Thursday, 11 July 2013

The Curse of Casterbridge

On the way to the fayre

I enjoy a good radio drama, and it so happens that Radio 4 Extra offers a veritable feast of classics, novelties, obscurities, and generally good stuff. There's always a dramatisation of a classic novel to be heard, and this week I've been immersed in The Mayor Casterbridge.

This is of course one of those Thomas Hardy Wessex novels that pits a flawed man against fate and shows exactly how tragic an apparently ordinary life can be. The eponymous mayor, Michael Henchard. When he's young, drunk, and impecunious he sells his wife to sailor at a fayre. His wife, Susan, is willing to go because Henchard is a bad-tempered, self-pitying pain in the arse. She takes their infant daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, with her. Such wife-selling was not unheard of in Hardy's youth.

When Henchard sobers up he is stricken by remorse and resolves never to touch drink for twenty-one years - his age at the time of his 'crime'. He journeys to Casterbridge (Dorchester), earns a reputation as a sober, hard-working man, and eventually rises to become a leading corn factor, magistrate, and mayor. Enter Susan and Elizabeth-Jane, who arrive in Casterbridge searching for news of the sailor - who has apparently been lost at sea. Enter also Donald Farfrae, a young Scot set on emigration who has modern ideas about agriculture and who, having offered Henchard some free advice, is offered a job as his business manager.

Rather than summarise the novel, let's just say that complications ensue when Henchard is confronted by his wife and daughter, and the latter becomes enamoured of Farfrae. Henchard becomes jealous of Fafrae for no good reason, and his resentment leads to disaster. This path of destruction is marked by two examples of Henchard's drawing on supernatural forces (so he thinks) to thwart his rival.

The first instance is straightforward enough. Hoping to beat Farfrae by outmanoeuvring him in business, Henchard hatches a scheme that will only work if there's a bad harvest. To find out what the August weather will be like he visits Mr Fall,  'a man of curious repute as a forecaster or weather-prophet' (Ch. 26). This cunning-man is obviously held in awe by ordinary country folk. Henchard is afraid to step across his threshold despite being invited in for a meal. But, for a price, Fall offers Henchard information - the last fortnight in August will see terrible weather, and the harvest will be ruined.

Hardy's description of the prophecy is great fun and has the smack of authenticity, as well as poetry:
"I've worked it out already, and you can know at once." (The fact was that five farmers had already been there on the same errand from different parts of the country.) "By the sun, moon, and stars, by the clouds, the winds, the trees, and grass, the candle-flame and swallows, the smell of the herbs; likewise by the cats' eyes, the ravens, the leeches, the spiders, and the dungmixen, the last fortnight in August will be--rain and tempest." 
"You are not certain, of course?" 
"As one can be in a world where all's unsure. 'Twill be more like living in Revelations this autumn than in England. Shall I sketch it out for 'ee in a scheme?"
Henchard duly buys up all the wheat he can manage, even going deep into debt with the bank so he can corner the market and so ruin Farfrae, his only major rival. But as the summer draws on the weather remains fine, and by mid-August Henchard is so badly off he has to sell his wheat at a loss to Farfrae. Then, in late August, the prophet is proved right - the heavens open, tempests blow, and the harvest is all but ruined. Henchard is bankrupted.

Henchard ends up living in the poor quarter of the town while Farfrae moves into his old home. Twenty-one years have passed and the former mayor is now free of his vow of abstinence. He gets drunk on Sunday and demands that a local 'quire' of musicians at the tavern play something for him. He names the 109th Psalm. The band are understandably reluctant to do so until Henchard threatens violence. It is essentially a curse.

"His seed shall orphans be, his wife
A widow plunged in grief;
His vagrant children beg their bread
Where none can give relief. 
His ill-got riches shall be made
To usurers a prey;
The fruit of all his toil shall be
By strangers borne away. 
None shall be found that to his wants
Their mercy will extend,
Or to his helpless orphan seed
The least assistance lend. 
A swift destruction soon shall seize
On his unhappy race;
And the next age his hated name
Shall utterly deface."

Only when the quire have sung the psalm does Henchard reveal that Farfrae is its target. 
While they paused, Lucetta and Farfrae passed again, this time homeward, it being their custom to take, like others, a short walk out on the highway and back, between church and tea-time. "There's the man we've been singing about," said Henchard. 
The players and singers turned their heads and saw his meaning. "Heaven forbid!" said the bass-player. 
"'Tis the man," repeated Henchard doggedly.
Being ignorant of things biblical I had no idea there were imprecatory psalms before I read Hardy. Theologians may claim that such psalms 'reflect the Psalmist's (David’s) awareness of God’s justice', but it seems that ordinary folk saw things in simpler terms. They often regarded them as one might any other spell or incantation. This is made clear in the tavern scene, when a member of the quire explains that their singing of the 109th was once deplored by a clergyman even when it was directed against thieves.

In the context of the novel, Henchard's reliance on what amounts to magic obviously points up his background - he is a common countryman, steeped in rural folklore, and often feels keenly his lack of formal education. Indeed, Farfrae's status as a learned gentleman is one of the things Henchard holds against him. 

Needless to say the psalm-curse misfires too. But I won't include any more spoilers. Suffice to say, in Hardy, things seldom end well for passionate men or women. 

Anyway, let's have some Vivaldi.


Aonghus Fallon said...

I remember me and my fellow pupils taking turns to read this book out loud in class (as well as Alan Bates in the TV series). It was interesting to see how the character struck a chord with my classmates, given that this was a rural area. Clearly Hardy knew what he was talking about!

valdemar said...

Yes, I love the authentic sense of the 'old ways' surviving. It's a pity that nowadays a West Country accent - one of the best, for my money - is automatically associated with yokel comedy or The Archers and this can undercut dramatisations.