Wednesday 4 September 2013

Review: Life's Little Ironies, Thomas Hardy (1894, revised 1927)

This collection of short stories is in some ways a marked contrast from the last I reviewed (by Dumas). Hardy’s tales are quiet, understated and unmistakably English – yet overall, perhaps, even more haunting. Here heads don’t roll but tragedies are just part of everyday life, shared with a sigh between strangers in a carrier’s cart. A woman falls in love with a man she will never meet, a son destroys his mother’s last chance of happiness, two brothers watch and do nothing as their drunken father drowns in front of them.

William Strang's 1893 portrait of Thomas Hardy
For general readers: This collection is Hardy in a nutshell – sensitive to place and people, and able to convey both with a wonderful brevity. I found it best to take Life’s Little Ironies in small doses and the volume is open to charges of gloominess. But there is humour here too, be this the farcical predicament of a cheat who has all three of his lovers hiding in his cart at once, or the darker humour suggested by the collection’s title. Hardy’s stories are memorable. They read like secular parables, with unclear morals – instantly familiar, but far from comfortable. There’s true realism here too. Hardy’s characters are like us, despite their deep affinity with a way of life which has all but passed away. They have sex, they fantasise over photographs, they get carried away dancing at parties and then they marry the wrong people and regret it.

For students: I’d recommend this volume to students of creative writing as much as those working on nineteenth-century literature. Hardy brims with material which makes good stories – you have the feeling he’d be great at workshop exercises – and he uses a range of narrative techniques in the volume, including a framing device similar to that of Dickens’s use of Mrs Lirriper. For those working on canonical Hardy, ‘An Imaginative Woman’ (1893) is probably the best individual story to read for comparison with heroines such as Sue Bridehead (in Jude the Obscure (1895)) and Eustacia Vye (in The Return of the Native (1878)). The heroine of this story also recalls Henrik Ibsen’s Nora (from A Doll’s House (1879)) and Hedda Gabler (1890). Meanwhile both this and other stories in the volume touch on Hardy's interest in heredity and cousinship discussed in an earlier blog post.

Which lesser known work of nineteenth-century should I review next? Let me know below or on Twitter (@SVictorianist) and don't forget to LIKE the Secret Victorianist on Facebook.

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