The Return of the Native

I have a pile of books to read: Rashid Khalidi’s  “The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine”, which feels urgent and the most important; and then a pile of books on Wales, on the national question, David Ross’s Wales, History of a Nation, the Pembrokeshire volume of Pevsner’s architectural guides and various academic volumes on Welsh and Norman agriculture to help me better the understand the language divide in south-western Wales.

I know so little about Wales despite my Somerset upbringing, with Wales a few miles across the water while priority was given to filling that tousled head with the Appian Way and the Trojan Horse.

Also important but imparting knowledge of our close Celtic neighbours had not been amiss.

And a few evenings ago, tired and unable to choose the next step, I pick up Hardy’s Return of the Native which I haven’t re-read since my teenage years. I remember mostly the spectacular –  Hardy’s architect’s eye for landscape, represented here by Egdon Heath, which unlike many of Hardy’s places has no equivalent in the Dorset landscape; Hardy constructs it from various patches of gorse-strewn ground in East Dorset and makes it massive. And the caravan-dwelling reddleman, stained red from head to foot by reddle used by farmers to mark their sheep. And then there was the adder that fatally bit Clym Yeobright’s mother, as well as the dramatic death in the weir of Eustacia Vye and her erstwhile lover Wildeve.  Weirs I have had a healthy respect for since then, although not understanding why the water close to them is so dangerous until more recent watery excursions.

But other aspects of the book have only become visible to a later eye. Hardy’s description of the varying social status not just of the grand people but right down to the marginal layers of “the middle class”. And his character types that crop up in book after book; the rural working class treated both with respect and ridicule and associations with Greek choruses or Shakespearian light relief; the dedicated lover who has often fallen on hard times but overcomes adversity by strength of character and who wins his lady in the end, usually after other less worthy contenders have been killed off or sticky ended in some other way.

And the modern Victorian, perhaps from a relatively humble background, who becomes a respected professional, reflecting Hardy’s experience of becoming an architect and leaving Dorset for London.

And the female characters, from the prim to the profligate. Hardy is often praised as understanding women but only the women he writes about, those he has made up himself. I have been to Max Gate home in Dorchester where he lived in fractious disharmony with his first wife who died alone in her attic quarters unwanted and  unloved. And Hardy’s second wife Florence who found it easier to accept being the great man’s muse. Hardy was stricken with grief and guilt after the death of his first wife and wrote many high quality love poems to her after her death; the course of love was not so smooth for his second wife either. I don’t know his poetry well but must make an effort to remedy this as he was predominantly a poet for the last 30 years of his life.

My version of the Return of the Native has a long introduction by George Woodcock, who also wrote the useful notes at the back. He seems to have been both a serious anarchist as well as a  literary academic, an entertaining man whom I should like to know more about. From the notes I learn about Lammas day in early August, celebrating the early harvest, about the sixteenth century historian John Leland and the maenads, female devotees or attendants of Dionysius “celebrated for their dangerous  and self-mutilating ecstatic frenzies” which sounds refreshingly unprim. And also the transferred epithet (see tousled head in the first paragraph). And also wondered about the difference between “pagan” and “heathen”, the first from Latin and related to rural folk and the second Germanic, where unconverted pre Christians scampered around the heaths.

I couldn’t live in Hardy’s Wessex, after a long joyful stay, it would become claustrophobic and I would need to escape. But I love to be able to dip into this world, to learn more about it.

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