July 29, 2010

Review: "Our Mutual Friend" By Charles Dickens

I recently realized that I have, on several occasions,  referred to the "greatness," in my opinion, of Charles Dickens's last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, but that I have never explained why I believe this to be so.  Therefore, without further ado, my review of what I consider to be Dickens's magnum opus.

In completing Our Mutual Friend, I believe that I may well have read one of the finest books written in the English language.  One could perhaps argue that Austen's prose in her novel Emma is more perfect; but Dickens's plotting and character-development in Our Mutual Friend is bordering on exquisite.  Our Mutual Friend rivals Tolstoy’s War and Peace in breadth, scope, scale, and number of characters; but while War and Peace proceeds forward majestically in a somewhat linear fashion; Our Mutual Friend, like Dickens's “Circumlocution Office” (Little Dorrit) proceeds circuitously, bobbing and weaving, exposing its mysteries and delights, one-by-one, like peeling back the layers of an onion.

In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens plumbs the deep and dark depths of humanity’s soul with the creation and actions of some of fiction’s most horrifying villains.  At the same time Dickens balances the novel’s darkness and depravity as we meet, and fall in love with, some of the kindest, noblest, and most good-natured saints and souls that ever graced the pages of any his novels.  One cannot but be completely taken with little Jenny Wren (“my back is bad, and my legs are queer”), and the beautiful Bella Wilfur and Lizzie Hexam, and kindly Betty Higdon.  One must admire and respect the steadfastness and resolute nature of John Rokesmith, Eugene Wrayburn, and Mortimer Lightwood.  One cannot help but laugh and smile at the comical goodness of Our Mutual Friend’s 'saints':  the Boffins, Mr. Twemlow, “Rumty” Wilfur, and Mr. Riah.  Then there are the multitude in the gray ambiguity between light and dark; the Veneerings, and those of “Podsnappery” like the Lammles.  But it is the grotesque evil of the novel’s villains that makes the good characters shine so bright.  There’s “Weggery”, an awful tasting dose of “Fascination” Fledgeby, all horrifyingly blended with “Rogue” Riderhood and the Dark Prince himself – Bradley Headstone.

From Dickens's pen, Our Mutual Friend falls forth onto the printed pages like the brush strokes on the canvas of the grandest painting of an old master.  Our Mutual Friend depicts the freshness and rawness of human emotions in all of its attendant forms, including: joy and happiness, pain and sorrow, anger and hatred, and love and tenderness.  Like looking too closely at a painting of Hieronymous Bosch, we have an almost macabre fascination as we follow the novel’s characters through life’s stages – life, death, rebirth, and even resurrection.  Primary roles and responsibilities are switched too; with children 'raising' parents, the disadvantaged aiding the advantaged, and the poor enriching the well-off.

In Our Mutual Friend things are never as they appear or ought to be.  On some levels, Our Mutual Friend is the quintessential detective novel or mystery; but it is really more a series of mysteries nested inside a larger mystery.  The reader must pay close attention to the seemingly slightest detail, for all does truly come together in the march to the grand, and most satisfying, conclusion.  Through it all, however, there is one overarching and unifying theme, one thread that connects all–The River Thames.  The Thames is the source of life, of death, of rebirth, and even resurrection; it infects and purifies; it is the source of depravity, horror, hope, and even prosperity.  The river is always there, relentlessly rushing onward, carrying the flotsam and jetsam, and the hopes and desires, of the novel’s characters, and even those of the reader.  All I can say, upon turning the last page with a 'sigh', is that this is a novel for the ages; and one that I shall visit and revisit; setting forth again in my little boat upon the river of Our Mutual Friend.

I awarded this five of five stars, and highly recommend it.  This novel has become a personal favorite of mine, and is right up there with Bleak House and Little Dorrit.  Also, if you enjoy the period drama film adaptations prepared by the BBC, go find yourself the six-hour miniseries done in 1998.  It is very well done!  The photograph I've included is of some of the cast members from this adaptation.

