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Wessex Tales - Thomas Hardy

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Genre: Fiction / Author: Thomas Hardy / Edition: New Ed / Paperback / 224 Pages / Book is published 1995-10-01 by Wordsworth Editions Ltd

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      17.08.2010 17:12
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      An excellent, nostalgic look at rural life and romance in the 1800s.

      So far I have reviewed an assortment of trashy novels on this site. However I feel it is time to embrace my inner geek and review something more cultured and intellectual from my bookshelf!

      I was first introduced to Thomas Hardy while at uni. I had actually heard of him prior to this, but I had no idea who he actually was or what he wrote. All I knew about him was that my grandma was a big fan, and funnily enough that didn't have me running off to the bookshop clutching my pennies!

      During my first year of university, however, we read 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' by Hardy, and I loved it. It was sad, romantic, intriguing and unexpected; everything I love in a book. The next year we read four other Hardy books, and Hardy won me over, reserving a place for himself on my bookshelf next to such legends as Billie Piper and Lauren Conrad! What a lucky man.




      WHO IS THOMAS HARDY?

      Thomas Hardy was an English poet and novelist who lived between 1840 and 1928. Hardy never had big ambitions to be a writer of prose, however while his poetry (which he had high hopes for) did not rake in the cash, his novels (initially published in magazines in serial form), conversely did. Therefore, Hardy was left with little choice but to devote more time than he would have liked to his growing collection of novels and short stories.

      Hardy, who grew up in Dorchester, was greatly influenced by the region he grew up in, the period in which he lived, and his own life. His location affected many of the themes of his novels, which were mostly set in Wessex - a semi-fictional region based on Dorchester - and which centred around nature, environment, farming and the troubles of industrialisation.

      While the Brontes, who also wrote around this time, also wrote about social position and employment, Hardy, unlike the Brontes', wrote from a perspective of disdain towards urbanisation and industrialisation. The lives of his characters in many ways alsp seem - perhaps because of this - more old fashioned and nostalgic than those of the Brontes', although written at a later date.

      Hardy's work featured many ideas of the naturalist movement -which was a literary movement taking place during Hardy's time - and also of the former romantic period, which mostly preceded his birth. His novels also centred around many themes common to life at the time.

      However Hardy's themes were very obviously influenced just as much by his own personal circumstances, including his own troubled marriage. Religion and spirituality were also common themes for Hardy, who, as an agnostic, was equally fascinated and cynical about the existence of God.
      Hardy wrote fourteen published novels in his time, as well as three collections of short stories.




      WHAT IS THIS BOOK ABOUT?

      Unlike most of Hardy's books, 'Wessex Tales' is not a novel but a collection of short stories. The collection was originally published in 1888 and contains seven of Hardy's short stories, all of which centre around similar themes and ideas. Some of the common themes and features of these short stories are as follows:


      * The bewitching woman and the stupid young man.
      In many of these short stories, as in much of Hardy's work, there is a common theme of a beautiful - yet entirely unsuitable - young woman pursuing an eligible - yet entirely dense - young man, and encouraging him to abandon the good natured, moral, intelligent, practical young woman he had formerly set his sights on. Consequently, another theme of these stories is...

      * Unhappy marriages and wrong choices.
      Some very common themes of these stories are bad choices, regret and tragic decisions. Few characters are happy with their lives, their decisions or - consequently - their marriages. Therefore, most characters are continually dissatisfied and hankering after something they desire; something which is continually kept from them by small twists of fate. Which leads me to the next common theme...

      * Fate.
      Hardy appears to be a big believer in fate, and many of his stories centre around fate and "almosts". Very often, his characters almost get the girl, almost get their lucky break, and almost get their happy ending... but then that cruel Fate intervenes!

      * Tragedy.
      As you may have guessed, Thomas Hardy is not exactly a happy chappy. In fact, his stories are pretty depressing! The central theme of many of these stories is of characters struggling against an unmoveable obstacle which blocks them from their desires. Some of these obstacles include marriage (which is often presented as a bind and trap that stands in the way of the characters' happiness); social position and economy; bad decisions and former mistakes; morals; and societal binds such as laws and social norms. The use of capital punishment is also a bit of an inconvenience for several of Hardy's characters!

      As the stories in this book are so short, I felt it would give away too much to give a summary of each one, and I would also simply be repeating much of what is said above, so I will simply say that the themes above are prevalent in each and every story and give a very good idea of what this collection is all about.




      WHAT I LIKED

      My favourite thing about this book is that it paints a vivid picture of life at the time in a society such as Hardy's; creating and maintaining a great sense of time and place. As I have clearly not only never lived in the 1800s, but have never lived the rural life, reading these stories is almost like reading about a fantasy world, as it is so different from everything I am used to.

      The events and problems that Hardy's characters face would either never happen or never give anybody any trouble today, which makes this a very interesting read. I loved to read about the quaint, often simplistic lives of Hardy's characters, and I found many of the stories quite charming and refreshing compared to a lot of the literature today, which is heavy on scandal and drama.

