A book can sit on the tbr shelves for years until it’s suddenly the right day to read it. Last week, I read a review of a movie called The Scarlet Tunic on the Costume Drama Reviews blog. The movie was based on the Thomas Hardy short story, The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion. I have a couple of volumes of Hardy’s stories on the tbr shelves & I found the Melancholy Hussar in Wessex Tales which I bought in 2002. It was the right time to read it. I’m reading Gillian Gill’s biography of Victoria & Albert, but it’s a hardback & too heavy to take to work & carry on my lunchtime walk to the coffee shop. I needed a paperback & this week it was Hardy. Melancholy & fate are two words that I always think of when reading Hardy. I’ve read most of his novels & a lot of his poetry. The Mayor of Casterbridge & Far From The Madding Crowd are two of my favourite novels. I remember reading Jude The Obscure during a cold winter over 20 years ago, coming home from late afternoon tutorials in the city on the train in the dark, feeling more & more desolate. When I got to the saddest scene in the novel – if you’ve read it you’ll know what I mean – I almost lost the heart to go on with it. His stories often show fate at her cruellest. If you’ve read a little Hardy, you can predict how a story will go. I did that with this collection, but it doesn’t mean I enjoy the stories any less. The Wessex Tales are rooted in the countryside of Wessex, Hardy’s name for the south of England, Dorset & Cornwall. He writes beautifully about country life & landscapes & country people from farmers to townspeople. I’ll give you an example of the way fate plays a part in his stories. It’s hard to write about the plot of a short story without giving everything away & I need to give everything away to show you what I mean so this is a SPOILER warning if you haven’t read The Withered Arm.
Middle-aged Farmer Lodge has married a young bride & all the talk in the dairy is of the homecoming of the new bride & groom. One milkmaid, a little apart from the others, says nothing. Rhoda Brook knew Farmer Lodge years before & she has had his son although he has nothing to do with either of them now. She sends the boy out to have a look at the new bride and greedily gathers all the details of the new Mrs Lodge’s appearance & manner. One night she has a dream or vision in which she sees Gertrude Lodge almost as an incubus, a horrible crone, sitting on her chest, mocking Rhoda with her wedding ring & she violently grabs the creature’s arm & throws it onto the floor. She wakes with a start & thinks it was a dream but is disturbed to find that her son heard a noise in the night at the exact same time as she had her dream. Mrs Lodge visits Rhoda to bring her son a new pair of shoes (knowing nothing of Rhoda’s relationship with her husband at this point although she later learns the truth). Gradually, Rhoda is ashamed of her former feelings towards her & the women become friends. However, Gertrude’s arm shows the marks of a hand & the flesh begins to wither. She asks Rhoda to take her to visit a healer deep in the forest but he’s not able to help her & she gradually becomes estranged from her husband & obsessed with finding a cure for her deformity. Rhoda & her son move away & some years later, Gertrude Lodge has become a bitter woman, still looking for a way to win back her husband’s affection. She goes back to the healer in the forest & he tells her of an old remedy – laying the affected limb across the neck of a hanged man while the flesh is still warm. Gertrude is determined to try this last dreadful remedy. She bribes the hangman at Casterbridge to allow her access to the body of a young man due to be hanged the next morning for rick burning. She holds her arm across the neck of the dead man & her arm is cured. But, following the corpse is the boy’s mother, Rhoda Brook & his father, Farmer Lodge, who see it all. Rhoda shrieks at Gertrude, pulling her away from her son, she faints & never regains consciousness, dying three days later. Farmer Lodge leaves the area, never to return. Rhoda returns to her old home & her old work as a milkmaid, never speaking of her sorrow, impassive as ever.
This is what I mean by fate. I knew as soon as the young man to be hanged was mentioned that it would be Rhoda’s son, fateful retribution for Rhoda’s role in Gertrude’s blighted life. I knew that Gertrude’s arm would be cured but at a terrible cost. All the stories in this collection have the same kind of inevitability about them, but Hardy writes so beautifully about relationships. Just because he would rather have a sad or ambiguous ending to his stories, doesn’t make them any less readable or interesting.