July 27, 2010

Meme: Teaser Tuesdays

TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:
- Grab your current read
- Open to a random page
- Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
- BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
- Share the title and author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

My teaser is:

"Some women's love of being loved is insatiable: and so, often, is their love of loving; and in the last case they may find that they can't give it continuously to the chamber-officer appointed by the bishop's licence to receive it.  But you are so straight-forward, Jude, that you can't understand me!"

My teaser was taken from page 256 of my current read-- Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy, Everyman's Library hardcover edition, Alfred A. Knopf, 1992, pp. 519.

I am a first-time reader of Jude the Obscure, and I can tell you that it is a devastatingly powerful book!  Because of the reviews and criticism that Hardy received upon the release of "Jude" in 1895, he stopped writing fiction completely and spent the remaining thirty-three years of his life concentrating on his poetry.  The cover illustration is a tie-in to the film adaptation Jude (1996) directed by Michael Winterbottom, starring Christopher Eccleston and Kate Winslet.

[The rules for Teaser Tuesdays comes from MizB at Should Be Reading]

July 26, 2010

Review: "Daniel Deronda" By George Eliot

I have just finished a leisurely eight-week group-read of George Eliot's last completed novel, Daniel Deronda, with my 'Anglophiles Anonymous' group on Shelfari.com.  I very much enjoyed the experience of reading and discussing the book, section by section, each week.  I am convinced that I got so much more out of it this way than if I'd read it by myself.  Without the incentive of the group-read, I am also quite sure that this is a novel that I probably would not have even acquired, much less read.

The novel, first published in 1876, is quasi-Tolstoyan in scope and complexity.  It has a whole raft of fairly interesting characters that border on being 'Dickensian.'  While written in her characteristic style of 'social realism,' Eliot uses some quite elegant and sophisticated literary and plot devices too.  For example, she is adept at using flashbacks to bounce characters and events back and forth in time.  She also runs dual storylines through much of the novel, that are quite divergent at the beginning, but close in a relatively satisfying convergence near the end.  Her use of allusion, allegory, and metaphor is deft and appropriate.  Eliot, in writing this novel, is clearly didactic, without being overtly 'preachy' or academic like Tolstoy (e.g., Anna Karenina) or Victor Hugo (Les Miserables).

In some respects, for much of the first half of the novel I found myself more interested in the character and plot-threads associated with Gwendolen Harleth versus that of the eponymous Daniel Deronda.  Gwendolen reminded me, at various times, of Jane Austen's 'Emma' or even Eliot's own 'Dorothea Brooke' (Middlemarch).  With the convergence of Gwendolen's storyline with that of Daniel's, I did find that Daniel's story and character became much more compelling and interesting.

All in all, this is a novel about double-standards, redemption and balance.  Eliot provides a fascinating portrait of the situation and lives of English and European Jews during the Victorian period, and particularly the nascent proto-Zionist movement and her interpretation of the Kaballistic philosophy.  Eliot balances this portrait with a similar examination of the ways and social mores of the well-established English upper class.  Eliot pulls off this balancing act superbly through having the novel's primary male protagonist, Daniel Deronda, having a foot in the both worlds.  I was also completely taken with the intelligent young Jewish woman, Mirah Lapidoth.  From her introduction, early on in the novel, I eagerly looked forward to each of her appearances.  The Meyrick family, especially Mrs. "Little Mother" Meyrick and her vivacious daughters, are splendidly wonderful characters as well.  The novel also contains some characters that you simply love to hate, and others that you hate to love.  Ambiguity and shades of gray abound.

In conclusion, I enjoyed reading George Eliot's last novel, Daniel Deronda, very much.  I can say, however, that it did not affect me in the same visceral and emotional sort of way that her earlier books have; specifically, The Mill on the Floss, or Silas Marner.  I could also tell that writing Daniel Deronda and telling this story was somehow quite important to George Eliot, and for that reason alone I am glad that I read it.  While perhaps not as monumental as her Middlemarch masterpiece, this is a big and meaty novel and well worth reading.  Four out of five stars for me.


[My review is based upon the 2003 Penguin Classics soft-cover edition of Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot, 850 pages.  The photograph that I have included in the review is that of the actress Romola Garai in the character of 'Gwendolen Harleth' in the superb 2002 BBC film adaptation of Daniel Deronda.]

