A Decade of Masterpiece Theatre Masterpieces
by Alistair Cooke
A VBI Book, Published by Alfred A. Knopf,
Inc., New York, 1981
(ISBN 0-394-51907-8). From the chapter
on Thomas Hardy, pages 84 89:
I WAS a schoolboy, Thomas Hardy, then in his late eighties, was
everywhere thought of as the Grand Old Man of English literature.
He was a set piece in school, as well as university, examinations.
His ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey and his heart in Dorset,
in the parish churchyard of his native town. Within twenty years
or so, certainly after the Second World War, he looked like the
last of the Victorians and to many people a minor one. According
to university teachers in the 1940s and '50s, he bored the young.
His works, if not forgotten, were unread. The smart critics protected
him from a second and final burial by declaring that his poetry
was the thing.
"Then, in 1957, the Japanese
founded the first Thomas Hardy Society. It took the English ten
more years to start their own. At last report, the visitors from
the Orient pad diligently round the villages and lands mentioned
in the novels. They even learned to brew the drink on which Michael
Henchard, the tragic hero of The Mayor of Casterbridge,
got drunk. (For the record, it is 'furmity,' a mix of wheat stewed
in milk, raisins, sugar, and spices, and laced with rum. It is
served formally at the society meetings in Tokyo and Kyoto.)
There is less of a mystery than might at first appear about the
Japanese devotion to this intensely English writer. A people
that offers five-year courses in the care and training of a shrub,
and uses thin wires to teach a tree how to grow, is greatly taken
with the accuracy and minuteness of Hardy's descriptions of the
Dorset countryside. The Japanese are evidently not squeamish
about tragedy. They share his fatalism, which is not surprising.
People who have heard much of, or survived, Hiroshima may well
be impatient with novels of easy reassurance about the benevolence
of nature or the certainty of human happiness. Meanwhile, in
the Western world, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of
Casterbridge¸and Tess of the D'Urbervilles have
been filmed by the most chic of avant-garde directors."
Mayor of Casterbridge was his tenth novel, written in his
middle forties. He had the idea for it when he was poring over
some county records of the 1830s and '40s and came on several
advertisements for 'wife auctions.' He cited these sources when
the opening incident of the novel-Henchard's sale of his wife
and daughter to a sailor while in a drunken stupor-sent a shock
wave through the critics. The story traces, with some pity but
no sentimentality, the late return to Casterbridge of Henchard
as an anonymous laborer; his moving onwards and upwards to become
a thriving wheat and hay merchant and the mayor of Casterbridge;
the return of his wife and daughter (who is, in truth, not Henchard's
but the sailor's daughter); his unmasking by an old woman who
happened to recall the auction; the parading around town of his
effigy and that of his mistress; his swift decline into a hired
hand; the ultimate humiliation of seeing his 'daughter' marry
the partner who had annexed first his business and then his mistress;
his retreat to a home in a barn; and his death in bitterness
Oedipus and Henchard
complained that in all this there were too many coincidences,
too much unlucky circumstance, as in those 1930s movies where
a letter slipped over a carpet instead of under it would have
saved us from gales of rows, breast-beating, and recrimination,
and, indeed, from the movie itself. Hardy never apologized and
never explained. He left it to be inferred that he did not invent
coincidences to ease himself out of trouble with tiresome people.
His coincidences always arose from a particular weakness of character.
He did make the analogy between Oedipus and Henchard: men who
tempt the one fate they are most anxious to avoid." |||
Copyright 1981 by Alistair Cooke, WGBH
Education Foundation, and VNU Books International. Illustrations
copyright 1981 by VNU Books International. All rights reserved
under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published
in the United Stated by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, and
simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Distributed by Random House, Inc., New York.