Saturday, 30 June 2012

Wordsworthian echoes in Return of the Native

What struck me about the novel wasn't so much the plot as the themes and the possible sources of its characters. Several excellent websites have covered the symbolism of Egdon Heath, but I thought there's extra. Now we know Hardy was acquainted with Romantic poetry - he certainly heard of Keats, who wasn't  a major part of canon at the time. But it is curious that the novel deals a great deal with Darwinism as well as Wordsworth.

Wordsworth's Lucy poems are about a young girl brought up in Nature quite solitary and forlorn, loved by the speaker. Now I doubt she actually existed, but Hardy would have known about the Lucy poems. Eustacia is evidently quite Wordsworthian. Here's from Wordsworth:
She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:

A violet by a mossy stone.
Half hidden from the eye!
—Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!
Tow Path at Bougival by Camille Pissarro

Like Lucy, Eustacia dwells in nature, in the secluded heath, far away from civilisation and the delights of town. However Lucy seems to be at home with nature while Eustacia detests its dullness, having enjoyed townlife. It's possible Eustacia isn't meant to be a complete Lucy, or this aspect of her could even be an anti-Lucy, to point out that Wordsworth was naïve when it came to nature. But certainly Eustacia embodies many of Lucy's qualities. Like Lucy she lives in a secluded place, and is unpraised and disliked by the villagers. She is beautiful as a goddess, and what is more, she is the only striking beauty there "when only one is shining in the sky," apart from Thomasin, who isn't as beautiful. Hardy even tells the reader you might well wonder what such a queenly woman is doing in Egdon Heath.  Well, Eustacia was certainly known to the villagers as a witchlike creature, so you couldn't say she lived unknown exactly. But no one truly understood this girl while she lived, so you could argue her soul was unknown. In the end she dies.

Now take this from Wordsworth:
A SLUMBER did my spirit seal;
  I had no human fears:
She seem'd a thing that could not feel
  The touch of earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;         5
  She neither hears nor sees;
Roll'd round in earth's diurnal course
  With rocks, and stones, and trees.
As I said she is like an unearthly creature, and died amidst nature, drowning in a pool.

But to come back to Hardy. Eustacia represents a girl living in the midst of nature, but unlike her predecessor she is dissatisfied. Hardy was very much a Darwinist, and he may have thought that a secluded rural life  ill-equipped one for success in the Victorian rat-race. The fact Eustacia dies, and suffered before she died, as she struggles in her life, shows an individual ill at ease with its environment. She died because she was not fit to survive. Unlike her, Thomas survives, being contented living in the heath. She does find it dull and the weather gloomy, but she knows being countrified, she will never be able to live in a city. Thomasin is one who is well-adapted to her environment. And you can find Darwinism in his other novels - Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. Eustacia longs for the town and shuns the rest: she is evidently no true heath-dweller. There is also something disturbing in Thomasin's placidity: were she to go to the city she would not be able to adapt, which shows she can be fragile. Clym, too, suffers for his ideals. Originally a diamond-manager in Paris, he decides to teach in Egdon Heath. But his enterprise does not work and he turns blind. In Paris he was dissatisfied and unhappy. So he is yet another on the fringes of survival. He does survive, but as a preacher, not a schoolmaster as he wanted. Fate and his environment has prevented him from educating himself better. One could the the environment is Fate. There's something in that place which seems to curse anyone with education and ideals.
Arthur Hopkins' illustration of Thomasin Yeobright,  from Philip Allingham at the Victorian Web

We are lucky Hardy called Damon Wildeve the Rousseau of Egdon, because Rousseau advocated feeling over reason, which is what he does. He too is unsuccessful, giving up engineering for innkeeping, which is lower down the social scale. Engineering had become a middle-class profession and innkeeping was considered ungentlemanly. He doesn't do well at his new business however. The fact Hardy thought of Rousseau is interesting, because Rousseau believed children should be raised in nature far away from civilisation, and Wordsworth supported Rousseau's ideals. Hardy loved writing about rural life, but being a cynical Victorian, could not agree with the 18th century idea that seclusion in nature develops the individual - at least not the educated individual. It incapacitates them for higher and better things. I think it is not so much Wildeve as Clym who is the Rousseau. Clym is over-idealistic about teaching children who are not suited to his enlightened methods (think of Wittgenstein teaching in a primary school), and he loves nature more than Paris. He worships the heath. And he does worship Eustacia: he sees her as an ideal teacher in his school. It is an ideal of her he sees, as Wordsworth sees Lucy. He thinks she is suited for nature and Rousseauan things, seeing her as a beauty of the heath, like an untamed girl who must be reformed. Though Wordsworth didn't seem to want to reform Lucy. But perhaps I'm contradicting myself, because if you educated natives of the heath that is artificial surely?  But Eustacia follows her feelings rather than reason, and she is quite honest about her feelings, so you can argue she is natural.
Clym Yeobright

As for her goddesslike appearance she is comparable to Lamia or La Belle Dame Sans Merci and she is even compared to the Greek goddesses, a Sphinx and a Pagan, as if Hardy intended her to be great. Quite ironic as her desires are rather shallow. Lamia and LBDSM are not mentioned but their ancestors are probably similar to Hardy's. Lamia is a serpent transformed into a beautiful woman who allures a human man, and when her identity is discovered, turns back into a snake. LBDSM is a fairy who entices a knight in a language he doesn't understand but he thinks it means "I love thee." Clym thinks Eustacia agrees with his ideals, and Eustacia thinks he agrees with hers - leading to much misunderstanding. So she does come to him in false colours. And like Lamia it is she who makes the first move of introduction, in another shape: Lamia as a woman, Eustacia dressed as a boy.

Eustacia Vye
Which leads to another point. Wordsworth is all for natural, Greek myth and Hardy to some extent is for the supernatural, what with Eustacia's witchlike qualities and the way Egdon Heath seems to be almost alive.  Despite being a sceptic Hardy loved incorporating myths into his stories: he even wrote Gothic tales, one called The Withered Arm. Still, the story is full of Darwinism and emphasises good common sense, which sides with nature or should I say natural selection? I don't know what ideal Hardy wanted to bring out, but it is certain he did, or else the story would not be powerful despite its weakness. It also reminds me of one reviewer who said Hardy's ideas are good but the plot rather weak.

I travell’d among unknown men
  In lands beyond the sea;
Nor, England! did I know till then
  What love I bore to thee.
’Tis past, that melancholy dream!        45
  Nor will I quit thy shore
A second time, for still I seem
  To love thee more and more.
Among thy mountains did I feel
  The joy of my desire;        50
And she I cherish’d turn’d her wheel
  Beside an English fire.
Thy mornings show’d, thy nights conceal’d
  The bowers where Lucy play’d;
And thine too is the last green field        55
  That Lucy’s eyes survey’d.
This reminds me of Clym, who having been in Paris, misses England. Eustacia could be his ideal of his own Lucy - a wild rustic English girl.

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