July 23, 2010

Review: "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" By Thomas Hardy

I have almost finished reading much of the major fiction of Thomas Hardy this summer.  I just completed a re-reading of Tess of the d'Urbervilles.  As I recall, the last time I read this novel was in the mid-1970s while I was in the U.S. Coast Guard.  All I can say is that this has to have been one of the most intense novels that I believe that I've ever read.  Reading this book rivals the literary and emotional experiences I have had with Hardy's The Return of the Native, Charlotte Bronte's Villette, Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, and Tolstoy's masterpiece, Anna Karenina.  In my opinion, Tess of the d'Urbervilles is one of the monumental literary achievements of the entire Victorian Era.  A stunning novel!

A tragedy in six parts, Tess of the d'Urbervilles is set in Hardy's fictional Wessex in southwestern England.  The novel follows the beautiful Tess Durbeyfield from the age of about sixteen until she is about twenty or twenty-one.  The story's plot revolves around Tess and the two men that feature prominently in her life; the first is Alec Stoke-d'Urberville; and the second, Angel Clare, is the youngest son of a country parson.  Like in all of Hardy's novels, names are everything.  For example, it turns out that even Tess's name, 'Durbeyfield,' is simply a corruption, over time, of the name of her noble d'Urberville ancestors who now reside in their stone vaults in the church-yard in Kingsbere.

With all the recent reviews of Hardy’s novels that I have written this summer I am sure that I am beginning to sound like a broken record, but Hardy’s descriptions of the pastoral lives of the Wessex simple folk are ever so beautiful and enchanting.  With his descriptions I always feel like I am right there experiencing the moment with the characters of the novel.  Even in the scenes loaded with human drama and pathos there is always the touchstone to the natural environment.  Hardy’s literary signature seems to be his ability to relate, and even bind together, the natural environment with the environment of real human emotion.

This is a novel of double-standards and sacrifice and the young and noble Tess is the unfortunate recipient of the negative consequences associated with the actions and feelings of both Alec and Angel.  Tess becomes, if you will, the Magdalen continually seeking redemption from those who probably can't, or won't grant it.  Based upon Hardy's own view of the Victorian society, it was highly unlikely that the Magdalen could be absolved or redeemed, and I believe that that realization must have affected him profoundly.  In reading this novel, I have come to believe that Hardy loved Tess more than any other woman that he "invented" and wrote about; you can almost feel his love for this "pure woman" emanating from each page.  Hardy wrote in one of his notebooks in 1895 that “Love lives on propinquity, but dies of contact.”  For me, this relatively short sentence completely illuminates the common thread and theme that links every one of Hardy’s novels and much of his poetry.

Symbolism, visual imagery, and allusion are all deftly used by Hardy as this 'folk tale' is recounted; and at times it does feel like a nightmarish and horrifying folk tale told around the fire on a dark and stormy night.  There are numerous references to Milton's Paradise Lost, the Book of Genesis, and several of the Pauline letters of The New Testament.  This is a harsh and unforgiving world that Tess finds herself in, with 'Punishment' the watchword and little in the way of 'Hope' or 'Happiness' looming on her horizon.  Mixed with the religious, there are also numerous examples of pagan symbolism and rituals; all of which contribute to the colored pigments that Hardy has applied to the canvas of Tess's life as the sacrificial victim of her society.

Having now read most of Hardy's novels, and a good number of his short stories, I can make the observation that Hardy likes to include a 'witch' in his tales.  There are good witches and bad witches, but they are all here in Hardy’s Wessex, including: 'Bathsheba Everdene' (Far From the Madding Crowd); 'Eustacia Vye' (The Return of the Native); 'Lucetta Le Sueur' or ‘Elizabeth Jane’ (The Mayor of Casterbridge); 'Felice Charmond' (The Woodlanders); 'Tess'; and, finally, 'Sue Bridehead' and ‘Arabella Donn’ (Jude the Obscure).  Think about it for a momentl; but each of these women absolutely bewitches and intoxicates one or more of the male characters in each of the novels; generally with tragic and disastrous results.  And Tess is no different.  Both Alec and Angel are completely besotted with Tess, and almost continually blame her for being a 'temptress'; the 'Eve' to their 'Adam.' 

