Read from June 11 to July 02, 2013
I’ve been hanging out is Wessex lately, your almost magical, fictional land on the West moors of England. As you might recall, our initial acquaitance during my senior year of high school was frigid. You were unkind, I was a snob, we were all set to begin a new Emily Bronte novel. But I declined a second date and went to shack up with Virginia Woolf instead. We hadn’t spoken again in decades.
Flash forward to last summer when I tripped over a copy of Alan Rickman reading The Return of the Native. One of the most delicious voices ever, please color me intrigued. By 1/4 way in I was alternating between reading the book on my iPad and listening, which is what I do when I love a book so much I cannnot live without it.
The thing about Return of the Native is the strength of the character’s desires and how those desires drive the plot and the narrative. You are a mad, mad genius with this, Thomas. Most of your readers will focus of Eustacia Vie, and I’ll get there, but what caught my attention was Digory Venn (the Reddleman) and how his personal evolution from sad and scorned gentleman suitor to a Reddleman living on the moors COMPLETELY RED because he was selling some kind of red carcinogenic substance to unassuming hero for the rather pathetic Thomasin to suitor and gentleman husband for the twice ruined and once redeemd Thomasin. He will not live in polite society without his lady because he longs for her in a way that destroys him. So instead, he demeans himself and removes himself from the situation rather than play second fiddle to the fairly horrid Damon Wildeve, who is good for no one. Hardy does longing like no other, except for the truly great love poets – Yeats comes swiftly to mind. He is our tall brooding prince, who becomes a toad burning with sadness and desperation, willing to do just about anything for his lady except see her feel sorry for him.
The other half of the story’s twin helix is your much loved and despised Eustacia Vie. I think one reviewer compared her to the small town girl into midnight train going anywhere. While Venn finds comfort in the moors and tramping among them, she could not hate them more. She wants out. Immediately, if not sooner. And she will take advantage of the desires and longings of others, she almost inhales them, to put them to her use. I do not love Eustacia the way others do. Surely I sympathize, but loving her requires the reader to then throw over Thomasin (her chief competition for men) completely. While I might be willing to do it during Thomasin’s first disgrace, I’m not by the end of the book. Which creates this kind of spinning push/pull balance in the book. Everyone is dramatic, flawed, cruel, and in many cases stuck in the wrong place. Even Venn spends way to long moping, so long I became convinced that he was just that man. But they all know what they want, whether its money, or holding Eustacia’s hand, or a way out, or Tomasin. And in such a unique way that replicates life so truly, it is that wanting that moves the story, creating a plot that satisfies readers looking for pace and immediacy (Rebecca Pinto) and those looking for character evoltion (me). Of all of the great 19th Century Brit Classics, Tom, this might be my favorite, because in so many ways it is the realism Conrad et al were seeking, only without so much stark inner language. The lives of your characters act like oars to the plot. Its effortless reading and flawless writing.
One of my most favorite scenes in the book is when Eustacia bribes this poor dupe into giving up his spot with the play group (the mummers) by letting him hold her hand. She is plotting ways to get Thomasin’s brother’s attentions, thinking he will take her to Paris. (instead he becomes a furze cutter while she inadvertantly/sort of on purposely kills his Mom). Our dupe is madly in love with Eustacia, the idea of a wife, romance in general, and counts off his minutes stroking her hand. In the end, both have what they want and neither is fully satisfied. We see Eustacia and Venn at their best and worst, spinning around each other and pulling the other characters out. And the ending is dramatic, driven by the longing of three raving characters, and the survival of only one. A bit Bronteish only in a sweeter, sadder, more true way.
I’m so glad our second date went so well Tom, and I have been so enjoying our recent visits with The Trumpet Major and Two on a Tower. I’m thinking of taking up with Far from the Madding Crowd next and asking you to go steady for the summer, before you head back to Wessex. I cannot think of longing without thinking of you.