I was first seriously exposed to Thomas Hardy by one of our dear friends, Dame Dixie, from the Anglophiles Anonymous group last summer. She led a serialized group read of Hardy's "Far From the Madding Crowd," and it was a grand reading and discussion experience. Recently I asked Dixie for some recommendations of other Hardy novels to read. Based upon her recommendations, I was able to go out and find excellent hardback editions of "The Return of the Native," and "Jude the Obscure." Since then, I have purchased the Everyman's Library hardcover editions of "The Woodlanders," "Far From the Madding Crowd," "Tess of the d'Urbervilles," and "The Mayor of Casterbridge." My goal, this summer, is to read my Hardy novels along with the remaining George Eliots I have yet to read.
Now, regarding "The Return of the Native--
First, I have to be honest and confess that this novel has simply swept me up completely! I love this story, but more importantly I love the way that Hardy writes. There's power, passion, drama, emotion, and significant pathos in this novel. Some writers can describe and/or evoke these emotions and connect with their readers on deeper levels periodically, but I find that Hardy is able to do it almost page-by-page from the get-go. I read the novel straight though over 5-6 days, thought about it for a few hours and decided to start over and delve into. I wanted find and think about Hardy's use of symbols, allusion, and metaphor. I wanted to think about the possible literary influences that affected his plot and character development in "The Return of the Native." I also want to better understand this deep and abiding love that Hardy has for Nature--and the influence of that Nature upon human endeavor, desire, and ambition.
Observation-- Hardy the Poet is also one heck of a terrific novelist. There is a quiet, but steady, pulse and rhythm in Hardy's prose; it is almost like a heart-beat in his descriptions of the landscape, and in the spare dialog of his characters. Words are not wasted by the writer, and nor are they missed by the reader. Continually, I felt as though I were sitting on the barrow looking out over the wind-blown Egdon Heath near sunset; or sitting at the table listening to the quiet, but heartfelt words of Mrs. Yeobright to her son, Clym; or looking into the flashing dark eyes of Eustacia Vye as she speaks of her dreams of leaving the Heath for the bright lights of modernity.
The first fifty pages, or so, of the novel, really struck me as something almost primeval and primitive. It seemed cloaked in magic, mysticism, and even ancient Celtic mythology. Hardy introduces the first main character of the novel, and it is not human; it is the Egdon Heath. Let me tell you that this isn't a Wordsworthian 'Tinturn Abbey' description of Nature that Hardy invokes here. No, Hardy uses a blunt, hard-edged naturalism in his almost poetic descriptions of the brown rolling furze-covered hills and old Celtic barrows (grave sites) in late-fall. In fact, the entire first chapter is devoted to introducing the character and nature of the Egdon Heat. After those first four pages, one can't help but realize that the heath is to play a major part in the telling of this story.
Another hint of where Hardy intends to take his readers is his use of a stanza from Keats's epic poem Endymion (Book IV)--
I bade good morrow,
And thought to leave her far away behind;
But cheerly, cheerly,
She loves me dearly;
She is so constant to me, and so kind.
I would deceive her,
And so leave her,
But ah! she is so constant and so kind.'
Knowing Hardy now, I know we are in for a ride!
Well, maybe this is enough for now. I'll come back in a bit and add some more.