A Monograph by Patrick Tolfree - Edited and with an Introduction by Phillip Mallett

The Short Stories of Thomas Hardy: An Appraisal

A Monograph by Patrick Tolfree

Edited and with an Introduction by Phillip Mallett

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The Late Patrick Tolfree


Patrick Tolfree, a much-respected member of the Thomas Hardy Society, had at the time of his death almost completed a full-length study of Hardy’s short stories. With the permission of Dee Tolfree, I have copy-edited and revised Patrick’s text: checking quotations, adding references, removing occasional repetitions, and so on. Over the next few months, Patrick’s study will appear chapter by chapter on the THS website. Unless otherwise indicated, references to the stories are to The Collected Short Stories of Thomas Hardy, edited by Desmond Hawkins (Macmillan, 1988), and cited parenthetically in the text as CSS. The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, ed. Richard Little Purdy and Michael Millgate, 7 vols (Oxford, 1978-88) are cited as CL, plus volume and page number; The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy, ed. Michael Millgate (Macmillan, 1984), is cited in the text in the form LW.

Phillip Mallett - 2022.

All copyright remains with Dee Tolfree.

Chapter Synopsis

The Introduction sets the short stories in the context of (a) the rest of Hardy’s literary output and (b) the market for short stories in the late 19th century. It shows how the stories, first individually published in magazines, were brought out in four collected volumes: Wessex Tales (1888), A Group of Noble Dames (1891), Life’s Little Ironies (1894) and A Changed Man and Other Tales (1913). Argues that Hardy himself is the prime contributor to the relative lack of critical interest in his short stories and to their relatively poor standing. Even as a successful novelist he regarded himself primarily as a poet; his short stories were merely a source of additional income. Critics have been too ready to agree with his own low evaluation of them.

Chapter 1 - Humour - ‘How I Built Myself a House’ - 1865. Hardy’s first short story, normally written off as a ‘sketch’, is a satire on bourgeois pretensions, providing a foretaste of the dry, sardonic, ironic tone which is so often found in the stories. Examines the different kinds of humour to be found in the stories - from droll asides and moments of dramatic irony to comedy of situation, intrinsically humorous characters and sheer farce. Demonstrates that there is relatively more, and a wider variety of, humour in the stories than in the novels.

Chapter 2 - The romantic tendency - ‘Destiny and a Blue Cloak’ - 1874. Asked for a story by the New York Times Hardy adopted the formula of the popular romance, in which the main focus is on whether the young lady will get her man. The romantic tendency is apparent in many of the stories, but they all have characteristics which make them distinctive in some way. Six or seven stories which are part of the romantic tendency are examined.

Chapter 3 - Narrative skill - ‘The Thieves Who Couldn’t Help Sneezing’ - 1877. A simple story for children, this story illustrates different features of Hardy’s narrative skill, eg in setting the scene, in advancing the story smoothly, in sound plotting, in use of dialogue, in fusing form and content. Provides example of stories in which these skills are deployed, effectively or otherwise.

Chapter 4 - Death, dying and the macabre - ‘The Impulsive Lady of Croome Castle’ - 1878. A macabre anecdote is the inspiration for this story, which later becomes ‘The Duchess of Hamptonshire’ in A Group of Noble Dames. Hardy’s preoccuption with the macabre, the ghoulish and the gruesome is reflected in the stories, sometimes humorously, sometimes grimly. His sympathy and compassion for a victim is equalled by his fascination with the nature of the victim’s pain and suffering. Suicides, executions, deaths by drowning provide the inspiration for some of his most powerful short stories.

Chapter 5 - Class - ‘An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress’ - 1878. Hardy constructed this story round the bones of his first unpublished novel, The Poor Man and the Lady. Whereas the latter was a polemic against the injustices in the class system, the short story is a romance in which class differences provide an obstacle to a poor man winning a lady. Investigates Hardy's complex attitudes to class differences and social inequality, as reflected in the stories. Some stories are a direct attack on the social system but on the whole he does not aggressively criticise the unequal world in which deserving young men are unable to win the hand of better born women; he is simply showing where his sympathies lie. In some stories fine distinctions in the social pecking order are central to the plot.

