Thomas Hardy Short Stories, abridged by Isobel Creed

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Thomas Hardy Short Stories, abridged by Isobel Creed (2013).  Prod. Gill Waters.  Perf. Richard Mitchley.  BBC Radio 4 Extra, 26-30 January 2015.  BBCiPlayer to 2 March 2015


Set in rural Wessex in the late nineteenth century, this sequence of five stories recreated a world of traditional moralities, where women were expected to get married, and men spent their time sowing their wild oats before “settling down” to the realities of married life.  Patriarchal authority was accepted without question: any young girl had to follow her father’s bidding, even if that meant condemning herself to a life of unhappiness.


By comparison with Hardy’s better-known (and more mature) novels, these short stories were quite surprisingly comic in tone.  I especially enjoyed “Tony Kytes, the Arch-Deceiver,” a complicated tale of a rural worker who finds himself incapable of saying no to female partners, and ends up promising marriage to three of them simultaneously.  He is faced with the unenviable task of concealing one, or perhaps two partners, from the others, with only his cart as a means to do so. 


“The History of the Hardcomes” is a comic morality-tale about two men who decide to marry one another’s partners, even though the alliances are manifestly unsuitable.  In their forthcoming lives, they experience continual unhappiness until one couple goes off and manages to lose themselves, finding satisfaction in the process.  The about-to-be-married couple in “Andrey Satchel and the Parson and Clerk” are even more unfortunate, as they are locked up for an entire night, just before their wedding ceremony, while the parson goes off and enjoys himself.  In the final tale, “An Incident in the Life of Georgy Crookhill,” the eponymous central character exchanges clothes with a n’er-do-well, and finds himself mistaken for a deserter.


Despite the lightness of tone, the tales raise some of the themes that form the cornerstone of Hardy’s later novels.  The world the characters inhabit is an indifferent one, where all human beings are subject to chance.  Although claiming to control their lives, they are in fact powerless to resist Fate; the only course of action they can pursue is to try and make the best of bad situations.  This is especially significant in a rural world where bad weather can ruin people’s livelihoods.


More significantly, Hardy’s stories suggest the impossibility of individuals truly knowing the people around them.  Even though they might live together in a community for many years, they cannot truly explain the motives behind someone’s behavior.  The only way to survive is for everyone to learn to co-exist together, while accepting the fact that sometimes people will act unpredictably.


Richard Mitchley thoroughly enjoyed reading these tales, employing a variety of voices to try and communicate the teeming world of rural Wessex.  Definitely worth listening to more than once.