Thursday, 10 September 2009

65 - 'The Return of the Native' by Thomas Hardy

Out on the wild and windy moors... Sorry, wrong book (just having a Kate Bush moment there). The reason for this lapse into song is that Thomas Hardy's well-loved Wessex Tale, 'The Return of the Native', depends just as much on the natural environment and its claustrophobic (and paradoxically neverending) moorlands as Kate B.. . Emily Bronte's novel 'Wuthering Heights' does. The star of the show is not, in my opinion, the returning native of the title, Clym Yeobright, or his proud and flighty wife, Eustacia Vye, but the magnificent setting of Egdon Heath, an expanse of heathland which provides the backdrop for the drama without ever fading into the background.

The images of the first couple of chapters are among some of my favourite pieces of writing as Hardy introduces the primeval heath, a place scarcely altered by human hand and yet showing subtle signs of bygone civilisations. The brambles and heather growing wild on the ground are given a life of their own, and when human figures finally appear on the scene, they seem to be almost an afterthought to the descriptions of the countryside which have gone before. When Eustacia makes her first appearance, standing on top of the ancient 'barrow', or burial mound, which the locals call Rainbarrow, she appears to be a natural extension of the landscape, rather than a person.

This is far from the truth though. In fact, Eustacia, a woman of good birth living on the heath with her grandfather, feels trapped and isolated by its expanses and longs to get away. It is this desire to return to civilisation which drives her on to the unfortunate relationships (first with Damon Wildeve, then later with Clym) which form the seed of tragedy in this tale. It is only natural that when an educated native returns to his home village after years working in Paris, the excitable Eustacia should latch on to him as a means of escape.

Clym, however, turning his back on his luxurious, but ultimately unsatisfying, life abroad, is determined to make a new start in his home surroundings. His over-romantic attachment to his native soil is just as exaggerated as Eustacia's aversion to it, and his attempts to reestablish himself there are doomed to failure. Despite his intention to do good and raise the country folk from their state of relative ignorance, his decision to come home is met with confusion, ridicule and a complete lack of understanding (from both family and friends), with most people concurring with Eustacia's view that a return to Paris would be for the best.

As with many of Hardy's novels, the writing is beautiful (if slightly over-complicated at times), and the portrayal of rustic life and rituals is without equal. The major events of rural life, including the Guy Fawkes night bonfires, the Christmas 'mumming' play and the springtime Maypole dances are used as a backdrop to important occurrences in the novel. This picture of an England which is long gone (and was disappearing even at the time of writing) shows us a part of our cultural heritage which, perhaps, is not commonly known today. Despite the general idyllic feeling though, the story moves inexorably towards tragedy.

Another of Hardy's quirks is the tendency of his characters to end up in trouble, and 'The Return of the Native' is no exception. Chance, misfortune, frustration and boredom combine to inspire Eustacia to escape from her married life, and, as the rains lash down, and the major players are drawn inevitably together on the heath, the only question is who will come through the ordeal alive (if not totally unscathed).

The book ends, just as it started, on the wild vastness of Egdon Heath. The situations of the major characters have changed; some for the better, many for the worse (to put it mildly...). Whatever the feelings of the people sitting listening to the lecture delivered from the top of Rainbarrow, the heath itself is unchanged, quietly alive, seemingly endless. Oh yes, whether wuthering or not, it is the heath which is the true star of this book.