I didn't particularly enjoy most of the novels I read during high school. All Quiet on the Western Front, for example, grossed me out and put me off war novels for years. I remember liking Scarlet Letter and To Kill a Mockingbird, but the fact that they were short probably had something to do with it. (Short stories held my interest the most.) I was an excellent student but didn't have a good appreciation for literature then. The read-three-chapters-and-answer-these-questions format didn't suit me. Also, I didn't take a single English lit course in college since my schedule didn't allow much time for electives. I left with a degree in French, but it meant that my education in my native language's classic novels was sorely neglected.
For some odd reason -- maybe because its quiet, rural setting appealed to me during the hectic holiday season -- I recently got the urge to read a Thomas Hardy novel. On our route back home, I picked up The Return of the Native at Half Price Books, began reading it on New Year's Day, and finished it tonight. It won't be my last. I found the story beautifully written and well-characterized; serious and tragic, yet romantic and gently humorous in places; and wordy and descriptive without being dense. It was also a brilliant portrait of social mores in rural Victorian England. (The characters have servants, but they're nearly invisible.) Thanks to PaperbackSwap, I have copies of Jude the Obscure and Tess of the D'Urbervilles on their way to me, as well as some other classics I haven't yet read but always meant to (The Moonstone, The House of Mirth). I'm avoiding detailed plot summaries, although I can guess the ending of some of them.
Right from the beginning (I'm getting back to the usual subject for this blog), it struck me as amusing how the novel's style broke so many of the rules to which historical novelists today are told to adhere. Namely:
- We begin not with an attention-grabbing moment, but with a four-page description of the bucolic wildness of Egdon Heath.
- Hardy sometimes tells rather than shows.
- He interrupts the storyline with lengthy historical digressions that explain concepts relating to the land and its inhabitants. Some might call them infodumps. I call them informative.
- It more than dwells on descriptive minutiae; it positively revels in them. If you ever wanted to know what it's like to cut furze for a living, or learn what furze is for that matter, this is a great place to start.
- There's some fairly obvious foreshadowing.
- There are many instances of passive voice, as well as some footnotes. I especially enjoyed the one where he apologized for changing the ending to suit public tastes.
Times change, and literature changes with them; we all know this, and that's not my point. However, despite all of the aforementioned issues (many of which are hallmarks of the Victorian novel, after all), the writing never bogs down. And despite the wordy, leisurely style, I never found it repetitive, and all of the asides, interruptions, and classical references served to enhance the plotline and characterizations. It worked for me, and I'd gladly read another like it.