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The Mayor of Casterbridge

The Mayor of Casterbridge - Thomas Hardy, Keith Wilson If Thomas Hardy's Wessex region was a real place the British government would probably have to nuke it as nothing but misery seems to go on there, as recounted in [b: Tess of the d'Urbervilles|32261|Tess of the D'Urbervilles|Thomas Hardy|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1358921541s/32261.jpg|3331021], [b: Jude the Obscure|50798|Jude the Obscure|Thomas Hardy|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1389403264s/50798.jpg|41342119], [b: The Return of the Native|32650|The Return of the Native |Thomas Hardy|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1403182613s/32650.jpg|3140534] and other bleak-fests (I am excluding [b: Far from the Madding Crowd|31463|Far from the Madding Crowd |Thomas Hardy|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1388279695s/31463.jpg|914540] here because I find it quite cheerful by his melancholic standard (only a few tissue papers required instead of a whole box of Kleenex). The Mayor of Casterbridge is Hardy at least wonderfully mirthless best. A sign reading “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” would do just as well for the border of Wessex as Dante’s gate of hell.

The Mayor of Casterbridge, subtitled “The Life and Death of a Man of Character” is the story of Michael Henchard the (sometime) eponymous mayor of the town of Casterbridge. A bad tempered man with incredible mood swings who specializes in making very poor decisions. He starts off in fine form with selling his wife and child to an unknown sailor for the bargain basement price of five guineas (better known today as a fiver or GBP 5) while inebriated (pissed out of his mind in fact). After losing his wife for the price of a Big Mac he somehow manages to get his act together and works his way up in the world from a lowly hay-trusser to becoming a successful merchant and the town’s mayor (some suspension of disbelief is required here). After almost twenty years his poor sold wife shows up in town and reconciles with him, all seem to be going well until the fecal matter hits the fan. Seriously if they had electrical fans in Wessex I would stay well away from them as fecal matters would always make a beeline for these things, and spanners are always thrown into the works.

Most of Henchard’s troubles are of his own making but the universe also seems to have it in for him as his bad decisions are always compounded by misfortunes. Henchard is Thomas Hardy’s most interesting protagonist, bad tempered, cynical, violent and pessimistic, yet energetic, well-meaning (sometime), and honorable (usually); but don’t make him angry, you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. He is often despicable yet oddly sympathetic and I could not help but wish things will work out well for him, but his worst stroke of luck is probably to find himself in a Thomas Hardy novel so that is not going to happen.

This is the fourth Hardy novel I have read and it is definitely my favorite. I am a sucker for tales of redemption or at least contrition and I felt an unmanly lump in throat several times towards the end of this book. Hardy was a master at creating complex and vivid characters, his prose is always a thing of wonder. However, it is always best not to become too attached to his characters as he usually put them all through the grinder and make sausages out of them. In his defence he does not do it out of malice but to illustrate the pitfalls and vicissitudes of life. If only people would be more open and honest with each other, if only they do not let secrets fester in their lives. Henchard’s step daughter Elizabeth-Jane is a good example of this, she survives being in a Hardy novel relatively unscathed* by virtue of her humbleness, honestly and resilience. For example:

“So she viewed with an approach to equanimity the now cancelled days when Donald had been her undeclared lover, and wondered what unwished-for thing Heaven might send her in place of him.”

Attagirl! Likewise Henchard’s unintentional antagonist and rival Donald Farfrae who is always kind and forgiving.

The Mayor of Casterbridge is a beautiful and moving novel in spite of its bleakness. There is always something you can take away from a Hardy novel, usually about your interrelationship with people around you. Now I’m going watch some cartoons…

* Though it was touch and go for a while when she is attacked by a crazed bull (!).
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Audio book credit:
I "read" the free audiobook version from Librivox, beautifully read by Bruce Pirie. Thank you sir!