I recently read Claire Tomalin’s biography of Hardy (first published in 2006), which I picked up at a charity sale. I enjoyed it very much, yet by the end still did not feel I understood Hardy the man. This is no fault of Tomalin’s. Despite a large body of published work, many extant letters and reminiscences of famous people who made the pilgrimage to Max Gate to see the old man, he remains an enigma; a small, quiet, apparently modest man, yet one who was well aware of his own talents and welcomed the honours which came to him in later life. After reading this, I felt I must re-read some Hardy and the first book to come off the shelf was The Return of the Native.
Believe it or not, it is over fifty years since I read this book, and I was pretty young for it at that time. All that had stuck in my head was an image of the reddleman travelling across the heath (I suppose the unusual name and calling struck me), and an idea that Eustacia Vye was a woman who ruined lives. Coming back to the novel with the advantages of age and a wider experience of reading was a revelation.
You wouldn’t read this for the plot, which is less exciting than that of Far from the Madding Crowd. The tragedy is that of the fated quartet of Clym Yeobright, his cousin Thomasin (sometimes Tamsin), Wildeve and the femme fatale Eustacia. Clym’s mother has an important role, while the reddleman, Diggory Venn, comes and goes mysteriously, intervening at crucial moments. Tomalin likens him to Puck, which fits well with her comparison of the book with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The main character is Egdon Heath itself. Great chunks of the book are devoted to descriptions of the landscape, its unusual nature and the isolated lives of its inhabitants. By the end of the book you realise that you have absorbed, without noticing it, an understanding of every aspect of the heath: its flora and fauna, its climate, seasons and even times of day. It’s wonderful, a gradually built-up impression of a place, like a Turner painting translated into words. I kept thinking about it afterwards, feeling that I knew this area in all its moods. Eat your hearts out, contenders for The Wainwright Prize. None of you has written about the natural world as vividly as Hardy does in this poetic description of a unique landscape. In my opinion, far too much modern writing about nature is about *me* and nature; it’s really autobiography. There’s none of that with Hardy. Egdon Heath is elemental, a place where the past, the present and, one assumes, the future somehow co-exist. Marvellous writing by a wizard.