I have to say that both, Alec and Angel, infuriated me to no end throughout much of the novel.  While Tess, with her simple ways and innocence, makes bad decisions (with Fate's kind help, I might add), these two men are the basest, most cowardly and hypocritical, and end up becoming two of the most despicable male protagonists in fiction, in my opinion.  Each of these men, at numerous times, could well have done the right thing and brought Tess salvation and full redemption, as well as given her the love and affection that she so desired and deserved.

Finally, even when Angel Clare comes to his senses and realizes what Tess is, and what she means to him, it is Tess, herself, that says, near the end, "It is too late...Too late, too late!" 

For Tess it truly is too late!


Now it is on to Jude the Obscure.

[My review was based upon the Everyman's Library hardcover edition of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, published in 1991 by Alfred A.Knopf.  The black and white photograph accompanying this review was taken by me on Christmas Eve in 2006 in a cornfield near my daughter's home in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Somehow, this image reminds me of the fields and tree-lined borders of Hardy's Wessex countryside.  'Click' on the image for a larger view.  Enjoy!]

July 20, 2010

Meme: Teaser Tuesdays

TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:
- Grab your current read
- Open to a random page
- Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
- BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
- Share the title and author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

My teaser is:

"The mixed, singular, luminous gloom in which they walked along together to the spot where the cows lay, often made him think of the Resurrection hour.  He little thought that the Magdalen might be at his side."

My teaser was taken from page 154 of my current read-- Tess of the d'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy, Everyman's Library hardcover edition, Alfred A. Knopf, 1991, pp. 464.

I haven't read this book in years, and I am truly enjoying my re-read of this amazing novel!  Reading "Tess" is kind of like standing on a hill and watching two trains speeding toward one another at breakneck speed on the same track; you just know that something very bad is going to happen!  One of Hardy's best!

[The rules for Teaser Tuesdays comes from MizB at Should Be Reading]

July 16, 2010

Review: "Silas Marner" By George Eliot

If you are looking for a fast and thoroughly delightful and entertaining summer read, I would like to recommend George Eliot's slim novel, Silas Marner -- The Weaver of Raveloe.  I kept this next to my bedside, and read a few chapters each night; but it could just as easily be read in a few hours by a dedicated reader.

Eliot finished the novel in about six months and it was first published in April 1861.  She wrote the novel during the time period that she was researching and writing her much larger work Romola.  Interestingly, I would wager that over the years that more people have read and enjoyed Silas Marner than have read Romola, a much more complex and complicated novel that demands so much of the reader.

This little novel reads a lot like a fairy tale, or folk tale, where the eponymous linen weaver Silas Marner is falsely accused of a crime, and has to leave his home, his betrothed, Sarah, and all of his friends.  Silas leaves Lantern Yard and moves far away to the village of Raveloe and lives quietly by himself in a small house in the forest weaving fine linen cloths for sale.  He becomes well known for the quality of his weaves, and somewhat for his homeopathic abilities as a healer.  Rather than becoming a member of the community, Silas becomes reclusive and is largely shunned by his neighbors.  He lives frugally and hoards the money he earns through the sale of woven linens.  Eventually he has a literal 'pot-of-gold' that he counts and fondles, and then returns his treasure to its hiding place beneath the bricks of his floor beneath his loom.

Something happens though, and without giving away any plot details, Silas essentially 'trades' his 'pot-of-gold' for a small golden-haired young girl.  From this point on, the novel is the story of Silas and his beautiful little 'daughter,' that he names, Hephzibah, or 'Eppie.'  It is a story of genuine and gloriously happy love between the little girl and her 'Dad-dad.'  It is his love for, and his bond with, Eppie that begins Silas's redemption and reintegration with the folks of Raveloe.  Because of Silas's obvious love and devotion to little Eppie as she grows up, Silas eventually comes to be admired and even respected by the villagers.

