Where The Return of the Native (1878) burrowed into a single strange landscape, Egdon Heath, Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) takes its heroine on a tour of central Wessex, so Hardy can describe a series of weird places. I am reading William Morris’s The Well at the World’s End (1896), which is entirely invented, and there has not been anything nearly so weird. Early going, I hope. Hardy’s fantasy novel is much more fantastic.
A valley that is a center of dairy production, sending cans of milk to London by train, I suppose a pretty ordinary place, is turned into a biology experiment:
Amid the oozing fatness and warm ferments of the Froom Vale, at a season when the rush of juices could almost be heard below the hiss of fertilization, it was impossible that the most fanciful love should not grow passionate. The ready bosoms existing there were impregnated by their surroundings. (Ch. 24)
The milkmaids “writhed feverishly” in a landscape “which sent up mists of pollen at a touch” (I’m mixing chapters – 23 first, then Ch. 19). People mate like plants. In an earlier landscape, a hay harvest, the “floating, fusty débris of peat and hay, mixed with the perspirations and warmth of the dancers” form “a sort of vegeto-human pollen” (Ch. 11).
The contrast is so strange, the Anglo-Celtic level of the story, the milk and turnip level, wrestling with the educated narrator who has a sharp enough ear to note that the sound of the dancing is muffled “from their being overshoe in ‘scroff’” – peat dust – “They coughed as they danced, and laughed as they coughed” – but also can’t stop himself from dragging in the satyrs and nymphs, “Lotis attempting to elude Priapus.”
Ah, just a page earlier is that beautiful sunset, “when yellow lights struggle with blue shades in hair-like lines, and the atmosphere itself forms a prospect without aid from more solid objects, except the innumerable winged insects that danced in it.” I rarely understand what is meant when a book is described as “atmospheric,” but in Tess of the d’Urbervilles the atmosphere is a constant presence, a motivating force.
The masterpiece is the description of Flintcomb-Ash, the turnip farm, “a starve-acre place” where the fields are full of “bulbous, cusped, and phallic” rocks, the migrating birds come direct from the North Pole, “gaunt spectral creatures with tragical eyes – eyes which had witnessed scenes of cataclysmal horror in inaccessible polar regions of a magnitude such as no human being has ever conceived” and the snow that follows the birds like a “white pillar of cloud,” a Biblical snow, “smelt of icebergs, arctic seas, whales, and white bears” (Ch. 43).
The snow smells like whales. What were those idiots in the previous post talking about? Hardy is awesome. How could Robert Louis Stevenson, of all people, not experience some pleasing surprise when reading about that blizzard under a palm tree?
How this all fits together is still a puzzle to me. Another piece tomorrow.