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In his new book, Simon Gatrell, the distinguished editor of Hardy’s fiction, provides nine related discussions of aspects of Hardy’s works, from the significant recurrence of dancing to the often overlooked connections between Hardy’s carefully localized stories and the wider world of Empire and history. Most of the commentaries focus on single novels, Under the Greenwood Tree, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess, and Jude, although one chapter deals with three works, The Trumpet-Major, A Laodicean, and Two on a Tower. Fully half of the book discusses Mayor, Tess, and Jude. Gatrell does not attempt to unify the several commentaries, some of which include versions of material published elsewhere, by explicitly pursuing a single thesis. The chapters are linked, however, by the perspective of the knowledgeable editor that Gatrell brings regularly to bear on the details of Hardy’s writing. Gatrell has mastered the surviving pre-publication versions of Hardy’s tales, as well as the numerous published versions. He puts his knowledge to work persuasively and engagingly by drawing contrasts between the version of a tale that we normally read and its sometimes surprisingly different precursors. The readings suggest that Gatrell has, in certain respects, come to know Hardy’s writings and their origins as well as any reader, including Thomas Hardy, could. Concerning Under the Greenwood Tree, for example, he argues convincingly that Hardy misunderstood his own earlier intentions when he reread the novel decades later and commented on it.
The issue of Hardy’s realism comes to the fore in Gatrell’s commentaries, particularly the ways in which Hardy moves beyond the expectations of his audience. Although the view is more implicitly than [End Page 364] explicitly expressed, Gatrell sees Hardy developing a literary form that is not Victorian but modern. Gatrell’s emphasis on the fluctuating, antithetical perspectives in Hardy’s writing brings out its ambivalence, its disruptive character, and its modernity. Hardy’s push forward and outward in his fiction to the “wider world” is the subject of the concluding chapter, in which Gatrell points to anticipations in Hardy’s fiction of elements that are more evident in The Dynasts. He thereby establishes a basis for comparing Hardy with novelists such as Meredith, Gissing, and Conrad, whose more obvious concern with the world outside England usually invites a contrast with Hardy. The least satisfying discussion is the comparatively brief one concerning dance. Gatrell presents a helpful cluster of related scenes and events having to do with dance, but his interpretations of them are based on theoretical speculations and generalizations about dancing that require more defense than he provides.
Although there are virtues in all these authoritative, humane commentaries, the book’s second half, beginning with the discussion of The Mayor, contains the most memorable, imaginative readings. Gatrell takes convincing, partial exception to the usual linking of Tess with Jude as gendered versions of a single set of concerns and argues instead that The Mayor, not Jude, is closest in power to Tess among Hardy’s other novels. The book’s antepenultimate, and longest, chapter, “Angel Clare’s Story,” is a tour de force. As Beckett once said, “I don’t know what it is, having never seen anything like it before.” In this remarkable chapter, an example of fiction as literary criticism, Gatrell adopts the fictional first-person voice of Michael James, the putative real-life model for the central male character in Hardy’s Tess, in order to retell the story from James’s perspective. By having the fictional James write during WWI, Gatrell is able to attribute to him a thorough knowledge of all the major published versions of Tess through the Wessex Edition and the pre-publication materials that Hardy gave to the British Museum. The fictional situation allows Gatrell to introduce his own knowledge of changes in plot and wording that Hardy made over more than two decades of revising. At the same time, he achieves something extraordinary in the interpreting of a literary text...