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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

When it comes to Thomas Hardy, forget optimism and happy endings. His peculiarities are realism and a tendency to tragic scenarios. I’ve always found his works rather interesting though, half way between Victorianism and Modernism.  Hardy  followed Schopenhauer’s notion of the “Immanent Will” which describes a blind force that drives the universe irrespective of human lives or desires. Though his novels often end in crushing tragedies – think of Tess of the D’Urbevilles or Jude The Obscure - that reflect Schopenhauer’s philosophy, Hardy described himself as a "meliorist", one who believes that the world tends to become better and that people aid in this betterment. Humans can live with some happiness, he claimed, so long as they understand their place in the universe and accept it.
There  is something  of all that  in the story of Michael Henchard (Ciaràn Hinds), which starts with him  travelling with his wife, Susan (Juliet Aubrey), looking for employment as a hay-trusser. When they stop to eat, Henchard gets drunk, and in an auction that begins as a joke but turns  serious, he sells his wife and their baby daughter, Elizabeth-Jane (Jodhi May), to Newson, a sailor, for five guineas. He regrets what he has done and searches the town for his wife and daughter. Unable to find them, he goes into a church and swears an oath that he will not drink alcohol for twenty-one years, the same number of years he has been alive. Eighteen years later, after Newson’s death at sea, Susan and Elizabeth-Jane seek  Henchard and find him a wealthy  and influential man, the Mayor of Casterbridge.  For Elizabeth-Jane's sake, Susan and Michael decide to pretend they never married and a new marriage follows a formal courtship.  Meanwhile,  Michael Henchard has hired a skillful Scotsman , Donald Farfrae (James Purefoy), as the new manager of his corn business. Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane start spending time together. Farfrae outdoes Henchard in everything and this creates clashes between them, though Henchard consideres the young man as his friend and confides him the secrets of his past. Among those secrets, the wrong he did to Susan and Elizabeth-Jane, but also his affair with Lucetta,  a beautiful young girl he met in Jersey, whose reputation is now ruined since he didn’t keep the promise to marry her. The relationship between the two men becomes harsher and harsher until Henchard asks Elizabeth-Jane to stop seeing Farfrae.

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Susan dies leaving a letter for Henchard in which she confesses that,  actually,  his Elizabeth-Jane died in the first year of her life and that the girl who is now living with him is, instead,  Newson’s daughter. Henchard starts treating Elizabeth-Jane coldly and harshly with no explanation given. So Elizabeth-Jane decides to leave Henchard’s house and live with a lady who has just arrived in town. This lady turns out to be Lucetta Templeman, the  woman with whom Henchard was involved during Susan’s absence; having learned of Susan’s death, Lucetta has come to Casterbridge to marry Henchard.  Lucetta meets Farfrae  first and the two hit it off immediately and eventually get married.
 Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane become closer and help each other while the situation of the man starts declining both economically (he is forced to start working for Farfrae) and socially (his past is revealed by a woman witness in Casterbridge and he must leave his position as a Mayor substituted by Farfrae).
I think I'd better stop telling you this story just here, saying only that some more twists and turns  take place before the tragic end (for a complete summary of the plot CLICK HERE)

In the subtitle, Henchard is called a Man of Character by Thomas Hardy. Unfortunately and dramatically,  he isn’t.  His temperament is aggressive and impulsive, even when sober, and his ambition and jealousy  lead him to self-destruction. Henchard is torn and haunted by his sense of guilt, he feels never totally expiated. This tragic complex character is delivered  beautifully by Ciaràn Hinds and the whole mini-series is very good, starting from Ted Whitehead’s screenplay based on the original novel and very faithful to it. I loved Purefoy and Jodhi May as Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane, as well as Juliet Aubrey and Polly Walker as the two women in Henchard’s life, Susan and Lucetta.  I was deeply emotionally involved in this story while watching the DVD and I’m sure that it is due to the great performances of the experienced cast.  Hardy's Dorset was re-created in Lacock (Wiltshire), the tiny village I’ve recently visited in my journey to England, which was also the set of some scenes of Pride and Prejudice 1995, Cranford  and Emma 2009

THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE  is a 2003 ITV two-part series available on DVD.


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