Last night was taken up with serious research into a fatality presumed by some to have been, and from my mind almost certainly was, a murder. The police have charged nobody and a statement went out almost immediately from the authorities that Dr Jeff Bradstreet had committed suicide from a gunshot wound to the chest. This detailed research took me through to 2 am by which time I needed a break. This brought me back to a Hardy work of which I had read some fifty pages .
Long ago I went through the more famous novels of Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), Far From the Madding Crowd (1874), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) and my favourite, Jude the Obscure, (1895) finding them outstanding examples of the craft of storytelling. I also waded through A Laodecean but regarded this as not being anywhere near up to the standard of his classics. I understand he was ill when he wrote it and to be honest it is a bit of a disappointment.
This year I have read two of his lesser-known works, A pair of Blue Eyes (1872). an early novel the plot of which he worked up into Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Desperate Remedies (1871), his first published novel – both highly entertaining, as I have come to expect from a master of literary fiction.
I have just started reading A Group of Noble Dames (published as a collection in 1891). Hardy apparently based these short stories on real events from John Hutchins’ History of the Antiquities of Dorset (1861-1871). From this collection of stories, the reader learns at the end of the first, The First Countess of Wessex, that these tales are spun by various members of a local antiquarian society. The second, told by the Old Surgeon, concerns Barbara of the House of Grebe.
Reviewing a book, or in this case a story from a book, or indeed only the bulk of a story from a book. is a new experience for me. One advantage of not having finished the story means I cannot reveal the ending, however tempted. So what has prompted me to do this review? By the time I got to the point I had arrived at in the plot, and shortly before I turned off the light, I could not stop laughing.
After twenty five pages of masterful Hardy I was somewhat ashamed to have burst out laughing because it is meant to be a tragic love-affair – not unusual for Hardy – and I have to conclude it was his intention to make the reader laugh. Having read some Evelyn Waugh stuff like A Handful of Dust (1934) I’m well familiar with the device known as black humour, but, unless I’ve been missing something the works of Hardy were meant to be serious.
Barbara, of the House of Grebe, was being determinedly courted by a neighbour, the young Lord Uplandtowers, who had inherited the estate of his father who had died after taking “the Bath waters”. Although she had a couple of country dances with him out of politeness she soon excused herself and went to bed with a feigned headache leaving Uplandtowers talking to her mother. The next morning her father, Sir John, was at the young lord’s country house demanding to know where Barbara was.
Barbara, the previous night, had eloped with the handsome Edmond Willowes, an Adonis from a family of glass-painters. In true-love fashion they were followed to London but by the time her father got there it was too late. The holy union had taken place and even her parents realised they could not prise the match asunder. After a few weeks of marital life, which went from bliss to something less than bliss, Barbara wrote home.
Her parents felt they must do something for the couple. They packed Edmond off with a tutor on the Grand Tour – hoping for a more educated son-in-law on his return. A small residence was provided for the two of them for when Edmond returned. The lovers corresponded. Barbara requested a portrait to remind her of her husband’s stunning good looks. In Pisa Edmond found a sculptor who agreed to do a marble bust. Then she learnt that the sculptor had decided of his own will to make it a full statue being anxious to “get a specimen of his skill” represented among “the English aristocracy,”
The year spun into fourteen months after which Barbara received a letter from the tutor informing her that on a visit to the theatre the building caught fire. Edmond was a hero, going back into the inferno time and again, and on the fifth entry endeavouring to save more “fellow creatures” some fiery beams fell on him.
With the skill of surgeons he was saved but badly disfigured, especially his handsome face. After more months of recovery he returned, but despite her pity, Barbara could barely bring herself to look at Edmond when he removed the mask covering his scarred face. Eventually she spent the night in the greenhouse. On returning to the kitchen there was a note from Edmond to his dear beloved wife saying he was going away for a year – again – and on his return “if I live” could she still not bring herself to look at him, he would go away for good. When Lord Uplandtowers heard this story he started to laugh. (Is that what started me off?)
After a year nothing was heard from Edmond. The years rolled by and she eventually married Lord Uplandtowers, who was the reason for her elopement with Edmond. Uplandtowers was by then approaching thirty.
One day she received a letter from the sculptor in Pisa saying he could no longer afford the space for the statue of Edmond so she privately sent the money owing and paid for its carriage to Knollingwood Hall.
She had not mentioned this to her husband. So when an “immense” package arrived for her ladyship marked “Sculpture” Lord Uplandtowers said:
“‘What can that be?’
‘It is the statue of poor Edmond, which belongs to me, but has never been sent till now’ she answered.
‘Where are you going to put it?’ asked he.”
And that was as far as I got. I creased up in full knowledge that I should not have been laughing at all. But it was, after all, fiction. Indeed, had it been real, like the murder of Dr. Bradstreet, I should not have found any part of it the least amusing. Was it because I had been lowered by the gory research? I don’t know but even as I write this now I still find the plot most amusing. Is there something wrong with me?
All right. I’m going to have to finish this story before my research.
I guess good art is in the eye of the beholder?
True. I have never been amused by Hardy’s work in the past but this was an exception. I realised he was on a mission to test the moral integrity of his readers on page 1 where he mentions the young Lord’s father, who died after taking the Bath waters, something people took for a cure. It reminded me of a local priest who went to Lourdes and came back with a most stinking cold.
However, I realise there could be something wrong with me in finding this story, which I have now finished together with the next two, amusing – in a dark way. I need someone to tell me it’s not me, and they can see it too.