Laugh along with the common people….
Not content with torturing heroines and inflicting all manner of doom upon the good folk of Wessex, Thomas Hardy is back on the naughty step again. This time, it’s for his monumental condescension towards rural labourers and put bluntly, the poor.
I understand and even commiserate with Hardy’s distress at the loss of traditional rural practices. I mean, looking back from here with our mega-dairies, GM, intensive farming, – what I like to call the horsemeat burger approach to food production – he was right to worry! He writes lovingly about the landscape; the soft wooded valleys and lush green pastures of the south west, and his descriptions of traditional rural practices and customs are so beautiful and imbued with pathos as to be elegiac. Then he ruins it by calling the rural folk elves.
He frequently describes rural folk as being elfish or even animal-like, especially as the light begins to fade, as though twilight shifts their corporeality to something more ethereal. He often talks about their superstitions and writes of them as having a child-like simplicity. The connection to the land through their labour is in danger of reducing them somehow, making them less than human, like descendants of fairy folk, and animalistic. At one point, he says
A field-man is a personality afield; a field-woman is a portion of the field; she has somehow lost her own margin, inbibed the essence of her surrounding, and assimilated herself with it.
In this instance, a field-woman doesn’t even enjoy the privilege of being akin to magical being, or animal, but is the actual land.
Hardy describes the drunken revellers returning from the post-market-day dance like a bacchanalian parade complete with a full compliment of satyrs. Maybe Hardy was unwitting in his condescension – it may have been the direct opposite of his intention, but his whimsical descriptions of ordinary rural people reduce them to simpletons entrenched in superstition and incapable of rational thought.