The Mayor of Casterbridge

Bert Hornback revisits one of the most vivid and readable of the great Victorian novels.

If the Victorians had charged for novels by the number of hurdles, plot reversals, or other such stoppages a novel contained, Thomas Hardy's novels would have been affordable only by the very richest of English readers. Having said that - in frustration, having just encountered yet another plot-blockage that I had forgotten about in The Mayor of Casterbridge - I want quickly to insist that Hardy stands (though "stands" is not an emphatic enough verb to position him) along with Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte and George Eliot at the head of the list of great Victorian novelists. 

But Hardy is more unlike than like any of those other great nineteenth century English novelists: different in manner, style, tone - different in substance, too. Hardy's model for The Mayor of Casterbridge could have been Greek: Sophoclean. But it is more importantly Hardyean: Hardy's own version, perhaps, of what the Greeks told us was tragedy. But I do Hardy a disservice by referring to his novels as though they derived in some way from Aeschylean or Sophoclean models.  So let me simply say that The Mayor of Casterbridge is in some ways like a Greek tragedy, and that Michael Henchard - a very difficult man, in almost every way - is its tragic hero.  

For all the stoppages and stoppings I referred to above, Hardy manages to make his main characters cover lots of ground: Diggory Venn brings Thomasin home in his cart, and everybody goes out walking across Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native. In The Mayor of Casterbridge  Michael Henchard starts out at Weydon, above Stonehenge, and migrates a hundred or so miles to Casterbridge; Susan and little Elizabeth-Jane presumably get somehow from Weydon to the sea with Sailor Newson, and then, eighteen or so years later they walk - perhaps from Budmouth, maybe from a more distant port - to Casterbridge; and in the end Michael Henchard sets out on foot across Egdon Heath. Tess walks to Trantridge - and then she and Angel run away on foot as far as Stonehenge. How does Jude get from wherever he is in Wessex to Oxford?  On foot, surely. And Hardy's last novel, The Well-Beloved, was originally entitled "The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved" - and we know that pursuit must have been undertaken on foot, the whole length of Portland Bill!

I have been reading Hardy with serious regularity since 1960. I have worn many holes in numerous shoes, both metaphorical and real leather, been mind-sore and foot-sore for weeks at a time on Hardy binges; but I have never tired, never once regretted the undertaking.

And setting out to read The Mayor of Casterbridge again to write this brief essay, I am glad - grateful - to be on the road again, "approaching the large village of Weydon-Priors on foot."

The Mayor of Casterbridge is, to me, the most ambitious of Hardy's novels and one of the superb pieces of nineteenth century English literature. The sub-title tells us that this novel is "A Story of a Man of Character" - and then, in the opening chapter a surly, rough, thoroughly unlikeable and drunken character sells his wife and infant daughter. And he is, presumably, Hardy's "Man of Character."  We are not off to a good start.

We meet this man again in the third chapter. Twenty years have passed, and he is "The Mayor of Casterbridge." Casterbridge is an English county town; and he is in every way its most powerful citizen. He is a wealthy corn-merchant: a fair man, an honest man, but also a brutal and overbearing man. We know that twenty years ago, drunk, he sold his wife and infant daughter. But the denizens of Casterbridge don't know it. 

Now that wife and her daughter re-enter his life. He can't undo what he did. But in taking them back, he can attempt to be honourable. With the introduction of Donald Farfrae as Henchard's hired assistant, then friend and partner, we begin to see a gentler, kinder Henchard, eager to love and to be loved.

Henchard is a hard man, and as a hard man he has risen to be a wealthy corn merchant. He can afford now to be generous. When Susan, his once-sold wife reappears, he takes her back, willingly, and honourably. And he welcomes with her the young woman whom he assumes is his daughter, Elizabeth-Jane. He befriends young Donald Farfrae, too, who seems to bring out the very best in him.  

And then everything begins to turn. Susan, the wife whom he has taken back, dies. His daughter turns out not to be his daughter. Farfrae becomes his competitor - for attention, affection, respect. His competitor in business, too, and a better man at business than Henchard is. One competitive misjudgment of a harvest, and Henchard is ruined. He goes to work for Farfrae, who has married Henchard's supposed daughter, Elizabeth Jane.

The story turns, but doesn't simply reverse. Broken, ruined, Henchard begins drinking again. He tries to blame Farfrae for his fall, his failure, but he cannot. His failure is all his own, and this, in the end, he must acknowledge. He does so, and makes his last will:  "To this I put my name." And his daughter - who is not, in fact, his daughter - says his amen: "So it must be." 

Michael Henchard is his own honest judge, and despite all his faults he is an honourable man. And in telling his story, Hardy makes him one of the greatest of heroes. But a tragic hero - and we don't want to imitate tragic heroes in our own lives.

Hardy, at his best, wrote toward tragedy. He knew the Greek tragedians well. And he knew Shakespeare. But his creation, in this novel, is neither Greek nor Shakespearean. His stage is not that of the theatre of Athens, and his story is not told in competition for a prize. It is not staged in London, at the Globe. Hardy's tragedy is set in Wessex. Its main stages are a small unnamed market town, a county-town named Casterbridge, and in the end an abandoned cottage on the edge of Egdon Heath. Henchard - Hardy's hero - is not a man of many words.  He complains once, of his loss of Elizabeth Jane:

"If I only had her with me - if I only had! . . . Hard work would be nothing to me then! But that was not to be."  

 He acknowledges his fate as what he has earned:

"I - Cain - go alone as I deserve - an outcast and a vagabond."

And he accepts it: 

                 "But my punishment is not greater than I can bear!" 

Hardy doesn't have Henchard speak his last words. Rather, we read them, "pencilled" on "a crumpled scrap of paper" which he gave to Abel Whittele - who can't read. So they are freshly ours to register for the first time when we read them: 

                               MICHAEL HENCHARD'S  WILL                      

                   That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death,

                       or made to grieve on account of me.

                   & that I not be bury'd in consecrated ground.

                   & that no sexton be asked to toll the bell.

                   &that nobody is wished to see my dead body.

                   & that no murners walk behind me at my funeral.

                   & that no flours be planted on my grave.

                   & that no man remember me.

                  To this I put my name.

                                                            MICHAEL  HENCHARD            

How can we not remember Michael Henchard?

Bert Hornback

Image: An illustration from the first edition of the novel by Thomas Hardy in 1886

Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Previous/Next Posts