Thomas Hardy’s underrated short stories and their connection to his Wessex country picture

Though not as well-known as Thomas Hardy’s novels and poetry, his short stories are just as good, and while simple, they add a lot to his picture of the fictional Wessex country he usually portrays.  Today, I would like to write about three of the stories, “The Three Strangers,” “The Distracted Preacher, ” and “The Fiddler of the Reels.”

As even any fledgling student of literature, fiction, myth, and literary symbolism knows, events, objects, and symbolic ideas occur very often in groups of three in fables and parables and legends.  It is the same in the short story “The Three Strangers,” except that the series of three is less symbolic than in the average fable or parable.  The series occurs against the background of the Wessex country and the homestead of Higher Crowstairs.  When one first encounters the notion in the story of a birth and a christening as the reason for a celebration in a shepherd’s hut where three strangers attend, one wonders if perhaps Hardy is preparing to re-do the New Testament story of the birth of Christ and the visit of the three wise men; but here, the “wise” men who arrive, if they are to be considered truly “wise” in any way, are simply all part of the same secret that the rest of the people at the shepherd’s celebration are not in on.  And one of the three wise men becomes a dupe, not only of the other two, but as we are told at the end of the tale, of the countryside at large.  The story is set back in time, and is not a symbolic tale at all as the birth and christening of the shepherd’s child seems at first to suggest, yet it has the very resonance of a country legend because of what happens to the three strangers and the people there with whom they become involved.

In the second story, “The Distracted Preacher,” a Wesleyan clergyman in the midst of a town full of parishioners who divide their loyalties rather equally between the Anglican church and the Methodist chapel would seem to have enough to do trying to gain the total allegiance of his flock.  Mr. Stockdale, however, has an additional challenge to his equanimity in the form of his landlady, a young and attractive widow named Lizzy Newberry.  When the preacher develops a bad cold, Lizzy takes him to a secret place in the singing-gallery of the church, where smuggled barrels of alcohol are to be found, in order to get him some alchohol for a punch remedy.  She encourages him to trust his cold with this, and Stockdale, quickly falling in love with her, does so, though he is deprived of the sight of her for a day or two after this because, according to the servant Martha Sarah, she is mysteriously “busy.”  Though he knows he’s only temporary in his current position, he vows to come back and ask her to marry him when his two year probation is over.  He continues to be puzzled, however, by her sudden appearances and attentions to him and her equally unpredictable absences, and adopts the stratagem of continuing to take cold-producing walks in the weather.  As it soon appears, and as has been fairly obvious to the reader since the combination of the landlady’s strangely-kept hours and the subject of smuggling coincided in the text, Lizzy herself is deeply involved in the smuggling operations.  After a series of adventures and misadventures with the excise men (the Government tax collectors), all of which encounters are at least very human and partially comic, Lizzy and Stockdale unhappily place themselves at the ultimatum stage of their relationship.  The story is given two endings by Hardy, one of which he insists is based on fact, the other of which he seems to suggest is a sop for his readers.  The story is particularly light in touch and thoroughly delightful either way, as I leave the reader to find out.

“The Fiddler of the Reels” is the shortest of the three stories in my edition, a fairly simple character sketch at first of a “woman’s man,” a dandy who also happens to be a veterinarian and a fiddler, Wat Ollamoor, known as “Mop” because of his long locks.  He is said never to have been a church musician as others in the area have been, or perhaps never to have been inside a church at all; as we are told, “all were devil’s tunes in his repertory.”  A young woman of all young women of the area who is the most enchanted even apparently against her will by his music, enchanted into dancing even unto her own exhaustion and beyond, is one Car’line Aspent; but Hardy doesn’t take the easy way out of the story by grouping it alongside myriad other tales in British and Continental folk literature about demonic musicians:  instead, he says that it would take a “neurologist” to explain Car’line’s fixation on the music.  This too thus seems to be another tale from which one can take one’s own meaning.  Car’line has another suitor, a well-meaning young man named Ned Hipcroft.  In the remainder of the story, Hardy spends some time sketching out Car’line’s obsession, her breaking things off with Ned (who promptly goes to London and busies himself with work in the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851, maintaining a bachelor residence), and their eventual reacquaintance when Car’line writes to him and asks for forgiveness, and for his reconsideration of her past rejection.  When she shows up with a three or four year old child in tow, Ned at first tries to talk himself out of taking them in, but finally Ned and Car’line marry.  No exhibition lasts forever, however, and the good resolves Car’line has made are endangered when they return to their native Wessex township, and she sees Mop again, or hears his playing.  As with any demon fiddler tale, however much neurologists may have been mentioned as an ameliorative in the beginning of the story, the fiddler in the end makes off with something very precious indeed.  Once again, I’m not going to be specific, for as with any good literature, grasping the true spell of the work requires that you read it yourself; you can know the plot, but until you’ve read the work, you don’t actually take part in the magic.  But I won’t create a “spoiler” anyway.

