When it comes to Thomas Hardy, forget optimism and happy endings. His peculiarities are realism and a tendency to tragic scenarios. I’ve always found his works rather interesting though, half way between Victorianism and Modernism.  Hardy  followed Schopenhauer’s notion of the “Immanent Will” which describes a blind force that drives the universe irrespective of human lives or desires. Though his novels often end in crushing tragedies – think of Tess of the D’Urbevilles or Jude The Obscure - that reflect Schopenhauer’s philosophy, Hardy described himself as a "meliorist", one who believes that the world tends to become better and that people aid in this betterment. Humans can live with some happiness, he claimed, so long as they understand their place in the universe and accept it.
There  is something  of all that  in the story of Michael Henchard (Ciaràn Hinds), which starts with him  travelling with his wife, Susan (Juliet Aubrey), looking for employment as a hay-trusser. When they stop to eat, Henchard gets drunk, and in an auction that begins as a joke but turns  serious, he sells his wife and their baby daughter, Elizabeth-Jane (Jodhi May), to Newson, a sailor, for five guineas. He regrets what he has done and searches the town for his wife and daughter. Unable to find them, he goes into a church and swears an oath that he will not drink alcohol for twenty-one years, the same number of years he has been alive. Eighteen years later, after Newson’s death at sea, Susan and Elizabeth-Jane seek  Henchard and find him a wealthy  and influential man, the Mayor of Casterbridge.  For Elizabeth-Jane's sake, Susan and Michael decide to pretend they never married and a new marriage follows a formal courtship.  Meanwhile,  Michael Henchard has hired a skillful Scotsman , Donald Farfrae (James Purefoy), as the new manager of his corn business. Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane start spending time together. Farfrae outdoes Henchard in everything and this creates clashes between them, though Henchard consideres the young man as his friend and confides him the secrets of his past. Among those secrets, the wrong he did to Susan and Elizabeth-Jane, but also his affair with Lucetta,  a beautiful young girl he met in Jersey, whose reputation is now ruined since he didn’t keep the promise to marry her. The relationship between the two men becomes harsher and harsher until Henchard asks Elizabeth-Jane to stop seeing Farfrae.

picture from birdienl.livejournal.com

Susan dies leaving a letter for Henchard in which she confesses that,  actually,  his Elizabeth-Jane died in the first year of her life and that the girl who is now living with him is, instead,  Newson’s daughter. Henchard starts treating Elizabeth-Jane coldly and harshly with no explanation given. So Elizabeth-Jane decides to leave Henchard’s house and live with a lady who has just arrived in town. This lady turns out to be Lucetta Templeman, the  woman with whom Henchard was involved during Susan’s absence; having learned of Susan’s death, Lucetta has come to Casterbridge to marry Henchard.  Lucetta meets Farfrae  first and the two hit it off immediately and eventually get married.
 Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane become closer and help each other while the situation of the man starts declining both economically (he is forced to start working for Farfrae) and socially (his past is revealed by a woman witness in Casterbridge and he must leave his position as a Mayor substituted by Farfrae).
I think I'd better stop telling you this story just here, saying only that some more twists and turns  take place before the tragic end (for a complete summary of the plot CLICK HERE)

In the subtitle, Henchard is called a Man of Character by Thomas Hardy. Unfortunately and dramatically,  he isn’t.  His temperament is aggressive and impulsive, even when sober, and his ambition and jealousy  lead him to self-destruction. Henchard is torn and haunted by his sense of guilt, he feels never totally expiated. This tragic complex character is delivered  beautifully by Ciaràn Hinds and the whole mini-series is very good, starting from Ted Whitehead’s screenplay based on the original novel and very faithful to it. I loved Purefoy and Jodhi May as Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane, as well as Juliet Aubrey and Polly Walker as the two women in Henchard’s life, Susan and Lucetta.  I was deeply emotionally involved in this story while watching the DVD and I’m sure that it is due to the great performances of the experienced cast.  Hardy's Dorset was re-created in Lacock (Wiltshire), the tiny village I’ve recently visited in my journey to England, which was also the set of some scenes of Pride and Prejudice 1995, Cranford  and Emma 2009

THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE  is a 2003 ITV two-part series available on DVD.


JaneGS said...

This is one of my sister's favorite novels, and I've still never read it. Now, I have to in order to watch the DVD, which sounds terrific.

I appreciated the background on Hardy and where his works fit into the philosophical spectrum. I guess I would describe myself as a "meliorist" also--I'll have to think about this with regards the Hardy novels I have read, Tess being my favorite.

So cool that you got to visit Lacock. It was on my itinerary for my trip two years ago, but fell off because of lack of time. Could you recognize it from the film scenes?

Maria Grazia said...

You must go to Lacock next time you are in England, both the Abbey and the village are so beautiful! Yes, it is easy to recognize Lacock for me , now that I've been there. The first episode of The Mayor of Casterbridge is full of scenes shot there. And, yes, this mini-series is very good. I liked it a lot.
Thanks for your comment, J.!

Jo M said...

This movie proves (again) that those Victorians really knew how to write romantically tense scenes....the scene in the threshing barn? *swoon*!!!!!!!!

Maria Grazia said...

@Jo M
Actually, barns have inspired very romantic or sexy or even incandescent scenes in several different epochs.Ehm...But you're right Jo, that scene between Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane is so tense and emotionally involving. How romantic!

maribea said...

Thanks for this interesting review, Maria Grazia. Have you also read the book? I'd like to know if it is similar to Tess of the D’Urbevilles. I started reading Tess but I had to give up because the English was a bit too difficult for me. I remember old words and dialect and so on. Then I saw a movie made after the book and I liked it although how sad it was. So I was wondering whether I could try and read this other book by Hardy. Of course I need to see this TV serie now!!!

Maria Grazia said...

I read the book long ago and, since Hardy is not so easy in the original, if you are not profiecient in English. So I read it in Italian. I read Tess in English, instead, I had to study it when I was at university. What do you mean with ...similar to Tess? The style or the fact that it is a sad story?

maribea said...

@mariagrazia: thanks for your reply. I mean, I found the English in Tess 'archaic' and I remember I was a bit discouraged. Usually, I don't have any problem with English and I read every book in English. I clearly remember I found Tess difficult. Of course, it is hard to say when I started reading it. So I guess the kind of language Hardy uses is more of less the same as in Tess, isn't it?

Maria Grazia said...

Yes, it is. I like The Mayor of Casterbridge more than Tess, for its plot and characters. The setting and the atmospheres are more or less the same.

maribea said...

thanks for your reply, Maria Grazia!!!

Monica Fairview said...

I've been wondering whether to introduce Hardy to my 10 year old (through film, at this stage). She's seen some Dickens and Jane Austen and enjoyed them. Would you recommend this?

Maria Grazia said...

@Monica Fairview
Actually, Monica, the only adaptation from a Hardy novel I'd show to a 10-year-old is "Under the Greenwood Tree". It is light and lyrical, it has none of the tragicalness of the rest of his production. As I wrote in this review, Hardy thought himself a "meliorist" but he has such a pessimistic view of humankind. He thought there was much to ameliorate.