Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Heeding Thomas Hardy

There is a new biography of Thomas Hardy by Claire Tomalin that has been well reviewed. I like when new work comes out on a classic writer because it turns a million eyeballs to that name, if just for the length of reading a review. It jogs our collective memory of dusty parts of the pantheon, and hopefully adds something new to the collective knowledge and appreciation.

I read The Return of the Native in high school, a novel well matched to that time and place. Wildeve, the heath, the beacon signals, the odd Diggory Venn character, crossdressing mummers, burning a foe in effigy, Hardy’s relentless themes of loneliness and isolation—-does anything more clearly speak to the surging angst of high school?

And to top it off, the tortured, sad, exotic figure of Eustacia Vye, deemed by a chapter heading to be Queen of the Night. It’s hard not to read Hardy as mocking his heroine, but this was a serialized novel during Victorian times, and modern irony was still waiting just over the horizon in the No Man's Land of World War I:

"Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well with a little preparation. She had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman."

Hardy’s Tess has gotten the serious attention through the years, and we won’t even talk about the effect Father Time has had on subsequent literature.

But for me, Eustacia is the character who made a tangible contribution to my life (besides the fact her story is set on the eve of Guy Fawkes Day, which has a special meaning for Steed and me.)

Hardy’s Eustacia is trapped by class and circumstance to live on the heath, which she detests, while she’s tormented by delusions of living in Paris. She yearns for love in an equally distraught way. Most of the book is overwrought passages about her comings and goings on the heath, as she walks between bonfires.

Yet, amid all the hype, I found a metaphor to learn from and hang on to. During one of Vye’s perambulations, she stops:

“. . . a clue to her abstraction was afforded by a trivial incident. A bramble caught hold of her skirt, and checked her progress. Instead of putting it off and hastening along, she yielded herself up to the pull, and stood passively still. When she began to extricate herself it was by turning round and round, and so unwinding the prickly switch. She was in a desponding reverie.”

Important lesson for women: beware the brambles of life. Clear them away, or at the least, walk around them. They will catch the hem of your dress and if you are not careful, if you are not vigilant, they will derail you, keep you motionless, or worse.

It’s not always easy to see these low-growing thorns, especially when your gaze is focused elsewhere than on your feet, like when looking up at a glorious sky or into the eyes of a beloved or at the bobbing head of a toddler. Sometimes it’s not easy to recognize something in your path as a bramble, so identification is the problem. But since high school, I have heeded Hardy’s narrative-demonstrated advice, and it has made a difference. What else can we ask from our literature?

Cross-posted at http://www.newcritics.com/

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