The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

In three words:

Drama, excitement, intruige

What I thought:

When I began this book I have to admit that I didn’t think the three words I’d be using to describe it would be drama, excitement and intrigue . In fact, I really had no intention of reading this book at all any time soon as a friend of mine had to study it in school as a teenager and told me it’s the worst book she’s ever read and that had stayed with me and filed into the “don’t bother” part of my brain. So then, just before Christmas I saw or heard something about this book (I forget where and what) and that it was about a man who sells his wife and baby daughter at a fayre and immediately I thought that sounds intriguing and off I popped to pick up a copy. How glad I am that I did – The Mayor of Casterbridge has turned out to be one of my favourite books! I loved it!

Michael Henchard is a young man of twenty-one and walking the countryside of Dorset with his wife, Susan, and their baby girl, Elizabeth-Jane, looking for work. They decide to rest a while in a small village where there is a fayre and several drinks later, Michael starts loudly asking for bidders to buy his wife. After accepting 5 guineas from a sailor he wakes later to realise that they have actually gone and when he realises what he has done he swears not to drink a drop more of alcohol for another 21 years (as long as he has so far lived). He starts to make enquiries about where the sailor and his family may have gone but nobody knows who he is and Michael is too ashamed of his conduct to search too effectively and he sets off on the road once more, alone.

The story then fast-forwards eighteen years and Michael is now the Mayor of Casterbridge (modelled on Dorchester in Dorset). It’s difficult to say more about what happens next as I really don’t want to give it away – this book is much better read if you know nothing about the characters and what is to come yet as there are plenty of twists and turns along the way. The fuller title for The Mayor of Casterbridge is The Life and Death of a Man of Character, and that is really what this book is based around – Michael Henchard and his fall and rise (and fall again). The main cast of characters is small enough that we really get to know them well and care about them: Susan and Elizabeth-Jane become part of the story again as does a Scottish traveller looking for work, Donald Farfrae and a young lady, Lucetta Templeman, who gets caught up in something that will come back to haunt her in a big way later in the book.

Henchard really is a man of character, as the title suggests, and he is prone to jealousy, impulsiveness and malice but in turn he can be caring, warm and reflective meaning that the reader never hates him, but actually feels for him as he is his own harshest critic. What astounded me was Hardy’s understanding of human nature: time and time again I was amazed that he had managed to get it so spot on; to really make me feel as the characters did and understand why they behaved the way they did.

What I really loved about this book, though, was the drama. This is why I love all the Victorian books I have read so far – they’re like watching a soap-opera. The Mayor of Casterbridge has it all – love, hate, greed, jealousy, deceit and repentence. And watch out for a scene involving a skimmington-ride (what the Victorians – and those before them – used to do to humiliate people, particularly adulterous women or women who beat their husbands which involved a very rowdy and public parade with effigies of the persons concerned being ridden through town on the back of donkeys) which has extremely tragic consequences.

I just had to share this quote with you too as it made me laugh:

“The present room was much humbler, but what struck him about it was the abundance of books lying everywhere. The number and quality made the meagre furniture that supported them seem absurdly disproportionate.”

Sound familiar? 😉

 

I loved the fact that there were pictures too

 

Verdict: I heart Thomas Hardy! This is the second book of his that I have read (the first being Tess) and I now fully intend to gorge myself on the rest this year. Forget your pre-conceptions about dry and dull Victorian literature – this book has it all! A firm favourite now and one I will definitely read again at some point.

 

 

  Have you read this book?

  Which Hardy novel should I read next?

This is the first book I have read for the Victorians Challenge 2012

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28 thoughts on “The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

  1. I read this book years ago and don’t remember much about it. I think I enjoyed it (as, at the time, I enjoyed ALL Hardy novels). It’s on my plan-to-reread list.

    Tess was great too. I don’t remember much of his other books, except that I read at several of them (my landlord had a whole load of them).

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  2. I’m so glad that you enjoyed this! I’m always delighted when I read that someone loves one of Hardy’s novels and even more so that you plan to read more of them this year. I read all of his major novels over the second half of 2010 and first half of 2011. Now I’m hoping to get to some more of the minor ones and (if I can squeeze it in) reread a few of the major ones.
    I love that Hardy’s characters are usually never completely good or evil – there are no true heroes or villains as he writes them more true to life and multi-faceted.
    Cheers!

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  3. Thomas Hardy is my one true love – he’s what inspired me to host my own Victorian Lit challenge last year. I absolutely adore his writing. I’d suggest Far From the Madding Crowd, next. Or, perhaps, if you want something lighter, Under The Greenwood Tree. Jude the Obscure is an absolute MUST but I don’t know if you want to take Hardy a bit more slowly before tackling that – Jude is HEARTACHE in abundance. Hardy was my undergraduate dissertation topic – ah, always my love!

