Thursday, 15 October 2009

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

This entry came about after a discussion with my cousin about our mutual antipathy to Thomas Hardy which doesn’t exactly sound like a recommendation... However, I then remembered that the Mayor of Casterbridge opens with the infamous scene where a man sells his wife at auction while drunk, so I reckoned that for the purposes of 120 Units it was worth another look.

Field labourer Michael Henchard arrives at a country fair with his wife and daughter. Spotting the refreshments tent, is about to slip under the sign Good Home-brewed Beer, Ale, and Cyder when his wife insists that they go for a pot of furmity instead. In retrospect this might have been a mistake... Furmity is wholesome stuff; a mixture of corn in the grain, flour, milk, raisins, currants, and what not, but it’s a little dull on its own. Henchard turns back to the woman serving the slop and catches her eye:

He winked to her, and passed up his basin in reply to her nod; when she took a bottle from under the table, slily measured out a quantity of its contents, and tipped the same into the man's furmity. The liquor poured in was rum... The man finished his basin, and called for another, the rum being signalled for in yet stronger proportion. The effect of it was soon apparent in his manner, and his wife but too sadly perceived that in strenuously steering off the rocks of the licensed liquor-tent she had only got into maelstrom depths here amongst the smugglers.

Before long, Henchard is royally Brahmsed and starts to get argumentative with his wife. There’s a blazing row and he sets up an auction, finally selling her to a sailor for five guineas. Silence descends as the transaction is completed:

He rose and walked to the entrance with the careful tread of one conscious of his alcoholic load.

In the way of Nineteenth Century literature, Michael becomes hugely successful and eventually attains the title of Mayor of Casterbridge, but his shameful past comes back to haunt him. Finally ruined and reduced to vagrancy, Henchard leaves Casterbridge and dies in a hovel, leaving a brief will:

…no murners walk behind me at my funeral, & that no flours be planted on my grave, & that no man remember me. To this I put my name, Michael Henchard.

And one day I suppose I ought to read the rest of the book...


  1. Hardy is one of those writers one has to read before 25 or not at all. In other words, the group who are today obsessed with Big Brother & soaps, as that appears to be Hardy's target audience. He is quite good at what he does, and there is always a frisson of pleasure coming across characters called "Farmer Oak", "Bathsheba" and the like. I suppose, though, it does mean you only have ever to read one. Jude the Obscure would be that choice for me.

  2. A friend says that Hardy is a bit like a nineteenth century Jackie Collins which supports your argument rather well! I must confess that I got thoroughly put off his books when I was fifteen/sixteen and hadn’t gone back to them until I skipped through a few pages of The Mayor of Casterbridge for the blog. Sadly, I’m also a bit past twenty five now, so perhaps Hardy will remain a closed door to me...