In all three of these tales, older tales abide in the background.  In Hardy’s fictional Wessex, which was supposed to indicate some of the counties of England, there are thus tales told of trickery of Government men, both of the punitive and of the excise-collecting sort, and tales of the country people banding together to deal with what comes at them from more official quarters.  As the last tale of the three has proved, there are still tales that take place concerning the social witchery of dancing and listening to music in the midst of a crowd of performing friends and neighbors.  The country bonds are seen as tight between people, yet there are more or less clearly defined limits, as some of the characters find out.  All in all, Hardy has crafted a skilled picture of the “Wessex” countryside and characters, and unusually for him, without much pessimism and darkness at all.  I encourage you to read these stories because too often, due to works like Jude the Obscure and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Hardy’s essential humor and humanity about his rustic characters is forgotten in the consideration of his sometimes painful heavy-handedness with tragic circumstances and his often reductive view of women, who are treated a little more evenly with the men in some of his country tales than they are in the novels.  Have a good read!

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7 responses to “Thomas Hardy’s underrated short stories and their connection to his Wessex country picture

  1. Hardy is another author I haven’t read yet and wanted to read this year but I always think it will be very bleak. Two bloggers suggested I start with The Mayor of Casterbridge.Maybe I should start with his short stories.

    • Yes, you could start with the short stories (there are lots more of them than this, at least two or more volumes worth, these are only three among the best known). Or, if you decide to tackle a novel, you could take on one of the early ones, “Far from the Madding Crowd.” It has a complex and annoying heroine, but at least it has a remotely happy ending. Hardy is a glum guy a lot of the time, and he apparently set aside fiction for good because of the way his novel “Jude the Obscure” was received. He did continue to write poetry, however, some of it quite good, so there’s that angle you could tackle as well. Good luck!

      • Thanks for the suggestions. I haven’t read any of his poems either. He is one of the authors i think I should read which always diminishes the pleasure in advance.
        There are afew others I wanted to try for the first time like Dickens and Trollope. I’ve studied French and German literature so I’m lagging behind big time in the UK and US calssics.

      • Speaking of German literature, have you ever read Heinrich von Kleist’s “The Marquise of O–“? I think there’s even a short movie of it somewhere around, possibly made back during the ’70’s. Freudians always like to make a lot of the scene in which she’s sitting on her father’s lap. The more interesting question is, obviously, how did she get pregnant without knowing it (it’s not gross-out time; the two things I mention are not literally connected)? That’s one of my favorite short works (stories, novellas? I think when I read it it was classified as a novella). I would be interested in hearing what you have to say about the psychology of it, after reading your precis of the NIcci French novels (which I haven’t read and have never heard of before). Nicci French is now on my list. (You read so fast!)

      • I have read Kleist, even organized a Kleist week last year during German Literature Month which is upcoming again in November.
        I think she doesn’t know because he rapes her, she is unconscious. I was quite shocked when I read it because it’s such an uncanny story. I read and reviewed The Duel last November and like most of hist works, it’s full of violence, just like his onw death as well. His work is full of dark undercurrents. Fascinating.

      • I can see that once again I’m speaking to someone who knows the territory (Kleist) better than I do! It’s such a pleasure to find a knowledgeable person to help me guide my own reading. I’m not certain, but I think I have a copy of some other short works of his–maybe “The Duel” is among them: I’ll look. I think the uncanny creeps into “The Marquise of O–” precisely because it’s hard to imagine someone not waking to the process of being raped, regardless of how deep her faint was. Kleist being a man of his time, there’s almost a suggestion of her missing her husband and reacting the incoherent way she does to assault because of that, I think. I.e., needs a man, gets raped, pregnant, things all work out (though weird!). I don’t think it’s a story a woman would’ve written, somehow.

      • That may very well be true (that a woman wouldn’t have written it). What’s interesting is that his plays are far lighter. The novellas are all quite dark. Very sexual, indeed. Repression and attraction along that line. I think The Marquise is a work we understand much more emotionally than intellectually. Another really amazing one is Bethrotal in St.Domingo.

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