The Mayor of Casterbridge, as well as being on my Classics Club list, is the second choice which the lovely Katie and I decided upon for our Chai and Sheep book club. I adore Hardy’s writing, and very much enjoyed Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but had rather a few complaints about Far From the Madding Crowd (which, incidentally, was our first book club pick).
When I began The Mayor of Casterbridge therefore, I was dearly hoping that there were no Bathsheba-esque characters within it. From the first page, I found it a lot easier to read than the aforementioned, perhaps merely because the story here interested me more.
To borrow the official blurb, the plot is thus: “In a fit of drunken anger, Michael Henchard sells his wife and baby daughter for five guineas at a country fair. Over the course of the following years, he manages to establish himself as a respected and prosperous pillar of the community of Casterbridge, but behind his success there always lurk the shameful secret of his past and a personality prone to self-destructive pride and temper.”
I loved the beginning of the novel, and found the twists which it took throughout rather clever; there were certainly very few of them which I predicted. It did get a little stale towards the middle, in my opinion, when it became a touch more involved in the less exciting elements of country life – the price of wheat, for example. Yes, such details have importance of a kind, and I can definitely see why Hardy chose to include them to further sculpt the historical and geographical landscapes amongst which his characters stood. Thankfully, such aspects are not overdone here, as I have found them to be in his other books (*cough* Far From the Madding Crowd *cough*). The sense of place here too does not feel as rigid, and thus allows the reader to make up his or her mind a little more – an element which I certainly welcomed. His use of colours and textures is quite often sublime.
It almost goes without saying that The Mayor of Casterbridge is incredibly well written and sculpted. I love Hardy’s character descriptions particularly; some of them here are almost quirky: ‘with a nose resembling a copper knob, a damp voice, and eyes like button-holes’. It feels as though he really did his female characters justice for the most part here; they were not as submissive as some of his other creations (yes, I am measuring everyone against dear old Bathsheba), and had some thoughts and opinions which had – shock horror! – not been moulded by their male counterparts from time to time.
The structure of The Mayor of Casterbridge is both thoughtful and a success; a particularly great element is the way in which he follows different characters from one chapter to the next without losing any threads of the story, or any of the immediacy of the piece.