Hardy, Woolf, and The Mayor of Casterbridge

April 17: On this day in 1885, Thomas Hardy noted in his diary, “Wrote the last page of The Mayor of Casterbridge, begun at least a year ago.” The novel’s closing pages are typically poignant and pessimistic: the former Mayor, now a humiliated outcast, pencils his will asking to be buried in unconsecrated ground, “& that no flours be planted on my grave & that no man remember me”; the Mayor’s daughter, although now “forced to class herself among the fortunate,” reflects upon the life-lesson “that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.”

In her diary Virginia Woolf tells the amusing story of going to see Hardy in 1926, just eighteen months before his death. She had just finished a draft of To the Lighthouse, one of those novels that would speak for modernism as much as Hardy’s “Wessex” novels spoke for tradition and traditional storytelling. She took The Mayor of Casterbridge with her on the train, found she could not put it down and, “beset with desire to hear him say something about his books,” told Hardy so. He was cheerful, welcoming, and animated, but “delivered of all his work [and] not interested much in his novels or in anybody’s novels.” Especially ones written by those who had given up on the old ways:

 “They’ve changed everything now,” he said. “We used to think there was a beginning and a middle and an end. We believed in the Aristotelian theory. Now one of those stories came to an end with a woman going out of the room.” He chuckled.

Though less than the torch-passing it might have been, their visit did not go unmarked: as a parting gift, Hardy presented a copy of his story collection, Life’s Little Ironies, inscribed to “Virginia Wolff.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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