Sixteen years later, and Eppie is now a young woman and feeling the first stirrings of romantic love and womanhood.  Also, lurking in the background is the full story about the disappearance of Silas's bag of gold coins, and the parentage of Eppie herself.  All is made clear in the end, and happily so, I might add.  I have to confess that this novel, at times, brought tears to my eyes; mostly tears of happiness though.  It really is a very lovely  and heart-felt story.  It may start out as being a little rough on poor Silas, but it really does show that if a person can faithfully hew to their principles and maintain a sound moral character that good things will happen in the long run.

This novel reminded me, in some respects, to one of Thomas Hardy's earlier novels, Under the Greenwood Tree, another refreshingly honest and forthright look at life in the English countryside in the mid-19th century.  I believe that I have made this observation before, but I have to think that Hardy read Eliot's works, and that the Realism of her fiction had to have influenced the later Naturalism of his.  I have very much enjoyed reading the great works of these two authors this summer.

July 15, 2010

Review: "The Woodlanders" By Thomas Hardy

I am continuing on with my summer of reading the written works of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy.  I just finished reading Thomas Hardy's beautiful novel The Woodlanders last night.  I have been reading Hardy's novels in the order in which he wrote them, and The Woodlanders, first published in 1887, follows closely on the heels of The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886).  In all honesty, I very much enjoyed this novel much, much more than the relentlessly tragic tale told in The Mayor of Casterbridge (see review below, dated July 13th).

Hardy has an amazing knack for thoroughly placing his reader into the environment of his novel.  Interesting to me too, is that each of Hardy's novels tends to focus on a different environment and ecology found within the fictional Wessex region of southwestern England.  For example, in A Pair of Blue Eyes, the reader becomes fully immersed in the beauty of the vales, forests, and sea-cliffs along the Cornwall coastline; in The Return of the Native Hardy brings vividly to life the peoples and environment of the Egdon Heath; and in Far From the Madding Crowd we are treated to the rolling hills and pastoral landscape of small rural English farms and pastures used by the sheep herders and their flocks; and, finally, The Mayor of Casterbridge largely takes place in the urban environment of his fictional town, Casterbridge.

In The Woodlanders the reader is introduced to the shaded and leafy world of the forest of Blackmoor Vale and the hamlet of Little Hintock.  The novel's characters live in the midst of this forested world and make a living with and among the trees.  They are involved in lumbering, forestry, and management of  orchards.  It is a beautiful environment, and lovingly described and re-described by Hardy as the course of the novel moves through the seasons of the year.

I love how Hardy integrates the 'mood' of his environment into the plot of the novel.  The sounds, sights, and smells of the forest and bridle paths are as much a part of The Woodlanders as are the dialog, thoughts and actions of the characters themselves.  In fact, I have come to realize that Hardy intentionally develops the environment in each of his novels to become a fully empowered character in the same sense as his human players.  Also, this novel seems to have been one of Hardy's favorites as it was based upon the area where his mother had grown up, a location that he was apparently quite fond of.

The novel revolves around Grace Melbury, a young woman who returns to her father's and stepmother's home in Little Hintock, after some years away becoming educated and more socially refined.  Unlike Clym Yeobright, in The Return of the Native, Grace is not quite sure that she really wants to remain in the forest of Little Hintock surrounded by the peasant class of her childhood.  Her father sent her off to school and has always encouraged her to aspire to a 'grander' lifestyle.  She returns to find the young man that still loves her, Giles Winterborne, is still there, and working for her father's timber business, and operating a traveling apple cider press during the harvest season.  At first blush it would seem that all looks well for the future of Grace and Giles.

As is typical in a Hardy novel, Fate and Irony have a curious way of inserting themselves, generally quite tragically, into the lives of the plot's characters.  Quickly the reader is also introduced to the novel's other players:  the steadfast and loyal young peasant woman, Marty South; the newly arrived gentlemanly young doctor, Edred Fitzpiers; and the local landowner, the widowed Mrs. Felice Charmond.  While Giles and Marty are relatively contented and happy folk of the forest, Dr. Fitzpiers and Mrs. Charmond are clearly out of their element in the Blackmoor Vale, and Grace Melbury is betwixt and between as she endeavors to determine the course of her future.

