So, a man walks into a pub with his wife and their daughter and says that he’ll sell the wife off to the highest bidder. Then a sailor walks in, slaps five guineas on the table and says, “I’ll take you up on that mate, no worries”. The first man (slightly perturbed to meet an Australian in an English literature classic) mulls it over and takes the money, and the sailor, the woman and the child leave the pub. This is not a joke; this is the set-up for the Thomas Hardy novel ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’.
We rejoin Michael Henchard, the man with the slightly relaxed attitude to marital ties, in the town of Casterbridge, where he is now the Mayor. Almost twenty years of hard work and abstinence from alcohol (you didn’t think he was sober when he sold off his wife, did you?) has enabled him to rise to a respectable place in rural society, an effort which is, in effect, an attempt at atonement for his youthful faux-pas. Having failed to locate his wife after sobering up the day after the ‘sale’, you can imagine his surprise when his daughter pays him a slightly unexpected visit. Reunited with his family, he swiftly ‘courts’ and remarries his wife, whose other husband is presumed lost at sea, but, from that moment on, his success in life begins to fade away; one by one, other ghosts reappear from the past to haunt the powerless Henchard until he is forced to leave Casterbridge the same way he arrived, as a wandering labourer.
Henchard is portrayed throughout as aggressive, arrogant, headstrong and jealous, yet Hardy’s novel was sub-titled ‘The Life and Death of a Man of Character’, suggesting that the reader is meant to sympathise in some way with the main character. While it may seem difficult, having glanced through my review, to understand how Henchard could possibly be seen in a sympathetic light, on closer reading of the book, he does have many redeeming features. He is generous, quick to make friends and loyal to those who support him (and honourable to a fault in his dealings both with his former and latter wife, and the woman who almost replaced her). A lesser man may have fallen less quickly (or not at all), but the same stubborness which shows itself negatively can also be turned to a steadfast belief in what is right over what is comfortable for him.
Of course, in today’s society, family dramas are perhaps not as big an issue as they were for the highly moral (or secretly depraved and publicly hypocritical…) Victorians, but as followers of politics could tell you, any hint of a less-than-spotless past can have a huge effect on the career of a public figure, especially if it only comes to light decades after the original mishap. Hardy describes the tribulations of Henchard and his former lover, Lucetta, noting that the fact of their sins being long unknown (through being committed outside the realm of Casterbridge) is greatly to their disadvantage; youthful indiscretions are much more likely to be forgiven by people who have had years to get used to them and to measure them against subsequent actions.
Whether you’re planning to be a hay trusser or a state M.P., one lesson you can learn from this book is that while it’s a long way to the top (as AC/DC once remarked), it’s actually a lot faster on the downhill stretch. Anything that happens in your life, no matter how stupid or insignificant it can seem at the time, may well come back to bite you on the behind twenty-odd years down the track (something to consider for those of you with particularly embarrassing photos on your Facebook page…). However, there is something else that we can all learn from Hardy’s excellent novel; never, no matter how mad, or drunk, you are at the time, should you attempt to sell your partner (not even if it happens to be legal wherever you are at the time). I can guarantee that it will not end well.
And if you must, at least get your exchange policy sorted out in case the buyer wants their money back.