Some authors are, plain and simple, rock stars of the writing world to their readers—and for me, one of the greatest classical writers in that rock star pantheon would be the rock star, Thomas Hardy. Often mentioned among other classical writers that came before him, Thomas Hardy is considered a later 19th Century writer; however, his writing stands solidly with classical authors like Dickens, Bronte, Shelley, and Austen as the British “canon”.
As an English major, I had to read The Mayor of Casterbridge during my 3rd year of college. I can’t say that it particularly stood out to me, nor that my teacher highlighted anything in particular about the author Thomas Hardy, although I do remember thinking, “Wow, this book is messed up,” as you are often prone to do with a Hardy novel. When that happens, I wonder why I don’t ask more about the author.
The truth is, it wasn’t until about seven years ago, as I was just coming out of graduate school with an MA in English, that I was getting ready to teach an AP English Literature & Composition course online and being asked to teach Tess of the D’Urbervilles that I REALLY fell hard for Thomas Hardy. I sat down with the novel, started reading in earnest, and literally couldn’t stop. Who was this Tess girl, and why in the world did everything bad happen to her?!? What was up with every man in the book being deceptive and full of crap? Why did society not understand the trap they put around women at that time? Oh, and WHO is this author who could be so forward in his writing to create a character and ideals so completely ahead of their time? (Granted, I had focused more on contemporary authors in my own graduate work, but damn was this author good!) In short, I flipped to the front of the book and read about Thomas Hardy, and then stopped and read everything I could about the man who wrote that book! I learned that Tess was his favorite character he ever created, and that in writing her, he pictured her the “Pure Woman” of the secondary title he gave that novel. His aim in writing that novel was not merely to write a story, but it was to create a long-lasting social commentary that spans into today. I challenge any reader to dive into that novel and not see haunting critiques of our own values echoed in its pages.
In essence, Thomas Hardy has fascinated me ever since I read, devoured, loved, and taught Tess of the D’Urbervilles, now over 5 times. Because of that love of Tess, I’ve gone on to read Jude the Obscure, Far From the Madding Crowd, and purchased and read a large number of his nearly 900 poems. Although an established writer of his day, Thomas Hardy was not exempt from extreme criticism and scrutiny. His novels severely criticized the law, the church, and the basic ideals of society—sex and the family. All of his main characters try to be upstanding people, but are often driven by something bigger than themselves, whether that is love or duty. And Hardy, as a naturalist writer on the cusp of the Modern era, his writing tended to be stark and full of tragedy. (I get it. Sometimes today, we don’t like to read about forests, but stick with it! That forest might foreshadow something that’s going to happen to the character!) Mix the two together and—BOOM! You have all the trappings of a perfect dramatic story.
I’ve always said that if you want to read something that reads like a soap opera, but is a classical novel that is in your face, filled with forward-thinking modern social issues, then Thomas Hardy is the perfect author to get lost in. His novels have been made into amazing films, and in May of 2015, Far From the Madding Crowd will be coming out with Carey Mulligan as the starring role.