I really do not want to give anything of the plot away at all, but suffice it to say that the novel is quite seductive in that while the reader becomes completely enthralled with the pastoral scenes and life in the forest around Little Hintock, there is at the same time an incredibly epic and pathos-driven tragic drama that is unfolding and spiraling out of control that is of almost Shakespearean proportions.  It really is vintage Hardy!  I honestly couldn't put the book down for several days.

I loved the characters of Giles Winterborne and Marty South.  These are two people who are completely in touch with the natural world around them in Blackmoor Vale.  Hardy describes a scene deep in the forest with Marty helping Giles plant new seedling trees to replace those harvested by the foresters,
"Winterborne's fingers were endowed with a gentle conjurer's touch in spreading the roots of each little tree, resulting in a sort of caress under which the delicate fibres all laid themselves out in in their proper directions for growth.  He put most of these roots towards the south-west; for, he said, in forty years' time, when some great gale is blowing from that quarter, the trees will require the strongest holdfast on that side to stand against it and not fall.
'How they sigh directly when we put 'em upright, though while they are lying down they don't sigh at all,' said Marty.
'Do they?' said Giles.  'I've never noticed it.'
She erected one of the young pines into its hole, and held up her finger; the soft musical breathing instantly set in which was not to cease night or day till the grown tree should be felled--probably long after the two planters had been felled themselves.
Now that's just some great prose!  I found myself, time and again, reading a section like this, and then re-reading it and just reveling in the lilting lyricism of Hardy's sentences and paragraphs.

A couple of final thoughts--

As you read the novel, periodically refer to the single stanza of poetry, written by Hardy, that serves as the novel's epigraph, and give it some thought,
"Not boskiest bow'r,
When hearts are ill affin'd,
Hath tree of pow'r
To shelter from the wind!"
Secondly, the reader will encounter the term "man-trap" periodically.  These were large, metal traps that game-keepers and land-managers used to try and prevent poaching and other illegal activities on the gentry's lands and estates.  Hardy's use of allusion and metaphor is wonderful.

This was a beautiful novel to read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it!  I highly recommend The Woodlanders.  It is Thomas Hardy at his best.  Five out of Five Stars, and a Personal Favorite for me!

[The black and white photograph that I have included within this review was one that I took in June 2008 deep in the forest at the "Bartholomew's Cobble Preserve" along the banks of the Housatonic River in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.  Somehow, this photograph evokes, for me, the image of the forest of Blackmoor Vale described by Hardy in The Woodlanders.  For a larger view of the photograph, 'click' on the image.]

July 13, 2010

Meme: Teaser Tuesdays

TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:
- Grab your current read
- Open to a random page
- Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
- BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
- Share the title and author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

My teaser is:

"The rush of sap in the veins of the trees could almost be heard.  The flowers of late April took up a position unseen, and looked as if they had been blooming a long while, though there had been no trace of them the day before yesterday; birds began not to mind getting wet."

My teaser was taken from page 150 of my current read-- The Woodlanders, by Thomas Hardy, Everyman's Library hardcover edition, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, pp. 411.

So far, this is a beautifully written novel of a small group of characters living their lives deep in Hardy's fictional Wessex woods of southwestern England. Gorgeous imagery throughout!

[The rules for Teaser Tuesdays comes from MizB at Should Be Reading]

July 12, 2010

Review: "The Mayor of Casterbridge" By Thomas Hardy

I am in the midst of reading all of Thomas Hardy's novels in the order that he wrote them.  Well, at least the more well known novels.  While most of Hardy's 'Novels of Character and Environment' have a fairly pronounced pastoral presence, The Mayor of Casterbridge is distinctly a novel about characters in a relatively urban setting, the fictional Wessex town of Casterbridge.

The Mayor of Casterbridge is a relentless novel.  It is a relentlessly sad story, and a relentlessly painful story to read.  Change the scene, the time, and the garb and this tragedy is worthy of the greatest ancient Greek playright.  This is not a 'coming of age' tale.  No, this is the story of the slow, but largely self-wrought, destruction of one man -- Michael Henchard -- the Mayor of Casterbridge.

