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INTRODUCTION THOMAS HARDYThomas Hardy and George Meredith have often been coupled as the last of the Victorians In both cases the term—as journalistic terms are too apt to be— is peculiarly inappropriate Neither Meredith nor Hardy is Victorian except in the sense that they began their careers before the end of that period Rightly or wrongly a certain smug righteousness professional optimism a determined brightness of outlook are generally associated with the art which the Victorian era has bequeathed to us Even Browning and Arnold in some respects the finest minds of the time did not altogether escape this It was left to Meredith and Hardy to break the traditionPerhaps it would be precise to say that the Victorians found it always necessary to lean upon something Darwin had for the acuter minds of his generation shaken religion to its foundations and there was in consequence a somewhat frantic hurry to find among those foundations fragments solid enough to lean upon and abstract enough to remain untouched by the doctrine of evolution Can the earth philosophy which Meredith turned towards be called one of these fragments? He found some such emotional and ethical substitute necessary at any rate It was Hardy who first walked forth without light into the wildernessHardy is a novelist in consequence who supremely demands that his reader shall have courage He offers no bright panaceas no subtle consolations He is a merciless determinist a passionate ironist He sees the life of man as a harsh glare of prearranged tragedy and he takes pleasure in standing helpless but resolute in the full dreadfulness of this glare It has been said that Hardy is cruel to his characters that he persecutes them that he delights in whipping them from disaster to disaster This is both true and false true in the sense that as an artist Hardy takes the keenest of all pleasures in getting at the essentials of man's nature in showing him to be forever the victim of his own divergent instincts drawn this way and that setting up for himself lofty ideals only to fail of attainment alternately wise and foolish ugly and beautiful false in the sense that it assumes Hardy to be a sort of monster of indifference—whereas in fact he is the profoundest of humanists For it is not man he indicts in the end but the fates the chances the mechanical shuffle of forces which have made man the blind and blundering creature that he is Is it possible that a God would do so cruel a thing? Hardy asks Is there a God at all? If so then in point of intelligence and generosity man is a long way in advance of himIn method Hardy might be called a poetic realist a term which suggests clearly as in this case it should the epic The best of his novels are indeed epics in prose Jude the Obscure for example This has an architectural quality is at the same time as colossal and as beautifully designed as a great cathedral The prose style used is simple and inconspicuous a transparent and easy medium It does not exist for itself as might be said for example of the style of George Moore Only rarely does it take on a glow or speed all of its own But it is supremely adequate to its purpose an instrument tried and perfectedThe two stories in the present volume are early work but none the less very typical If one has a criticism of them it is that the determinism is as yet a little raw has almost the semblance of melodrama coincidence is a trifle overstrained Hardy had not yet acquired the artistic mastery necessary to the concealment of his purpose He shows us the skeleton a little too clearly The bones of it protrude too frequently And in consequence one does not surrender to the thesis as willingly as one does in the later work—in which indeed one does not surrender one is rather simply mastered Nevertheless these two stories contain in germ all that we have come to associate with Hardy The determinism is present the preoccupation with rural rather than with urban men and scenes the vigorous and unswerving march of the narrative—CONRAD AIKEN


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    By now I think I must have made it fairly obvious that I love Thomas Hardy and so I was looking forward to my re reading of this superb collection of Hardy shorter fiction for my on going Hardy reading challenge Wessex Tales contains seven stories the first two of them really very short – the others considerably longer In this collection Hardy explored familiar themes of marriage and rural life that we see in his novels but he also experiments rather in a supernatural tale ‘The Withered Arm’ which I think I have read at least three times as it crops up in various other short story collections The Three Strangers is wonderfully atmospheric with a delightful little twist although short it is a perfectly crafted little story a small isolated cottage packed with local folk for a celebration inclement weather and the unexpected arrival of three strangers ‘The Withered Arm’ – for me at least – is right up there with the best of the gothic type ghost and supernatural stories There’s a wronged woman an illegitimate child a pretty young wife a curse and a wonderful twist – deliciousHardy doesn’t allow himself to be in anyway curtailed by the genre of the short story – he gives full reign to his imagination and his characters are fully explored Hardy presents us with men making foolish and rash decisions in the pursuit of marriage the women they reject so obviously superior Using irony coincidence comedy and tragedy devices that are so familiar to readers of his novels Hardy could quite easily have spun out several of these brilliantly constructed stories into novels In ‘Fellow Townsmen’ and ‘Interlopers at the Knap’ the stories span many years – characters are made to regret the decisions of the past While in ‘The Distracted Preacher’ a good man puts his principles to one side in order to help the woman he loves – in a wonderfully atmospheric and slightly comic tale of smugglers Hardy was very aware of the changing world in which he lived – and in the Wessex Tales it is a world that is presented to us with the great understanding and affection that he had for it Born and brought up in a humble home Hardy understood the rural world that he wrote about he understood the work of the furze cutter and the shepherd he had an ear for the dialect of the region which he reproduces in many minor characters characters who no matter how minor they are manage to be completely real “Is it necessary to add that the echoes of many characteristic tales dating from that picturesque time still linger about here in or less fragmentary form to be caught by the attentive ear? Some of them I have repeated most of them I have forgotten one I have never repeated and assuredly can never forget” Hardy even manages to lend some of his stories an air of traditional folklore – the story being re told by a nameless narrator after a passage of time I wonder if it these were the kind of stories that Hardy would have grown up hearing Although I do love Hardy’s pastoral novels best I think his shorter fiction to be very well worth reading and wonder if it doesn’t sometimes get overlooked a little I actually think that The Wessex Tales wouldn’t be a bad place to start for those who have never read any Thomas Hardy