Catholic Herald, 26 February 1988
Review: Figures in a Wessex Landscape: Thomas Hardy’s picture of English country life, edited by Joanna Cullen Brown: (WH Allen, £16.95)
“Countrymen . . . are born, as may be said, with only an open door between them and the four seasons!” So Hardy wrote in The Woodlanders in 1887. This memorable observation surely implies approval of the natural world and possibly disapproval of those who were at that time increasingly drifting towards the smoke of the cities. Certainly Hardy was suspicious of cityfolk, and the love that spills into his descriptions of the countryside is noticeably absent when he describes his towns, which are grey and threatening.
An immensely prolific writer (14 novels, about 1,000 poems and over 40 “short” stories) it is always surprising to me to recall that he died as recently as 1928. The ways of life depicted in his novels are so thoroughly Victorian and his championship of the rural scene is somehow alien to the practicalities of modern farming, much as one may regret the passing of the old ways.
Perhaps only Constable’s paintings may compare with Hardy’s recreation of the English countryside. So vivid are the works of brush and pen, one may walk today in Suffolk or Dorset and recognise familiar landmarks. Immensely well-informed on all aspects of country crafts, skills, folklore and traditions Hardy nevertheless remains realistic and unsentimental. The pastoral scene and country habits permeate all his work and indeed are the very woof and warp of it.
Joanna Cullen Brown has collected an enormous amount of extracts from sources as varied as the notebooks, letters, articles and conversations as well as the more familiar works. Grouped under main headings such as Hardy’s’ People, Clothes, Class, Poverty, Rural Occupations, etc., the book is a miscellany of quotes, long and short. These are linked by her own usually brief comments which satisfactorily knit one item to the next.
Obviously devoted to her subject, her enthusiasm doesn’t obtrude but nicely introduces each quotation – rather as one would encourage a favourite child to show off his talents to the best advantage. If her intention is to tease the reader into discovering more of Hardy’s genius off the well-worn track, she has succeeded as far as I am concerned. The poetry is a particular joy to one who had never got beyond The Darkling Thrush.
Selected extracts from an author’s work are never altogether satisfactory in my opinion but apart from being a valuable source of quotes for the “Eng lit” student, this book will be an incentive to further exploration. The prose is interspersed with plentiful black and white photographs and some half-dozen delightful water colours by Henry Moule, a close friend of Hardy, which are published here for the first time. Beautifully complementing the text, these paintings are to be found in Dorchester at the Dorset County Museum.
One may feel, as the editor points out in her excellent introduction, that Hardy wrote everything about everything. The variety is astonishing and one short sentence can evoke a complete scene or pastime: the milkmaid with her scrubbed pails hanging on the byre wall, the furze-cutter in his stiff leggings, the country quack peddling his miraculous salves. These country people stand before our very eyes.
Landscape artist, historian, sociologist, poet or literary gent, Hardy is all these and this volume admirably displays his many-sided talent. Copious notes and a large index complete this glossy book which, let’s face it, is expensive.
But it’s a feast for Hardy freaks and the merest whiff of it will send lukewarm fans scuttling to the orange-spined section of the local bookshop. A further volume is planned to which I already look forward.