The novel opens with a horrifying event, and concludes with another.  In between those two bookends of horror, in typical Hardyan fashion, Fate, Chance, and Irony intermittently intercede impacting the lives of Henchard and those around him.  In some sense, I believe that this novel is Hardy's testament to his views on 'Crime and Punishment.'  The structure of the tale, and the bleakness of the characters, brings home in a powerful way the intended and unintended consequences of our actions upon others in our journey along the path of Life.

In large part, the substance of this novel can summed up by Michael Henchard himself near the end of the book when he says, "When I was rich I didn't need what I could have, and now I be poor I can't have what I need!"  A moral we should all pay very close attention to.  While this is not my favorite Hardy novel, it is an important work within his overall oeuvre, and as bleak as it is I am very glad that I read it.  I would give the novel 4/5 stars.

Review: "Far From the Madding Crowd" By Thomas Hardy

I just completed re-reading Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd, and just fell in love with it all over again! The first time I read the novel was last summer (Summer 2009) as a serialized group read with one of my groups on Shelfari.com. I loved it the first time through, but realized that I could probably find even more in it with a careful re-reading. I most certainly did.

It really is a beautiful novel, and so very well written with an engaging plot. The novel is loaded with allusion, much of it biblical; and even the character's names -- Bathsheba Everdene, Gabriel Oak, Farmer Boldwood, Fanny Robin, and Sergeant Frank Troy -- evoke comparisons to vivid images, scenes from Nature, or historical or mythological personages.

Hardy's ability to inextricably link the pastoral landscape of his fictional Wessex countryside with the emotions and thoughts of his characters is remarkable. As in The Return of the Native and the landscape of the Egdon Heath, Hardy makes the rolling hills, woodlands, hay fields and sheep pastures surrounding Weatherbury as much a primary protagonist and character in the novel as the human characters themselves. His prose associated with the placement and movement of the novel's human players within this landscape becomes almost lyrical and poetic; and as I am sure he intended, reflects his interpretation and representation of a time and place in southwestern England that was important to him, but is part of that heritage of what it means to be 'English.'

The story of the romantic 'square' involving Gabriel Oak, Bathsheba Everdene, Farmer Boldwood, and Frank Troy is a tale that resonates in each of us. We can relate, at different times, to the motives and actions of each as they pirouette through their dance of Life and Love against the pastoral backdrop of the farms and sheep paddocks of Weatherbury. This is the Nature of Hardy's beloved Wessex.

Like a hound on the trail, make sure to follow Hardy's use of the color 'scarlet' and 'red' through the novel. Read and experience Hardy's use of Fate, Chance, Change, and Irony working their primeval magics upon the landscape and human actors in this great play of Life. Far From the Madding Crowd is truly a timeless work from one of the Victorian period's great authors.  With no qualms whatsoever, I give this novel 5/5 stars!

July 1, 2010

Review: "A Pair of Blue Eyes" By Thomas Hardy

This was a fast read, and I very much enjoyed it!  If you are already a Hardy fan, I heartily recommend reading A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873); if you aren't, this just might make you one.  A Pair of Blues Eyes was the third novel published by Hardy, and the first published under his own name.  In his later years, Hardy created three categories in which he placed all of his fiction.  The largest category, "Novels of Character and Environment," includes the well known core of his oeuvre also known as the Wessex Novels; this novel falls in Hardy's second category, the novels of "Romance and Fantasies; with the third category, "Novels of Ingenuity," containing just three relatively minor works.

A Pair of Blue Eyes is set in Hardy's fictional 'Wessex' of southwestern England; and, in fact, this novel is largely played out in 'Lower' and 'Off Wessex,' in reality that part of England referred to as Cornwall with its rural countryside and majestic sea-cliffs.  As is typical of Hardy's prose, the novel does a wonderful job of connecting the reader with the characters and the character's place in the natural environment.  Every time I read a Hardy novel, or short story, I have this over-whelming feel that I am experiencing the sights, sounds, smells and emotions of the characters that he is writing about.  The reader can't help but fall in love with his pastoral scenes; feeling the breezes at it ruffles the leaves on the trees, and watching the hay-grasses waving back and forth in the fields and meadows.  Hardy involves his reader, time and again, in the simple things like watching the sun set in all of its orange, red, and purple glory, or the glimmer of the stars and planets as they brighten in the darkening night sky.  I think it is this deep connection with environment and the passage of time that seems to make the human elements and aspects of Hardy's stories resonate even more strongly with me.