      One thing that I found particularly charming about these stories is the focus on real, pure romance (yes, I'm a bit of a romantic, I admit it!). Although Hardy doesn't seem to think much of marriage itself, his characters do seem to love at an unfathomably high level. I really can't imagine anyone today being devoted to someone that they can't be with for over twenty years! I am not sure if this was a total fantasy even at Hardy's time, but I like to think that's how love was back then! Well, no one can prove me wrong, so why not?

      As well as excelling in his descriptions of environment and settings, Hardy is also very talented when it comes to characterisation. Although you only get to know the characters he presents within the space of a short time, I found that I was really rooting for most of the characters to get their happy ending. I think it takes a lot of talent to make the reader actually care about a character's fate in just eight pages (which is the length of the shortest story in this collection) but Hardy does this well.

      I think what is most appealing though about Hardy - and this is very true of these stories - is that he tells simple, everyday stories, but in an eloquent, beautiful way. On the surface, Hardy's language is poetic, articulate and, at times, pretty hard to get your head round. However, at their core, his stories are simple tales based around themes that many of us can empathise with. Most of the stories in this collection - five out of seven, in fact - are simply based around love. I think that this makes Hardy easy for most people to relate to as, despite the gap in time and the fancy language, many of his stories have a simple (almost chicklit or soap opera like) formula at their core.

      However, if you do choose to read a bit deeper, you can also get a bit more out of these stories, which do have hidden depths concealed under the simple storylines. The stories, in fact, consistently present poignant thoughts on widely established social norms and put forward an extremely critical view of society at the time, including its attitude to marriage, capitalist punishment and English militarism, yet in a very subtle way.

      I would say that, overall, this is an excellent collection of short stories. I really enjoyed five out of seven of the short stories, with my favourite one being 'The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion'; a romantic, tragic story of the love between a young woman and a German soldier.




      WHAT I DISLIKED

      I suppose the worst thing about this book is that, as a collection, it is a little bit depressing to read! Although I was expecting this, I have only ever read Hardy's novels before which, although generally very tragic, only have one sad ending to contend with. As this is a collection, you can get a bit overwhelmed by the sheer amount of sad endings!

      I suppose this also means that the book can be a bit predictable and samey at times. However, I didn't think that this spoiled my enjoyment of the book too much, as, although you get some inkling of how each story will ultimately end, there is still some intrigue and interest held throughout to see how it will get to that outcome. Also, many of the endings are still quite unexpected, and Hardy does throw in two arguably happy endings for a little bit of variety.

      Another problem with these stories is that, like a lot of Hardy's stuff, they can be a bit hard going at times. Hardy likes to use a LOT of description - of both people and locations - meaning that you have to trawl through a lot of adjectives and superfluous sentences before anything actually happens. Most of the time this doesn't bother me too much, but this book is not a great one to read if you are tired or not in the mood to concentrate too hard, as you will definitely find yourself drifting off!

      Another thing I don't really like about some of Hardy's work - and this is just a personal thing - is that every so often he will throw in some supernatural stuff, such as curses and spells. This does not happen all that often, but occasionally, from out of nowhere, he will throw something like this into a novel or short story. This would be fine if he was writing in a relevant genre (such as fantasy), but Hardy's novels are generally so focused on reality and everyday life that I find this element a bit strange.

      For this reason, 'The Withered Arm' - a story about a woman's arm, which withers up after she has a strange dream about said arm - was probably my least favourite story in the collection, as I found the whole thing unbelievable and very farfetched.

      I also wasn't all that keen on 'A Tradition of Eighteen Hundred and Four', which tells a seemingly pointless story of what is almost an invasion of an army.




      HOW MANY GOOD STORIES ARE THERE?

      5/7. I would say there are five really great stories in this book, one that is OK, and one that is pretty poor.

      RECOMENDED FOR...
      Romantics, nostalgics, and those fond of the English language.

      READ WHEN...
      You are in the mood to concentrate, and aren't already feeling depressed!

      READ IF YOU LIKED...
      Anything by Hardy himself, or anything by Dickens (who is said to have influenced Hardy) or the Bronte's (who present similar themes of struggling, melancholy and romance).

      IF IT WERE FOOD IT WOULD BE...
      Food? Forget about food - there is little eating going on in these stories; they're all about the drinking!

      IF IT WERE A COLOUR IT WOULD BE...
      Dark green. Simple, rural and not too cheerful.

      IF IT WERE A SEASON IT WOULD BE...
      Autumn - starting off bright enough but gradually heading towards a dark, miserable ending.


      MARKS OUT OF 10 FOR:
      WRITING STYLE - 9
      PLOT- 9
      CHARACTERS- 9
      UNPREDICTABILITY- 6
      UN-PUT-DOWN-ABILITY- 5
      OVERALL BOOK - 8

      RECOMMENDED?
      Yes. If you fancy a collection of well written short stories heavy on romance, tragedy, nostalgia and charm, you really can't do much better!

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