It’s one of those novels in which the setting broodingly, atmospherically underpins the action to such an extent that it almost becomes a character in its own right. In that sense it reminds me of Wuthering Heights and Of Mice and Men – the former played out over a few miles of Yorkshire moorland and the latter on a blisteringly hot Californian farm.
Hardy’s novel, which could just as easily have been called Egdon Heath, fictionally evokes the ancient heathland of Dorset which was always environmentally special. Today the National Trust and other organisations are working hard to conserve the small stretches which are left. In Hardy’s version – no doubt how he observed it in 19th century Dorset – the heath teams with amphibians, snakes (one character is bitten by an adder) birds and plants. Furze (gorse) cutting is the main rural occupation of the few people who live there.
Coming back to The Return of the Native now – it’s probably 40 years since I last read it – I was instantly absorbed by the tight plotting and by Egdon Heath itself. Three men and three women – all socially a little above the furze cutters who form a sort of chorus – live a few miles from each other on the heath in four houses, one of which is an inn. They are Mrs Yeobright, her son Clym (the titular returner – from Paris) and her niece Thomasin. Then there’s Eustacia Vye, a mesmerizingly but disconcertingly attractive girl who longs to escape the heath. Damon Wildeve is a weak willed, easily swayed and therefore dangerous chap and Diggory Venn, the reddleman sells red sheep dye to farmers from his mobile horsedrawn van and lurks helpfully and benignly on the heath. Don’t you just love the names Hardy finds for his characters? Not a Joe or Mary in sight.
The lives of these six people intersect and change through two ill-judged marriages, three deaths and one birth. There’s a great deal of fancying the “wrong” person. Even Eustacia’s servant Charley is at it. Eventually the survivors settle to lives which are liveable and the sun comes out. And it’s all played out on the heath – the first 84 pages take place on a dark November 5th with bonfires and there’s a lot of rain later in the novel. John Ruskin called paralleling outside forces such as the weather with the emotions of characters “pathetic fallacy” and Hardy does a great deal of that.
Of course Hardy is challenging Victorian moral attitudes in this 1878 novel. Why is it such a disgrace for Thomasin to return home unmarried because Wildeve has, apparently, made a mistake with the licence? Not her fault at all. I remember being annoyed on her behalf even back in the 1960s when I first read it.
Hardy went on knocking at the doors of moral unreasonableness. Twelve years later in 1895 his Jude the Obscure offended people so much that he wrote no more novels for the remaining 33 years of his life, sticking to poetry instead. He was thus, as I used to point out to my students, a rather unusual figure: a nineteenth century novelist but a twentieth century poet. Hardy died in 1928.
Composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) was a generation younger than Hardy who was born in 1840. His tone poem Egdon Heath, first performed in 1927 is subtitled “A Homage to Thomas Hardy”. The music captures all the darkness of the heath along with the lurking sexual desire and natural beauty.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles