By Patrick Tolfree

The Short Stories of Thomas Hardy: An Appraisal

Chapter 4: Death, Dying and the Macabre

Hardy made the following brief note in the Life of a story told him by his brother-in-law, the Rev. Caddell Holder:


          Holder as a young man was a curate in Bristol during the terrible cholera visitation. He related that one day at a friend’s house he met a charming young widow, who                    invited him to call on her. With pleasant anticipations he went at tea-time a day or two later, and duly inquired if she was at home. The servant said with a strange face:              ‘Why, Sir, you buried her this morning!’ He found that among the many funerals of cholera victims he had conducted that day, as on every day, hers had been one. (LW:              161)


Though Hardy never acknowledged it, it can safely be said that this macabre anecdote was the inspiration for his fourth short story, ‘The Impulsive Lady of Croome Castle’, first published in Light: A Journal of Criticism and Belles Lettres in 1878. The story turns upon the Rev. Alwyn Hill’s discovery, nine years after the event, that without realising it he had buried at sea the young woman he had loved, Emmeline, but had abandoned to her fate at the hands of her terrible husband, Sir Byng Saxelbye. There is nothing to tell us how Hardy came to write the story, though it is likely that it was written at the request of the editor of Light, not long before Hardy and Emma moved from Sturminster Newton to Upper Tooting in March 1878, and published in April.


Five years later, in September 1883, when John Bowen of the New York Independent asked Hardy for a story, he took ‘The Impulsive Lady of Croome Castle’ and re-wrote it in a form that he hoped would make it morally acceptable to the Congregationalist readers of the Independent. Although the plot and characters remained basically the same, he made quite substantial changes – sufficiently so, evidently, for him to feel justified in offering it to the Independent as a new story, which he called ‘Emmeline’. At the time he received Bowen’s letter he was coincidentally preoccupied with getting the moral tone right for the young American readers of ‘Our Exploits at West Poley’, the manuscript of which he despatched to The Youth’s Companion in New York on 5 November 1883. In his covering letter to the publishers he said he hoped that ‘Our Exploits’
carried a ‘sufficiently apparent moral’ (CL: 1.123), which was what he set out to give ‘The Impulsive Lady’ when he re-wrote it for the Independent. Emmeline must be made more saintly and Alwyn Hill’s courtship of her must be beyond reproach, while Sir Byng and her father, the Rev. Oldbourne, must be portrayed more critically. To achieve this, as Martin Ray demonstrates, Hardy had to make a large number of changes. For example, so that Alwyn and Emmeline did not have any physical contact, he cut out what Ray describes as the ‘most poetical touch in the story’, when Emmeline and Hill meet secretly in the shrubbery at Croome Castle two months after her marriage to the terrible Sir Byng Saxelbye: in ‘The Impulsive Lady’ they ‘leapt together like a pair of dewdrops on a leaf’, but in the Independent Hardy replaced this with ‘impulsively approached
each other; but they restrained the impulse, as if with pain’ (Martin Ray, Thomas Hardy: A Textual Study of the Short Stories, 1997, 151). The single most significant change was to build into the story a reference to Alwyn Hill officiating at Emmeline’s burial at sea at the time it occurred, whereas in ‘The Impulsive Lady’ the reader does not discover this until towards the end of the story. To advertise the suitability of the story for the Independent’s religious readership Hardy added the sub-title ‘Passion versus Principle’. The overall result was a considerably revised and augmented version of the story which, in Ray’s words, had the ‘earnest clarity of a model allegory’ (Ray, 148).


The story had a third incarnation when Hardy included it in A Group of Noble Dames as ‘The Duchess of Hamptonshire’ in 1891. This entailed another major overhaul, though not so extensive as that between the first and second versions. Hardy based the first section of the story, up to the moment when Hill leaves Emmeline in the shrubbery, largely on the first part of ‘The Impulsive Lady’ (thus restoring, for example, the ‘dewdrops’ simile); the second was based largely on the second part of ‘Emmeline’. Sir Byng Saxelbye now became a Duke and his acreage was increased from 5,000 to 10,000, while the Rev. Oldbourne became the Honourable Rev. Oldbourne. The net product was shorter than ‘Emmeline’ and longer than ‘The Impulsive Lady’, and an improvement on both its predecessors. The infusion of a more moral element into the ‘Emmeline’ version had not detracted from the story but had the effect of sharpening up the characters. The Duke is memorably portrayed, with his ‘copper-beech’ complexion, his capacity
to ‘close the mouths of his dependents with a good bomb-like oath’ and the mighty passion which seizes him when he catches sudden sight of Emmeline. Seventeen years of age, Emmeline is described as:


          of so sweet and simple a nature that her beauty was discovered, measured and inventoried by almost everybody in that part of the country before it was suspected by
          herself to exist. She had been bred in comparative solitude; a rencounter with men troubled and confused her. Whenever a strange visitor came to her father’s house she
          slipped into the orchard and remained until he was gone, ridiculing her weakness in apostrophes, but unable to overcome it. (CSS: 341)


Alwyn is described as ‘a handsome young deacon with curly hair and dreamy eyes so dreamy that to look long into them was like ascending and floating among summer clouds’. It is the language of romance with a mocking Hardyan twist. On the evening of Emmeline’s wedding to Sir Byng Saxelbye the bell-ringers, who are sympathetic to her and Alwyn, express their concern in words no ordinary romance writer would use:


          ‘Don’t you see something wrong in it all?’ said the third bell as he wiped his face. ‘I know well enough where she would have liked to stable her horses tonight, when they
          have done their journey.’

          ‘That is, you would if you knew where young Mr Hill is living, which is known to none in the parish.’

          ‘Except to the lady that this ring o’ grandsire triples is in honour of.’ (CSS: 342)


That is the extent of their conversation, which Hardy, with his usual economy, uses to advance the story. It tells us that Alwyn and Emmeline have remained in touch since her father sent him away and it prepares us for the lovers’ secret meeting in the shrubbery. Her first words at the meeting are: ‘You are going to emigrate … I have heard of it; you sail from Portsmouth in three days in the Western Glory.’ That again is vital for the plot, for it explains how, unbeknownst to Alwyn at the time, she fetches up in the same ship. Slipped unobtrusively in the middle of the account of how Alwyn passed the voyage to Boston is this sentence, which Hardy added to the ‘Emmeline’ version:


          The voyage was marked by the usual incidents of a sailing-passage in those days – a storm, a calm, a man overboard, and a funeral – the latter sad event being one in                which he, as the only clergyman on board, officiated, reading the service ordained for the purpose. (CSS: 345)


The effect of including this vital piece of information is to involve the reader more closely in the tragedy which unfolds once Alwyn discovers, nine years later, that the widow of the Duke of Hamptonshire is not Emmeline, but his second wife of a year’s standing. That is the first shock for Alwyn. The second shock is even greater, for he is told that the Duke’s first wife ‘ran away years and years ago with the young curate’. It is one of Hardy’s greatest narrative coups. Even those readers who – unlike Alwyn – instantly make the connection with the shipboard burial, are on equal terms with him as he discovers through his inquiries what really did happen to Emmeline. The narrative gives a detailed account of how, through the second Duchess and a Plymouth waterman, he tracks down the captain of the Western Glory, who reminds the agonised Alwyn of ‘the prominent part that he had taken in that solemn ceremony’:


          as the sun went down with a blaze in his face he read amidst them all assembled: ‘We therefore commit her body to the deep, to be turned into corruption, looking for the
          resurrection of the body when the sea shall give up her dead.’ (CSS: 350-51)


So thorough is Hardy in giving the story verisimilitude that he informs us that Alwyn goes on to interview the ship’s matron and others, who confirm beyond any doubt that it was Emmeline whom he had buried. At every step the sense of what Ray calls ‘retrospective irony’ (Ray, 149) grows until


          At last, then, the course of events had become clear. On that unhappy evening when he left Emmeline in the shrubbery, forbidding her to follow him because it would be a            sin, she must have disobeyed. She must have followed at his heels silently through the darkness, like a poor pet animal that will not be driven back. She could have                    accumulated nothing for that journey more than she might have carried in her hand; and thus poorly provided she must have embarked. Her intention had doubtless been            to make her presence known to him as soon as she could muster courage to do so. (CSS: 351)


Unlike the explanation of the son’s suicide at the end of ‘The Doctor’s Legend’, this summary flows naturally and logically from the preceding narrative and achieves a powerful sense of pathos.


***


There are numerous short stories in which Hardy’s attraction to the macabre, the gruesome and the ghoulish are evident. In some cases, as in ‘The Duchess of Hamptonshire’, a macabre incident is the raison d’être of the story. In others there are simply episodes or details which enliven – or darken – but do not dominate the story. For example, in ‘The Marchioness of Stonehenge’ Lady Caroline marries the parish-clerk’s son secretly. They do not live together but she allows him to visit her at night in her mansion. On one of these visits he dies of a heart attack. Lady Caroline decides she must get him back to his own home in the village without anyone knowing. Being a determined and resourceful woman, she hastily dresses herself, and then him (a nice Hardy touch):


          Tying his dead hands together with a handkerchief, she laid his arms round her shoulders, and bore him to the landing and down the narrow stairs. Reaching the bottom              by the window, she let his body slide slowly over the sill till it lay on the ground without. She then climbed over the window-sill herself, and, leaving the sash open,                      dragged him on the lawn with a rustle not louder than the rustle of a broom. There she took a securer hold, and plunged with him under the trees, still dragging him by                the hands. (CSS: 280)


Thus she lugs him home and at the end of her arduous task carries him across the gravel outside his father’s house, so as not to make a noise, and dumps him on the doorstep. The incident is as much humorous as ghoulish, and it is not central to the story. The same can be said of the inimitable scene in ‘A Mere Interlude’ when Baptista spends the first night of her honeymoon lying with her husband, Mr Heddegan, on one side of her, and the corpse of her former husband, Charles Stow, on the other, with only a partition wall between them. ‘Netty Sargent’s Copyhold’ is in the same category: Netty props up her dead father in a wheelchair to fool the squire’s steward into believing he is alive and can sign the deed.


There is little light relief in ‘The Grave by the Handpost’, which Hardy builds round the barbaric custom of burying suicides at cross-roads and driving a stake through the body. He read of its abolition 'c. 1830’ in the Times and made a note of it (Taylor, Personal Notebooks of Thomas Hardy, 1979, 24; Ray, 283). He also heard from his mother of a girl who had committed suicide and whose uncoffined body was buried at a crossroads on Hendford Hill, Yeovil. In the short story the coroner’s jury returns a verdict of suicide on Sergeant Holway and in accordance with the custom he is buried under the handpost at the point where the road between Chalk-Newton and Broad Sidlinch crosses Long Ash Lane. The presence of the stake in his body makes it that much harder for Sergeant Holloway’s remains to be dug up and moved from its unhallowed grave by the handpost to the churchyard in Chalk-Newton, in accordance with the wishes of his son Luke Holway. As Ezra Cattstock, the Chalk-Newton sexton, so graphically puts it, ‘They buried en wi’
a new six-foot hurdle-saul drough’s body, from the sheep-pen up in North Ewelease, though they won’t own up to it now. And the question is, Is the moving worth while, considering the awkwardness?’ (CSS: 671) The body remains at the cross-roads, where Luke also later commits suicide. It is a short and powerful story. The gruesome custom which inspired it, and which remains central to the plot, in no way diminishes its quality.


There are seven deaths by drowning in the short stories. Of these, three are similar. In ‘The Waiting Supper’, Bellston’s skeleton is discovered jammed against the piles supporting the edge of the ‘Sallows’ waterfall on the river Froom where he had fallen in seventeen years previously. On the night of the ‘waiting supper’:


          Every particle of his flesh and clothing had been eaten by the fishes or abraded to nothing by the water, but the relics of a gold watch remained … (CSS: 631)


In ‘A Tragedy of Two Ambitions’, six months after old Halborough drowned in the river at Narrobourne, his remains are found when the hatches of the river are drawn to allow the mowers to cut the grass in the meads. He is unrecognisable:


          Fish and flood had been busy with the millwright; he had no watch or marked article which could be identified … (CSS: 452)


In ‘Alicia’s Diary’, when the waterman goes to shut the hatches of the weir in the mead he spots the body of Charles de la Feste. Earlier that day when crossing the river he had fallen – or jumped – from the weir and drowned. Using the same cause of death in three stories could be evidence of laziness on Hardy’s part. However, the detail of having fish eat ‘every particle of flesh’ suggest that it is more likely evidence of an obsession with death in that particular form.


Executions feature in three of the short stories. In only one of the three, ‘The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion’, is the execution actually described, and it provides a truly shocking climax to a moving story. Phyllis, having abandoned Tina, the man she loves, for Humphrey Gould, finds that Humphrey has given her up for a Bath belle. She then goes on to become an involuntary witness at the death by firing squad of Tina and Christoph. With matchless economy, Hardy describes the proceedings: all the regiments of the camp drawn up in line, the two empty coffins awaiting the corpses, the band playing a dead march, the procession, the blind-folding, the two hussars kneeling each before his coffin, the commanding officer’s sword-exercise, the firing party of twenty-four discharging their volley, the corpses falling, one forwards, one backwards (CSS: 49-50).


The other two executions are hangings, one in ‘The Withered Arm’, the other in ‘The Winters and the Palmleys’. In ‘The Withered Arm’ the execution provides the finale to what is
probably the most dramatic, not to say horrific, of all Hardy’s short stories.


Hardy witnessed two executions by hanging in Dorchester, one when he was 16, the other when he was 18. The first was of Martha Brown, who killed her much younger and abusive husband. It was the first hanging in Dorchester for 23 years and a crowd of three or four thousand turned out to watch. Two years later he witnessed the execution of James Seale, which he described in the Life as ‘an unusual incident ... dramatic enough to have mention’:


          One summer morning ... just before he sat down to breakfast, he remembered that a man was to be hanged at eight o’ clock at Dorchester. He took up a big brass                      telescope that had been handed down in the family and hastened to a hill on the heath a quarter of a mile from the house, whence he looked towards the town. The sun              behind his back shone straight on the white stone facade of the gaol, the gallows upon it, and the form of the murderer in white fustian, the executioner and officials in                dark clothing, and the crowd below, being invisible at this distance of three miles. At the moment of his placing the glass to his eye the white figure dropped downwards,              and the faint note of the town clock struck eight. 


          The whole thing had been so sudden that the glass nearly fell from Hardy's hands. He seemed alone on the heath with the hanged man; and he crept home wishing he                had not been so curious. It was the second and last execution he witnessed, the first having been that of a woman two or three years earlier, when he stood close to the              gallows. (LW: 32-3)


This was probably written some sixty years after the event (most of the Life was written between 1915 and 1920), and some twenty years after ‘The Withered Arm’ was published. In the story, the morning before the execution Gertrude Lodge rides to Casterbridge, going out of her way via Egdon Heath where she stops by the pool called Rushy-Pond. From there, Hardy writes:


          over the railing she saw the low green country; over the green trees the roofs of the town; over the roofs a white flat facade, denoting the entrance to the county jail. On            the roof of this front specks were moving about; they seemed to be workmen erecting something. Her flesh crept. (CSS: 72)


It looks, therefore, as if when writing his autobiography he was to some extent building on his fictionalisation of the original memory. Whereas in the short story there is simply ‘the white facade’ of the prison, in the Life entry Hardy uses ‘white’ three times: the ‘white stone facade of the gaol’, the ‘murderer in white fustian’ and the ‘white figure’ dropping. The emphasis on the lightness and whiteness of the scene is striking.


It is questionable whether on that morning in 1858 Hardy ‘suddenly remembered’ as he sat down to breakfast that a man was to be hanged, and the description of him hurrying up the hill with the ancestral brass telescope does not quite ring true. However, of the profound effect upon him of those hangings there is no doubt. In August 1925 Hardy and his second wife Florence went to tea with Lady Pinney at Racedown in west Dorset, which was not far from Birdsmoorgate, the hamlet where Martha Brown lived with her husband John. Lady Pinney records:


          We had been talking about years gone by and as he was leaving, and being hurried home by his careful wife, he turned to me and said ‘Can you find out about Martha                  Brown? She lived over there (and he pointed towards the west. I saw her hanged when I was sixteen.’ He was bustled in the car before there was time for more.


Lady Pinney made inquiries of old people in the area and sent Hardy quite a detailed picture of Martha and the circumstances of the murder. Her husband, who had allegedly married her for her little bit of money, was 20 years younger and a tranter. Martha, described as ‘a wonderful looking woman with beautiful curls’, caught sight of her neighbour, Mary Davies, sitting on John’s knee. Suspecting him of adultery she had a bitter row with him and killed him with a chopper while he was bending over to undo his boots. In a letter to Lady Pinney he says:


          My sincere thanks for the details you have been so indefatigable as to obtain about that unhappy woman Martha Brown, whom I am ashamed to say I saw hanged, my                only excuse being that I was but a youth, & had to be in town at the time for other reasons ... I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in              the misty rain, & how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back. (CL: 7, 5).


Millgate sees ‘a strong sexual component’ in Hardy’s reactions to the execution (Michael Millgate, Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revisited, 2004, 62-63). Gittings likewise sees a sexual element in Hardy’s response but goes further than Millgate, suggesting ‘an early thread of perverse morbidity in Hardy, something near abnormality’ (Robert Gittings, Young Thomas Hardy, 1975, 35).


However, what is most surprising about Hardy’s letter to Lady Pinney is not that he noticed that the hanged woman was physically attractive but that he should have revealed this to Lady Pinney. Either he was very naive or he lacked judgement. In what looks like an attempt to prevent Lady Pinney from thinking ill of Hardy, Florence wrote to her a little while later saying:


          Of course the account T.H. gives of the hanging is vivid, & terrible. What a pity that a boy of sixteen should have been permitted to see such a sight. It may have given a              tinge of bitterness & gloom to his life’s work.


At the the end of the same letter she makes Lady Pinney’s report on the murder sound like therapy:


          I am thankful of anything that keeps his mind a little bit off his own work (during his leisure hours), & the vivid account you sent of the Martha Brown tragedy was really              most helpful. He is deeply interested in it – & so grateful to you for taking so much trouble. (Letters of Emma and Florence Hardy, 235).


Martha Brown murdered her husband on Sunday 6 July, 1856. On 24th July – after she was convicted and before she was hanged – there was an article in the Western Gazette which looked back with horror on the last hanging at Dorchester, which took place on 23 March 1833. The person executed was a boy of 15, Silvester Wilkins of Bridport, who was found guilty of arson. Led on by two 17-year olds, he had set fire to a flax-combing shop in Irish Street (now King Street) in Bridport, the property of one John Follett. Research into the circumstances of the case by Basil Short suggests that Silvester was not a delinquent but simply foolish and that he had set fire to the shop for what was described at the time as ‘a lark’. Out of pity for the boy the public hangman ensured that that his death was as swift and painless as possible by attaching weights to his legs. Hardy learned of the execution from his father and used the detail of the weights in ‘The Winters and the Palmleys’ (from A Few Crusted Characters). In stealing back his ill-written love letters from the Palmleys’ house young Jack Winter unintentionally also takes some money, which turns the theft into a capital offence. The detail of the weights adds considerably to the poignancy of the story, though it takes up only one sentence:


          He was so boyish and slim that they were obliged in mercy to hang him in the heaviest fetters kept in the jail, lest his heft should not break his neck, and they weighed so            heavy upon him that he could hardly drag himself up to the drop. (CSS: 555)


There is no evidence in Basil Short’s research that the weights were used on Wilkins because he was ‘boyish and slim’. He was just under 5 feet 5 inches in height and there is no indication that he was underweight. The source of the information that Hardy heard about the execution from his father is the autobiography of Newman Flower, As It Happened (London, 1950), in which Flower reports Hardy as having said:


          ‘I have seen some awful things, but what impressed me more than all else is something my father once told me. My father saw four men hung for being with some others            who had set fire to a rick. Among them was a stripling of a boy of eighteen. Skinny. Half-starved. So frail, so underfed, that they had to put weights on his feet to break              his neck. He had not fired the rick. But with a youth’s excitement he had rushed to the scene to see the blaze ... Nothing my father ever said to me ever drove the                      Tragedy of life so deeply into my mind.’


Presumably, in the way of traditions, not only had one execution got mixed up with another, but in the course of being transmitted from one audience to another, Silvester Wilkinson became underweight to give greater importance to the weights being added. In ‘The Withered Arm’ Rhoda Brook’s son is executed merely for being present at the firing of a rick. The mildness of his offence adds considerably to the horror of the ending of the story. It would seem that Hardy never lost his interest in hangings and murder. There is an account in the Life of a visit which John Galsworthy and his wife made to Max Gate in September 1927, when Hardy was 87 and only a few months before he died:


          During the visit Hardy told them the story of a murder that had happened eighty years before. Mr Galsworthy seemed struck by these memories of Hardy's early                          childhood, and asked whether he had always remembered those days so vividly, or only lately. Hardy replied that he had always remembered clearly. He recalled what his            mother had said about the Rush murder when he was about the age of six: ‘The governess hanged him.’ He was puzzled, and wondered how a governess could hang a                man. Mr and Mrs Galsworthy thought that Hardy seemed better than when they saw him last, in fact than they had ever seen him. (LW: 485)


So from a meeting of two great literary figures this was the topic of conversation that survives – and, judging by the reference to his health in the last sentence quoted, Florence was right – it cheered Hardy up to talk about such things.


***


Gittings’s identification of ‘an early thread of perverse morbidity’ in Hardy is borne out by several of the extracts from his notebooks which he selected for inclusion in his autobiography. Among a series of random entries for September 1888 there is one that reads:


          T. Voss used to take casts of heads of executed convicts. He took those of Preedy and Stone. Dan Pouncy held their heads while it was being done. Voss oiled the faces,                and took them in halves, afterwards making casts from the masks. There was a groove where the rope went, and Voss saw a little blood in the case of stone, where the                skin had been broken, – not in Preedy’s. (CSS: 223)


The description of ‘where the rope went’ is reminiscent of the line on the dead man’s neck in ‘The Withered Arm’. This is how he describes Gertrude putting Conjuror Trendle’s cure to the test in the room below the gallows in Casterbridge gaol:


          She bared her poor curst arm; and Davies [the hangman], uncovering the face of the corpse, took Gertrude's hand, and held it so that her arm lay across the dead
          man’s neck, upon a line, the colour of an unripe blackberry, which surrounded it. (CSS: 76)

Hardy tells us in the Life that in 1872 he received a letter describing the death of the real-life tranter on whom he based Tranter Reuben in Under the Greenwood Tree. He reproduces from the letter this lurid account of the man’s last moments:


          He was quite in his senses, but not able to speak. A dark purple stain began in his leg that was injured many years ago by his waggon running over it; the stain ran up                about as fast as a fly walks. It ran up his body in the same way till, arriving level with his fingers, it began in them, and went on up his arms, up his neck and face, to the            top of his head, when he breathed his last. Then a pure white began at his foot, and went upwards at the same rate and in the same way, and he became as white as he              had been purple before. (LW: 95)


He used the same forensically factual language to describe an inquest which he attended during his time at Sturminster Newton. The account is in a notebook entry made in December 1877:


          ‘December 22. In the evening I went with Dr Leach the coroner to an inquest which was to be held at Stourton Caundell on the body of a boy. Arrived at the Trooper Inn               after a lonely drive through dark and muddy lanes. Met at the door by the Superintendent of Police and a policeman in plain clothes. Also by Mr Long, who had begun the             post-mortem. We then went to the cottage; a woman or two, and children, were sitting by the fire, who looked at us with a cowed expression. Upstairs the body of a boy             lay on a box covered with a sheet. It was uncovered, and Mr Long went on with his autopsy[,] I holding a candle to light him and the policeman another. The body had                 been opened by a vertical and horizontal cut. Found a clot in his heart, but no irritant poison in his stomach, as had been suspected. The inquest was then held in the                   inn.’ (LW: 121).


Another entry made while he was at Sturminster Newton tells of a doctor who attended a poor woman whose baby died at birth. He accepted the dead baby in payment ... and it was kept on his mantelpiece in a large glass jar in spirits, which stained the body brown. The doctor, who was a young man, afterwards married and used his wife badly, insisting on keeping the other dead woman's baby on his mantel-piece. (LW: 115)


Hardy’s preoccupation with death and dying may in part be attributed to his loss of religious faith, influenced by Darwinism, at around the age of 25. Loss of faith meant loss of belief in a life after death. For someone of Hardy’s sensibilities, facing the reality of death was painful, particularly at a time when even his future on earth was in doubt. Even in his earliest short stories there is evidence of his awareness of death and the ageing process. In ‘An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress’ – first published in 1878 but largely drawn from his first unpublished novel, The Poor Man and the Lady -– Egbert returns to his home village and calls upon some of the cottagers he knew:


          Time had set a mark on them all since he had last been there. Middle-aged men were a little more round-shouldered, their wives had taken to spectacles, young people                had grown up out of recognition, and old men had passed into second childhood. (Excluded and Collaborative Stories, 136)


In 'Destiny and a Blue Cloak', published when he was 34, he paints a most unattractive picture of Agatha Pollin's elderly suitor, farmer Lovill: ‘His eyes were not yet bleared, but in the corners was occasionally a moisture like majolica glaze – entirely absent in youth (CSS: 885). Not noticeable for its sharp writing, the Life contains this shrewd observation when Hardy was 49:


          ‘March - A staid, worn, weak man at the railway station. His back, his legs, his hands, his face, were longing to be out of this world. His brain was not longing to be,                     because, like the brain of most people, it was the last part of his body to realize a situation.’ (LW: 234)


Near where the Hardy family sat in Stinsford church there is a memorial on the wall to the Grey family which intrigued Hardy as a small boy; one of the Greys in the memorial was named Angel, which, it was said, gave him the idea for the character in Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Pinion comments: ‘Among its striking sculptured features was a gruesome skull which both horrified and fascinated him. It haunted his memory and, as the poetry of his earlier and later years continually shows, may be said never to have been far from his vision of life, whatever his moods.’ (Frank Pinion, Thomas Hardy: His Life and Friends, 1992). It was equally evident in his fiction – indeed it could have inspired the skull- ominated ‘The Doctor’s Legend’, which starts with the Squire catching the little girl trespassing. Intent upon beating her with his cane, he gives chase, but she eludes him:


          The race continued, and the Squire, now panting with rage and exertion, drew closer to his victim. To the horrified eyes of the child, when she gazed over her shoulder,                his face appeared like a crimson mask set with eyes of fire. The glance sealed her fate in the race. By a sudden start forward he caught hold of her by the skirt of her                  short frock flying behind. The clutch so terrified the child that, with a louder shriek than ever, she leapt from his grasp, leaving the skirt in his hand. But she did not go                far; in a few more moments she fell on the ground in an epileptic fit. (CSS: 902)


It was the kind of nightmare which Hardy himself, living in a county of land-owning squires, might have had as a small boy. He sees the face like a ‘crimson mask with eyes of fire’ through the horrified eyes of a small girl. He identifies with the girl, but he is also fascinated by the horror that threatens her; left defenceless without her skirt there is a potential for rape. He has compassion for the victims of pain, but he is also masochistically fascinated by their pain. Hence his interest in corporal punishment. Hardy records in the Life a meeting with Chelsea Pensioners who had suffered and survived the rigours of the Peninsular War:


          ‘In those days if you only turned your eye you were punished. My informant had known men receive 600 lashes – 300 at a time, or 900, if the doctor said it could be                     borne. After the punishment salt was rubbed on the victim’s back, to harden it. He did not feel the pain of this, his back being numbed by the lashes. The men would hold             a bullet between their teeth and chew it during the operation.’ (LW: 127)


He also provides accounts of public floggings in Dorchester. His father told him in 1887 that he had last seen three men flogged in Dorchester by the Town Pump in about 1830. His father happened to go in from Stinsford about mid-day. Some soldiers coming down the street from the Barracks interfered, and swore at Davis [Jack Ketch] because he did not ‘flog fair’; that is to say he waited between each lash for the flesh to recover sensation, whereas, as they knew from experience, by striking quickly the flesh remained numb through several strokes. (LW: 192)


Hardy’s interest in Mary Channing is part of the same pattern: sympathy and compassion for the sufferings of a victim, combined with fascination with the details of their suffering. In an article he wrote for the Times in 1908 on archaeological discoveries on the origins of Maumbury Ring in Dorchester, he devoted a third of the piece to an account of Mary Channing’s execution at Maumbury Ring in the early years of the 18th century. Aged 18, she was pregnant when she was found guilty of poisoning her much older husband and condemned to death. His immense sympathy for her is clear, but so also is his absorption in the gruesome details of the execution. Before being burned at the stake she was strangled but apparently not killed. ‘An ancestor of the present writer, who witnessed the scene,’ he wrote, ‘has handed down the information that “her heart leapt out” during the burning, and other curious details that cannot be printed here.’ The details which he could not include in the Times article are to be found in ‘Memoranda, I’ in a note
made in 1919 in which he describes how, when the fire revived her, ‘she screamed so loudly that one of the constables thrust a swab in her mouth and the milk from her bosoms squirted out in their faces’. Taylor comments: ‘Hardy records with relish these additional details of an execution which had long held his imagination.’ (Personal Notebooks, 38) He even weaves her story into The Mayor of Casterbridge. Henchard asks Susan to meet him at Maumbury Ring secretly at night; in his description of the Ring and its cruel and sinister associations over the centuries Hardy includes a six-line summary of Mary Channing’s story. She seems always to be near the top of his sub-conscious. In a letter to Cockerell, Florence reports in February 1919 that Hardy


          had a visit yesterday from Lady Ilchester and her daughter and we were quite a noisy party – shouts of laughter, such as I had not heard for many months. He insisted on            telling that awful story of the burning of Mary Channing, with all its gruesome details. I tried in vain to stop him, for the daughter turned quite white – she is only fifteen.              (Letters of Emma & Florence Hardy, 157)


It is unlikely that the ‘gruesome details’ in what he told Lady Ilchester’s daughter included the particulars he recorded in his notebook, quoted above. It would seem, nevertheless, that in telling the young girl any part of the Mary Channing story he showed the same lack of awareness as when he told Lady Pinney of the effect that the shapely form of Martha Brown swinging on the scaffold had had on him.


It also seems that he was lacking in awareness of the effect that certain of his short stories might have on some readers. Millgate’s view is that ‘Hardy, for all his attentiveness to the public reception of his work, was a poor judge of the impression any given narrative was likely to make on the sensitivities of others. It seems extraordinary, scarcely credible, that he should not have known the trouble he was likely to provoke by allowing his stories to drift into waters well known to be dangerous.’ (Thomas Hardy: A Biography, 1992, 305) This certainly applied to the six Noble Dame stories he sent to the Graphic in May 1890. Apart from the stories that would be unacceptable to the readership on moral grounds, there was one, ‘Barbara of the House of Grebe’, that he might have anticipated would offend because of the two episodes which seem positively
calculated to shock. The first is when Edmond returns to England to claim his wife after his face has been hideously disfigured in a fire in Venice. The second is Lord Uplandtowers’s sadistic treatment of Barbara in forcing her to love him by systematically exposing her to the mutilated statue of Edmond. In response to the representations made by the Graphic Hardy considerably modified the first of these two episodes and removed almost all of the second, but both were restored when Osgood, McIlvaine published the collected volume A Group of Noble Dames in 1891.


In ‘Barbara of the House of Grebe’ one can again discern Hardy’s compassion and sympathy for a victim running in parallel with his fascination with the nature of the victim’s
suffering, as well as an underlying eroticism – what, in sum, may be termed the Martha Brown syndrome, similarly evident in his interest in Mary Channing and briefly manifested in ‘The Doctor’s Legend’ when the Squire catches the little girl and rips off her skirt. In ‘Barbara of the House of Grebe’ even the bland and honourable Edmond is sexually menacing when he returns to England, hoping to find that Barbara still loves him and will receive him as her husband. Hardy seems to go out of his way to make the episode as terrifying as possible. Edmond arrives in ‘a flapping black cloak and slouched hat, appearing altogether as a foreigner, and not as the young English burgess who had left [Barbara’s] side.’ He is wearing a mask to hide the disfigurement of his once Adonis-like face, and, after he has removed his hat and cloak Barbara sees that the mask is ‘of special make, of some flexible material like silk, coloured so as to represent flesh; it joined naturally to the front hair, and was otherwise cleverly executed.’ When he takes off his glove she sees that his hand is contorted and has one or two or the fingers missing, while through the mask she sees ‘the twinkle of one eye only’ (CSS: 259-60). When eventually he removes the mask Barbara is so shocked by what she sees that she cannot bear to be with him. She retreats to her bed-chamber, hoping that she can overcome her revulsion and accept him as a loving wife. The tension mounts. In her room upstairs she hears him getting up from his chair. Unable to face him she flees to the greenhouse. There she remained on a flower-stand,


          ... her great timid eyes strained through the glass upon the garden without, and her skirts gathered up, in fear of the field-mice which sometimes came there. Every                   moment she dreaded to hear footsteps which she ought by law to have longed for, and a voice that should have been as music to her soul. But Edmond Willowes came not           that way … (CSS: 262)


The story achieves Hammer-House-of-Horror proportions when Barbara, later unhappily married to Uplandtowers, installs in a secret recess adjacent to her boudoir the life-size statue of Edmond, executed before the fire, ‘a specimen of manhood almost perfect in every line and contour.’ Lord Uplandtowers catches her one night embracing the statue of Edmond, her arms tightly clasped round his neck, her mouth on his:


          The shawl which she had thrown round her nightclothes had slipped from her shoulders, and her long white robe and pale face lent her the blanched appearance of a                    second statue embracing the first. Between her kisses, she apostrophised it in a low murmur of infantine tenderness. 
          ‘My only love – how could I be so cruel to you – my perfect one – so good and true – I am ever faithful to you, despite my seeming infidelity! I always think of you –                    dream of you – during the long hours of the day, and in the night-watches! O Edmond, I am always yours!’ Such words as these, intermingled with sobs, and streaming                tears, and dishevelled hair, testified to an intensity of feeling in his wife which Lord Uplandtowers had not dreamed of her possessing. (CSS: 269)


Determined to cure Barbara’s necrophiliac adoration of her former husband, Uplandtowers devises the stratagem of having the statue secretly altered so it resembles as nearly as possible Edmond after the accident. The first time she sees it Barbara faints in horror but does not renounce her love for Edmond. So Uplandtowers forces her to look at the statue every night until he has tortured and terrified her into loving him and not Edmond. She bears him eleven children in nine years, of whom only one – a girl – survives, and dies ‘completely worn out in mind and body’.


In its review of A Group of Noble Dames the Pall Mall Gazette called ‘Barbara of the House of Grebe’ ‘a hideous and hateful fantasy’. T. S. Eliot found ‘a world of pure Evil’ in the
story, and thought it was written ‘solely to provide a satisfaction for some sordid emotion’ in Hardy (After Strange Gods, 1934, 58). There is no gainsaying the gothic horror of the story. Equally, it is impossible to deny its artistic quality, and difficult not to conclude that Hardy – at least to some extent – is poking fun at the conventional melodramatic romance. In comparison with the long-winded ‘The First Countess of Wessex’, with its tortuous plot, ‘Barbara of the House of Grebe’ is a model of clear concise narrative, sustained interest and some clever characterisation. If Uplandtowers is a caricature of the cruel, arrogant aristocrat, he is never dull, and Hardy displays some subtle psychology in presenting him to us:


          His matured and cynical doggedness at the age of nineteen, when impulse mostly rules calculation, was remarkable, and might have owed its existence as much to his                succession to the earldom and its accompanying local honours in childhood, as to the family character; an elevation which jerked him into maturity, so to speak, without              his having known adolescence. He had only reached his twelfth year when his father, the fourth Earl, died, after a course of the Bath waters. (CSS: 247)



‘We’ll see,’ Uplandtowers says impassively when a friend tells him that Barara’s affections are directed elsewhere, and indeed we do see him getting his way, with patience, ruthlessness and cunning. Yet Hardy makes him human. When the statue of Edmond arrives at Knollingwood Hall, Barbara tells him that she will put it ‘anywhere, so that it will not annoy you.’ ‘Oh it won’t annoy me,’ says Uplandtowers. He clearly is annoyed, but he doesn’t forbid her from keeping it, for that would be to show that he cared. He is not only annoyed that Barbara is once again attracted to the memory of Edmond as he was; he is motivated as much by jealousy of him as by anger with Barbara. Her less than total commitment to the absent Edmond is likewise human. She is grateful to her father for arranging for Edmond to go off on an educational tour of the Continent –
Yet she sighed sometimes – her husband no longer being in evidence to fortify her in her


          choice of him – and timidly dreaded what mortifications might be in store for her by reason of this mésalliance ...
          Edmond’s letters were as affectionate as ever; even more affectionate, after a while, than hers were to him. Barbara observed this growing coolness in herself; and like a            good and honest lady was horrified and grieved, since her only wish was to act faithfully and uprightly. (CSS: 254-5)


Her shifts in feeling between Edmond and Uplandowers are credibly presented. At length she is put to the final test when she begs Uplandtowers to remove the disfigured statue of Edmond from its ghostly shrine in her boudoir. Uplandtowers refuses, telling her to look again.


          In short, he allowed the doors to remain unclosed at the foot of the bed, and the wax-tapers burning; and such was the strange fascination of the grisly exhibition that a              morbid curiosity took possession of the Countess as she lay, and, at his repeated request, she did again look out from the coverlet, shuddered, hid her eyes, and looked              again, all the while begging him to take it away, or it would drive her out of her senses ... . (CSS: 273)


And so he wins her round: ‘this fictitious love wrung from her by terror took on, through mere habit of enactment, a certain quality of reality ... the cure became so permanent as to be itself a new disease.’ (CSS: 274) She is the classic Hardy female victim, decent and principled, but ruled by her emotions. There is an unnerving ring of truth in the outcome of the story. Because of what Hardy calls her ‘natural elasticity’ it is inevitable that Uplandtowers eventually gains complete ascendancy over her.


The shocks that Hardy administers in his short stories remove the tensions and contradictions inherent in the Martha Brown syndrome. Whether it is the shock of the executions
in ‘The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion’ or ‘The Withered Arm’, or the shock of Uplandtowers’s horrific treatment of Barbara, it brings expiation. Hardy need not have apologised in the 1896 preface to Wessex Tales for the presence of two stories of hangmen and one of a military execution in the collection. He was right when he said in his retort to the Pall Mall Gazette’s criticism of ‘Barbara of the House of Grebe’ that ‘A good horror story has its place in art’ (Thomas Hardy’s Public Voice, ed. Michael Millgate, 2001, 111).

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