Friday, September 26, 2014

Going for a swim with Thomas Hardy - some social realism

I have avoided, up to now, A. S. Byatt’s stories pulled from the Thomas Hardy-like pile, stories that might be called “social realism” even when, like the selected Hardy story, “A Mere Interlude” (1885), they are unrealistic.  Besides Hardy, there is Arthur Morrison’s “Behind the Shade” and Mary Mann’s “Little Brother,” publication dates unknown to me.  I think it is fair to call them a couple of neglected authors.

Morrison’s story is an argument against basing class hatred on assumptions.  The poor neighbors assume that a spinster and her mother are well to do because they have a nice ornament, “a cone of waxen grapes and apples under a nice cover” (105), in their window.  But they ain’t.  The art of this story is in the fluid “social” point of view, which is most often a vague observation by a random passerby, or gossip, making a series of misinterpretations that Morrison and his reader gently form into the true, sad story.

Mann, the Hardy of Norfolk, is more brutal.  A mother has delivered her thirteenth child, stillborn.  Her husband and oldest son, both literally “attired for the most part in a sack,” are outside slicing turnips in some kind of machine.  The poor baby – hey, where is the baby?

‘Ain’t he theer?’ the woman asked, her eyes upon the chair.

‘Nothing’s there, Mrs Hodd.’  (93)

Thank goodness there is only a page left.  The poor dead baby does not end up in the turnip slicer, if that’s what you fear (I did), but Mann nevertheless has no problem violating good taste to emphasize her characters’ misery.  Be sure to put a toy in that donation box this Christmas.

Those two were just a few pages each.  “A Mere Interlude” is thirty, giving Hardy plenty of room to swerve around.  A young woman, unhappy with school teaching, agrees to go back home and marry a well-to-do merchant, much older than her.  She misses a ferry, though, and in the interval meets an old flame.  Wouldn’t she prefer to marry him? Right now?  She would; they do.  Now, they are waiting for the ferry again, the one she missed, but this time the plan is to introduce her new husband to her family and that disappointed merchant who thinks he will marry her tomorrow.

The heat of the morning was by this time intense.  They clambered up on some cliffs, and while sitting there, looking around at St Michael’s Mount and other objects, Charles said to her that he thought he would run down to the beach at their feet, and take just one plunge into the sea.  (72)

We’re not quite at the halfway point.  I way well have laughed aloud here.  So that’s where the story is going, that’s the “mere interlude.”  Poor Charles.

This leads to the only truly tin-eared sentence that I noticed.  I mean the second, although the first is no prize either:

By this time she was alarmed, and her alarm intensified when she perceived a little beyond the scene of her husband’s bathing a small area of water, the quality of whose surface differed from that of the surrounding expanse as the coarse vegetation of some foul patch in a mead differs from the fine green of the remainder.  Elsewhere it looked flexuous, here it looked vermiculated and lumpy, and her marine experiences suggested to her in a moment that two currents met and caused a turmoil at this place.  (73)

Don’t let “flexuous” and “vermiculated” distract you from the wonderful oddness of “her marine experiences.”

People say Hardy is depressing.  Well listen to this:

… her mother remaining below to complete the disposition of the supper, and attend to the preparation of tomorrow’s meal, altogether composing such an array of pies, from pies of fish to pies of turnips, as was never heard outside of the Western Duchy.  (77)

This is for a wedding, a party!  Turnip pie!  It’s the most depressing thing I have ever read in all of literature.

Other than this stuff, the Hardy story is pretty good.  All of the stories in the Byatt book have been at least pretty good.  But now I think I’ll put it away for a while.


  1. Poor Hardy, he became so upset and bitter about public and critical reactions to his prose after a while that he abandoned the efforts and moved on to poetry. I admire his versatility. I have enjoyed many of his efforts in all genres.

  2. I don't particularly like Hardy, but Lobo Antunes does, and I'm sure it's because of his depressing outlook.

    And damn it!, Tom, I want to know what happens to the baby.

  3. Didn't Hardy really want to be a poet in the first place? Maybe it all worked out for the best.

    I could actually see Lobo Antunes enjoying that flexuous / marine experiences line more than I do.

    I will give you the other clue about the baby. This comes before the bit I quotes by a little less than a page, back when the naive reader is unsuspicious:

    "In the kitchen I passed through on my way upstairs, a pair of Hodds, of too tender an age to be at school, were seated on a sack - again a sack! - spread before the fire, and were playing with a large battered doll."

  4. So glad the baby didn't end up in the turnips, but being played with as a doll? That's a bit less gruesome but still, makes the people seem stupid as though they can't tell the difference between a dead baby and a toy.

    Hardy on the other hand, "her marine experiences," what a hoot! What the heck does that mean? And at least there is no danger of a dead baby being mixed up in his turnip pies.

  5. The poor family in this story is stupefied, beast-like. When the children are discovered playing with their doll, there is a line involving the corpse's eyes which is the one I alluded to as a mild but real violation of good taste.

    I think "her marine experiences" means that she has been out on boats. She grew up on an island. It is as if Hardy searched for the oddest possible way to say that.

  6. A certain one volume American Encyclopedia from the '30s listed Hardy's The Dynasts as the greatest literary work, up to that moment, of the 20th. Century. In that work we find Hardy again engaged with the current subject matter:
    "-I can tell you a word or two about it. It is about His victuals. They say that He lives upon human flesh, and has rashers o' baby every morning for breakfast--for all the world like the Cernal Giant in old ancient times!

    -Ye can't believe all ye hear.

    -I only believe half. And I only own--such is my challengeful character--that perhaps He do eat pagan infants when He's in the desert. But not Christian ones at home. Oh no--'tis too much."

  7. None of these stories had anything to match Old Father Time, but they had plenty of fine Hardyish misery. I'm glad to see he kept it p in The Dynasts.

    Greatest literary work of the first third of the 20th century - a magnificent opinion. I am not mocking it but rather marveling about the change in values that causes a massive historical epic in verse to be driven from readers' hands by, for example, a comic novella about a guy who turns into a bug.

  8. Somehow we've lost the taste for the epic, maybe the movies and the telly satisfy that need these days, or maybe we've come to the point where we can only appreciate ironic things:

    First there was a god of night and tempest, a black idol without eyes, before whom they leaped, naked and smeared with blood. Later on, in the times of the republic, there were many gods with wives, children, creaking beds, and harmlessly exploding thunderbolts. At the end only superstitious neurotics carried in their pockets little statues of salt, representing the god of irony. There was no greater god at that time.
    Then came the barbarians. They too valued highly the little god of irony. They would crush it under their heels and add it to their dishes.
    [Zbigniew Herbert]

  9. I had not seen that, or, worse, I don't remember it. Herbert was so sharp.