    There’s a view Hardy reviews on my blog (including this one) if you wanted to take a peek for a recommendation!

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  4. Oh, Thomas Hardy. I went through a phase a few years back of loving him but only managed to read Tess, Maddening Crowd (lurve this one) Jude. I haven’t pick up a Hardy since then but you have rekindled my interest. The Mayor of Casterbridge sounds great. I highly recommend Far from The Maddening Crowd for your next Hardy read…

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  5. It’s good to see another Hardy fan! This book sounds great. I was planning to make The Return of the Native the next Hardy book I read, but now I’m wondering if I should try this one instead. Of the four that I’ve already read, I loved Tess, Jude and A Pair of Blue Eyes, though I didn’t like Under the Greenwood Tree quite as much. I hope you enjoy whichever one you read next!

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  6. Hardy’s one of my favourites, too, and an inspiration. Perhaps try Far From the Madding Crowd next. That’s the one that got me looked on him in the first place. We did a literary tour on our honeymoon, and loved exploring Hardy’s “Wessex”! About time to go back again, I think.

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  7. Ohhh sounds like a good read!! I haven’t read anything by Thomas Hardy so this book sounds like a good place to start :). BTW I see you are reading The Night Circus…how do you like that one so far? I can’t wait to read your review on it…I’ve been eye-balling the book forever! 🙂 Happy reading 🙂

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  8. I’ve only read one of Hardy’s novels – Far From The Madding Crowd – and I couldn’t stand it. I’m sorry to say I’ve never been tempted on another. I did see a BBC production of Tess though which I enjoyed immensely. Maybe it’s time to give him another go. And that’s a way cool cover.

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  9. I’ve read several by TH, but never The Mayor. I can only take TH if there’s a good time lapse between the books – he can write so depressing stuff! (but so well written!)

    My favorite is “Far From the Madding Crowd”. “Jude, The Obscure” is also very good, but probably the most depressing book I’ve ever read (and that’s saying something ;)).

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  10. I’ve read Hardy’s two major novels, Tess (twice) and Jude. I really enjoy his writing and am shocked at myself that I haven’t read more of him. I have a goal to read his entire writings in the next few years. I plan to read The Return of the Native later this year for the Victorian Challenge and then probably Mayor. I think if you really want to experience full-out tragedy you should read Jude next. I would love to know what you think of that one!

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  11. Hello,

    I loved this book so much last year that I decided to read all Thomas Hardy.
    I’m reading them in chronological order, so I just read Desperate Remedies. (reviews available on my blog)

    Incidentally, I read in “What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew” by Daniel Pool that poor people really auctioned their wives sometimes. It was cheaper than a divorce.

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  12. Another Hardy fan here. I read the Mayor a few years back knowing nothing about it and knew I was onto a good one the moment he sold his wife. I told my mum I’d read it and she said she named me Elizabeth Jane after reading the book – took over 30 years to find out that nugget of information! I vote for Far from the Madding Crowd next too – feisty heroine with lots of men arguing over her, you’ll love it.

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  13. Hello, I stumbled upon your blog and that’s a great review of ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge!’ I especially agree on your point that the reader feels intimately for the principal characters as the cast is small and thus well-developed.

    I love Hardy’s play on words; for eg. ‘He was sometimes astonished that men could profess so little and believe so much at his house, when at church they professed so much and believed so little” — the thoughts of the weather ‘prophet’ after Henchard pays him a discreet visit.

    I think ‘Mayor’ isn’t as tragic as ‘Tess’ (the other Hardy tome you have read) as I occasionally found paragraphs laced with humour and cynical ironies verging on black humour. I’m rereading it now, and it’s always fresh because he’s such a master of language.

    If high drama is your cup of tea, plunge right into ‘Jude the Obscure’. The story is really a heartwrenching tragedy but there is still something to ‘enjoy’ as I feel that Hardy described the landscape and environs so vividly you can imagine you were there. And while Jude is a tragic character, he does have a few happy moments at the start of the novel and Hardy’s tender treatment of these scenes is some of the most beautiful and moving prose I’ve read.

    I have wanted to read ‘Return of the Native’ for the longest time and you’ve inspired me to launch straight into another Thomas Hardy novel after I complete my rereading of ‘Mayor’. Thank you! 🙂

    ~Rin

    PS: Like yourself, ‘Tess’ and ‘Mayor’ were the first two TH novels I read too. My third was ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ and I found the narrative considerably slower and the writing style more languid in comparison, so I was a little frustrated.

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