By: Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) Amidst the fireworks and celebrations of Guy Fawkes Night, a covered wagon winds its way along the dark country heath land. Hidden at the back is a young woman who is running away from a thwarted marriage ceremony with the local innkeeper.
The driver of the wagon, a young herdsman, is secretly in love with her but is so devoted that he vows to help her reunite with her useless lover.
The opening scenes of Thomas Hardy’s sixth novel The Return of the Native, form the backdrop to this story of a profoundly flawed woman and the men who fall in love with her.
The book itself had a controversial debut, something which greeted many of Hardy’s novels at that time. It first appeared in serial form in 1878 in the Belgravia magazine, which was notorious for its risqué and sensational content. The radical themes explored by Hardy in the novel prevented many publishers from daring to accept it.
However, today it is considered one of the finest Victorian novels and one that marks a great shift in the moral universe of the time. Set in the famous, fictional Hardy country Wessex, The Return of the Native also takes place here in this imaginary county of his own creation.
This novel’s action is focused in Egdon Heath in Wessex, and occurs across the time frame of exactly one year and one day. Probably for the first time in English literary history, a book was written that takes a frank and objective look at concepts like illicit physical and romantic relationships, the conflict between human impulse and societal restraint and the tragedy that awaits those who fly in the face of convention.
For Hardy, these were enduring themes that he explored time and again, despite the moral outrage that greeted most of his novels. Unforgettable characters like Diggory Venn, the reddleman who rescues his beloved Thomasin Yeobright from a failed elopement, the haughty black haired beauty Eustacia Vye, the bitter and superstitious Susan Nunsuch and many more make this a truly panoramic novel.
The novel is also remarkable for its deep roots in country customs, folklore and legends which give it a matchless feel of the atmosphere and authenticity. Hardy’s scrupulous plotting, his compassion and humanity, his own experiences of returning to his native Brockhampton after facing the anger of the moral brigade in London all combine to make this book a most valuable experience.