Oct/Nov 2003 Book Reviews

Thomas Hardy, The Well-Beloved

by Kevin McGowin

I sometimes wonder how many people outside of academia actually read Thomas Hardy these days. Probably not many, though I'd been out of grad school for years before I first picked up one of his books (Jude the Obscure). I found it a little difficult to get into Hardy's "world," but once I did, I was impressed by what I found to be a work of literary genius to which I could relate, at the same time as I noted the work's profound influence on later fiction.

This piece is not intended to serve as a Hardy retrospective, overview, introduction, or overall critique, but any discussion of his work must be somehow contextualized. All 14 of his novels were written in late nineteenth-century England, and in 1872 Hardy was able to retire from his vocation as an architect to devote himself to writing full-time: a testament to both his success and popularity in his time (and after) and to the ability of a novelist to do so, and live well at that, during this period.

Not all his novels were well-received, of course, most notably the aforementioned Jude (1895), which expressed mores and ideas concerning sex, marriage, class status and education that many of his readers found repulsive or shocking. And to this day, it is a wonderfully subversive novel. Yet Hardy himself (ironic how so many of us think of him as a rather boring old fart) affected to be shocked himself by this popular and critical response, and devoted himself to mostly forgettable retro-Victorian verse until his death at the age of 88 in 1928. In terms of his life, he wasn't exactly Oscar Wilde.

Hardy's reputation today rests for the most part on the five or so books they teach in college. For me, I'd add The Woodlanders (1887) to Jude, The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) and The Return of the Native (1878) as evidence of his secure place as a major English novelist. I also fancy A Pair of Blue Eyes and, to some degree, Two on a Tower much more than I do Tess of the d'Urbervilles, which I consider one of the most overrated "classic" novels ever penned.

But it's with Return of the Native that we really see Hardy in full and mature form. From the famous opening section, the primeval landscapes (both external and internal) and English folklore present in almost all his work (even Tess) is brought to the fore. What we have here is a Victorian novelist who set his work in the semi-fictional area of "Wessex" (southwest England) and whose concerns in his depictions of "commonfolk" draw on a vital oral cultural tradition familiar to Hardy from the "living memory" stories and descriptions of the elderly relatives and others he had known in his youth. The descriptions of people and places are often pre-Elizabethan, and Hardy himself, in many of the novels, attests to customs and "superstitions" that were inculcated from at least the Roman Occupation (recorded history, in other words).

The Well-Beloved deals with cultural behaviors and themes that go beyond even this. They are ancient. Set partially in the semi-fictional "Isle of the Slingers," Hardy juxtaposes the life of a sculptor who is up with the times (though he was born on the Isle, is captivated with it and its people, and is working on a sculpture of Aphrodite) with the strange and ancient pagan world these people inhabit, having never been much exposed to the Romanization of England, or at least not having been too affected by it.

What the sculptor does in this short novel, much of which is left "between the lines," is revert to a paganism just about as complete as you want to imagine. The story itself is fairly unbelievable unless seen as a metaphor, which it is. So, until recently, most Hardy "scholars" just sort of... pretended it didn't exist. What was once seen as a failure of plot can now be read as Hardy's most modernistic work—which is ironic, because it's all about pagan sex rituals under the nose of the late Victorian era! In many ways, the novel is, and I suspect was meant to be: a hoot.

Regarding the oral tradition, the folklore, I hold that any serious student of English folklore must, at least, have a slight familiarity with Hardy. Is this book a masterpiece? I don't know. Probably not. At least not in the sense that Jude the Obscure is. But the issues The Well-Beloved raises makes it, quite possibly, the most interesting and potentially most rewarding work to study of anything Hardy ever wrote.

Which brings me to my final point. Jude (1895) wasn't the final novel Thomas Hardy published. It was The Well-Beloved in 1897! Yes, most of it was originally composed for a three-part serial publication in 1892, between Tess and Jude, but both the Oxford and the Penguin editions have included the alternate chapters and endings—with quite enlightening notes and bibliographies—and if and when you read them, you'll see exactly why these passages were expunged, and why Hardy himself chose not to add fuel to the Jude fire by making a big deal of The Well-Beloved's first (amended) appearance in book form.

But even if, having read the texts, you find the novel wanting, I feel sure you'll agree that, whatever its shortcomings (and all Thomas Hardy books have their fair share), The Well-Beloved stands as an indispensable document in the history of English folklore, if not the history of the English novel itself.


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