Chapter 6 - Sense of place - ‘The Distracted Young Preacher’ - 1879. This was the first short story which Hardy set in a clearly identifiable location - Nether-Moynton [Owermoigne]. The routes taken by the smugglers can be found on an Ordnance Survey map. In this and other stories it can be seen how vividly Hardy envisages the actions of his characters and how carefully he works out their movements. He identifies the start-point of many of the short stories with the precision of map reference. Even if the setting is vague Hardy always knows exactly where he is writing about. Visualising what he writes about is an important part of Hardy's creative process, in which the reader is able to share.

Chapter 7 - Love’s little ironies - ‘Fellow-Townsmen’ - 1880. Fate plays a malign part in the unhappy love life of Barnet, the principal character in this story. By the time Hardy wrote it, his marriage had turned sour. This chapter shows how the ironies in his own life are reflected in the stories, most of which are about mismatches of one kind or another and end in unhappiness. Also demonstrates the particular tone Hardy increasingly adopted, hard to define but essentially ironic.

Chapter 8 - The oral tradition - ‘A Tradition of Eighteen Hundred and Four’ - 1882. An analysis of Hardy’s narrative method. He gives most of his short stories a story-telling setting. Either he identifies himself as the narrator, or he performs the role of recording an oral narration, or he in some way indicates that a story has a traditional source. Even if a story is entirely his invention he presents it as if it were true.

Chapter 9 - Fact and fiction. Examines the considerable contribution the short stories made to the concept and development of Hardy’s ‘part real, part dream-country’, Wessex, which provided a framework in which his creativity could flourish and in which he could also record the details of a vanishing way of life. However, the role of social historian did not always sit comfortably with that of creative writer. The prefaces that he wrote in 1895/96 in the first uniform edition of his novels and collected short stories (‘The Wessex Novels’) and various comments in The Life reflect the difficulties of reconciling these two roles. The chapter ends with an examination of an instance which showed how sensitive he was about his reputation as an historian and what a complex and secretive person he was.

Chapter 10 - Evaluating the short stories. Identifies the hallmarks of Hardy’s short stories, as shown in this appraisal, distinguishing between the factors that contribute to an effective story, eg narrative skill, sense of place, use of dialogue, and the factors which place some stories clearly apart from the others. Three key criteria emerge: (a) a story’s capacity to shock, surprise or profoundly move the reader, (b) effective characterisation; and (c) satisfactory fusion of form and content. Against those criteria the stories that come out particularly well are: ‘The Withered Arm’, ‘The Three Strangers’, ‘On the Western Circuit’, ‘The Fiddler of the Reels’, ‘Old Mrs Chundle’, ‘The Grave by the Handpost’ and ‘To Please His Wife’.

Chapter 11 - Epicentre. This final chapter suggests that there is a relationship between proximity to Hardy's birthplace and the quality of the stories - the closer to his birthplace a story is set, the better it is. Without ever labouring the topography of his stories Hardy communicates his deep, unselfconscious love of Wessex. Paradoxically, part of the poignant appeal of the stories is also in the sense of alienation from his roots which emerges. The stories reflect life as it is, not as it should be. Few have happy endings. Even if a story ends unhappily, Hardy goes out of his way to make it clear that things got no better later; if anything they got worse. Ultimate loneliness is the reality that Hardy refuses to gloss over. Equally, what makes life bearable, like humour and people's innate decency, is there in the stories, and Hardy's own compassion for people stops them from being depressing. In all the stories there is evidence of Hardy's greatness as a writer. Some are masterpieces.

Patrick Tolfree - 2001.

Each chapter will appear as a separate page.

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