This book was chosen for me in the recent Classics Club Spin. My strategy with spin books is to pick it up and start reading as soon as possible after the number is announced – that way I don’t put it off until the last minute and end up not wanting to read it. This worked well with my last two spin books, A Tale of Two Cities and Can You Forgive Her? and it worked again with this one – once I started reading The Mayor of Casterbridge I didn’t want to put it down, though that wasn’t entirely surprising as I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by Thomas Hardy and fully expected to love this one too.
The Mayor of Casterbridge is the story of Michael Henchard, whom we first meet as a young man, out of work and walking from town to town in search of employment as a hay-trusser. On arriving in a small village near the town of Casterbridge and discovering that a country fair is taking place, Michael proceeds to get drunk and sells his wife, Susan, and baby daughter Elizabeth-Jane to a sailor for five guineas. In the morning he regrets what he has done, but Susan, Elizabeth-Jane and their new owner have already disappeared without trace. After swearing not to touch another drop of alcohol for twenty-one years – the length of time he has been alive – Henchard begins to rebuild his life.
Almost twenty years later, we rejoin Susan and her daughter as they return to Casterbridge. The sailor, Mr Newson, has been lost at sea and having only recently learned that her second ‘marriage’ was not legally binding, Susan is hoping that she and Elizabeth-Jane can find and be reconciled with Michael Henchard. Things have changed in the intervening years and Henchard has transformed himself into the sober and respectable Mayor of Casterbridge. How will he react to having his wife and daughter back in his life? With the arrival of two more newcomers – Lucetta, a pretty young woman from Jersey, and Donald Farfrae, a Scottish traveller – Henchard’s fortunes begin to change yet again and in typical Thomas Hardy fashion a series of mistakes and misunderstandings follow, sometimes with tragic consequences.
I loved this book as much as I expected to and enjoyed being back in Hardy’s Wessex (now that I’ve read quite a few of his books it’s fun to be able to notice the occasional references to characters and places from previous novels). There are some lovely descriptions of Casterbridge with its Roman ruins, and the beautiful countryside surrounding it. However, this is a less pastoral book than most of the others I’ve read – the action takes place in and around the market town of Casterbridge itself, which gives this book a slightly different feel to the more rural, farm-based ones such as Far From the Madding Crowd.
The plot is a great one, with lots of twists and turns and plenty of drama; I was never bored once. There are lots of scenes and images that I’m sure will stay with me from this novel – the ‘furmity tent’ at the fair, the goldfinch in its cage, the noise of the ‘skimmington ride’ – but the main focus of the story is on Michael Henchard and his rise and downfall. There is no doubt that what Henchard does in the first chapter of this book is cruel and shocking, but he’s not just a two-dimensional villain; he is much more complex than that and his character is not written completely without any sympathy. It’s up to the reader to decide whether they can find any forgiveness for him or whether they think he deserves everything he gets. Personally, although I thought the way he behaved was terrible at times, I still found his story very sad, particularly as so much of his misery was self-inflicted and a result of his own flaws and impulsive decisions. And of course, as with many of Hardy’s novels, there is a sense of impending tragedy that hangs over everything and you know from the beginning that there is unlikely to be a happy ending.
I’m now looking forward to reading the other Thomas Hardy novels on my Classics Club list. I think The Return of the Native will probably be the next one I read.