Through Hardy's fiction, I find another example of my own understanding that the individual human experience and existence is nothing more than a infinitesimally tiny blip when compared to the history and time-line of the Cosmos; but that it also makes my understanding of those brief experiences we have with one another, and the emotions that we feel, so much more important and interesting.

In A Pair of Blue Eyes, Hardy addresses the well-trod literary ground associated with class-consciousness and its effects on courtship and Love.  The novel's primary protagonist, Elfride Swancourt, the beautiful daughter of the local parson, struggles with becoming a woman and experiencing romantic feelings for the first time when she meets the young architect, Stephen Smith, upon his visit to 'Endelstowe' to begin restoring the old parish church.  It is generally considered that much of the courtship between Stephen Smith and Elfride Swancourt is based upon Hardy's own courtship of Miss Emma Gifford, whom he later married in 1874.  Like his character, Stephen Smith, Hardy was also trained as an architect, and undertook a trip to Cornwall to help restore the parish church of St. Juliot in Cornwall (see photograph, at left).

[In the spirit of full-disclosure, I am inserting a Mild Spoiler Alert here.  If you are one who wants no hint of plot direction or details, I suggest that you scroll past the next paragraph and two block-quote sections]

Suffice it to say that the novel is not just a simple little tale of young blossoming love set in the quiet bucolic countryside.  There is plenty of drama, passion, and intrigue involving various characters of all class levels of English life in the mid-Victorian period in Hardy's telling of Elfride's tale.  During the initial serialization of the novel, the term "cliff-hanger" was coined, referring to one of the more exciting events that occurs on the precipice of the 'Cliff without a Name.'  One of the characters is literally hanging by his fingertips on the edge of the cliff, with the rocks and thundering sea one-hundred feet below him.  While the personal terror described by Hardy is palpable, as a geologist myself I just had to marvel as I read the following--

"By one of those familiar conjunctions of things wherewith the inanimate world baits the mind of man when he pauses in moments of suspense, opposite Knight's eyes was an imbedded fossil, standing forth in low relief from the rock.  It was a creature with eyes.  The eyes, dead and turned to stone, were even now regarding him.  It was one of the early crustaceans called Trilobites.  Separated by millions of years in their lives, Knight and this underling seemed to have met in their death.  It was the single instance within reach of his vision of anything that had ever been alive and had had a body to save, as he himself had now."
"Knight was a geologist; and such is the supremacy of habit over occasion, as a pioneer of the thoughts of men, that at this dreadful juncture his mind found time to take in, by a momentary sweep, the varied scenes that had had their day between the creature's epoch and his own.  There is no place like a cleft landscape for bringing home such imaginings as these."

Now that I have your attention, I urge you to read the novel!  You'll enjoy it!  I think that this is an important novel, and is one of his works that Hardy was known to be personally quite fond of.  Typical of Hardy's fiction, Fate and Chance play a prominent role in this novel too.  Also, the character of Elfride Swancourt, as a heroine, is interesting to consider in the evolutionary continuum from 'Fancy Day' (Under the Greenwood Tree), 'Bathsheba Everdene' (Far From the Madding Crowd), 'Eustacia Vye' (The Return of the Native), 'Tess Durbeyfield' (Tess of the d'Urbervilles), and that culminates with 'Sue Bridehead' (Jude the Obscure).

I hope you enjoy A Pair of Blue Eyes as much as I did.  As for me; well, I am taking Far From the Madding Crowd off of the shelf now for a re-read over the next few days.  It is time to spend some more time with 'Gabriel Oak' and 'Bathsheba Everdene.'

Enjoy your July 4th holiday weekend too!

[My review is based upon the Wordsworth Classics softcover edition of A Pair of Blue Eyes, published in 1995, 305 pp.; the photograph of St. Juliot Church is included courtesy of Mr. Steve Wheeler, 2003, and was posted on Wikipedia]