Pamela Garelick, delivers the book remarkably, providing us with Scottish accents and even singing folk songs with delivery that might have come off an Alan Lomax folk music recording. It is a wonder to behold.