On the Western Circuit by Thomas Hardy, 1894

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by Thomas Hardy, 1894

"On the Western Circuit," which is dated autumn 1891, was collected in Thomas Hardy's 1894 volume of short stories Life's Little Ironies. In Hardy's career it thus comes after the novels The Woodlanders, which was completed and published in February 1887, and Tess of the d'Urbervilles, completed in October 1890 and published in 1891. It comes just before Jude the Obscure, conceived, according to Hardy himself, from 1887 to 1890, written from 1893 to 1894, and published in 1895. With each of these works it shares the same theme of marriage and the alliance, or misalliance, of temperaments and education. There are also particular points of resemblance. Like Raye in "On the Western Circuit," Fitzpiers in The Woodlanders is a professional man with metropolitan interests who is caught between a country girl, although Grace is better educated than Anna, and a more sophisticated woman. Angel Clare in Tess is also allied to a comparatively simple country girl, and like Raye he finds on his wedding day that an important fact about their relationship has been kept from him. Jude, in the novel named for him, is torn between two women, Sue and Arabella, of very different temperaments and backgrounds, and he is trapped by deceit into marriage with Arabella. Associated issues of class, sex, and respectability are likewise important in each work, and pregnancy outside wedlock is a significant feature in all except The Woodlanders.

These connections indicate certain underlying preoccupations in Hardy's work of the late 1880s and early 1890s. They spring out of tensions in his own life and are perhaps related to difficulties he experienced in his own marriage to his first wife, Emma. More emphatically, however, they reveal him as a writer increasingly critical of the contradictions and hypocrisy rife in nineteenth-century England, dissatisfied with the smug ethics of its conventional Christianity, and more acutely aware of the woman's point of view in a male-oriented society. Inhibited by the conventions of Victorian publishing from outspokenness, especially in sexual matters, he is, nonetheless, impatient with its restraints. As Hardy asserted in his 1890 essay "Candour in English Fiction," "Life being a physiological fact, its honest portrayal must be largely concerned with, for one thing, the relation of the sexes, and the substitution for such catastrophes as favour the false colouring best expressed by the regulation finish that 'they married and were happy ever after,' of catastrophes based upon sexual relations as it is."

It is appropriate to set "On the Western Circuit" in this context, but the story must also be recognized as a work meant to entertain. Although it arises out of Hardy's preoccupations, it is less earnest, less mordant in its expression than are his contemporaneous novels. Anna's fate is not tragic, as Tess d'Urberville's is, and though her fate is evidence, like that of Grace Melbury's, of Hardy's determination to have done with the regulation happy ending, it is one to be contemplated ruefully, not despairingly. Even for the cheated husband the situation is one to be accepted, at the worst "with dreary resignation," the last words of the tale. And it is suitably ironic that the footloose seducer, a clever lawyer, should get his comeuppance from a simple country girl.

Of course, that is not quite how the story is told, nor is it quite how it looks from either Raye's or Harnham's point of view. Because the situation is triangular, the possibilities of interpretation are threefold. (They are fourfold if the narrator's tacit complicity with the reader is also taken into account.) The story is simple enough. Anna, an illiterate girl fresh from the country who is working as a maid to a sympathetic mistress in the cathedral town of Melchester, is picked up by a smart Londoner, Charles Bradford Raye, on one of his visits on the western legal circuit. She is drawn into a correspondence with him that is actually written on her behalf by the lady she works for, Edith Harnham. Through this vicarious contact Harnham becomes sentimentally involved, while Anna, meeting her lover from time to time, becomes pregnant. Raye is so impressed by the elegance of her letters that he decides to marry her, only to discover too late that the style is the mistress's, not the maid's.

Thus far the story is one of contrast between physical and spiritual courtship. It is a contrast imaginatively introduced by the vividly impressionistic opening of the story, which plays off the darkly glimpsed Melchester cathedral, "the most homogeneous pile of mediaeval architecture in England" (recognizably based on Salisbury), against the Dickensian vulgarity, but also vitality, of a nearby fair. It is there that the attraction of Anna's fresh country beauty, enhanced in its sexual appeal by her "crimson skirt, dark jacket, brown hat and brown gloves," is first felt by Raye. This draws him into flirting with her, as any Victorian middle-class young man might do, without any thought of her as a social equal and potential marriage partner. Her very spontaneity ("She was absolutely unconscious of everything save the act of riding") is a powerful polar opposite to his "vague latter-day glooms and popular melancholies." A physical "circuit" is set up between them that proves more potent for both as the story develops. But Anna is also instinctively aware that her social inferiority is a serious barrier and that the one possibility of overcoming it is denied her by her lack of education. It is thus that her mistress's help is essential, leading to the deception that persuades Raye that the sexual satisfaction he has had, and which has made the girl pregnant, may be matched by the social accomplishments society expects in a professional man's wife. And so he makes a proposal of marriage.

The situation Hardy has created is, however, more complex than this. An important detail in the original fairground meeting is that the mistress, having gone in search of the maid, finds her in Raye's company, is secretly attracted to him, and by accident has her hand caressed by him while he thinks that he is seducing Anna. This physical contact (one inevitably thinks of the significance of touch in "You Touched Me," a later tale by D. H. Lawrence) remains as an undercurrent to the mistress's vicariously spiritual affair with Raye as conducted through the correspondence. It also has a slightly sinister reinforcement from the circumstances of her own marriage to an older man, a loveless and childless marriage of convenience that has clearly left her physically unfulfilled. These circumstances also provide the artistic justification for what might otherwise be a somewhat melodramatic climax to their indirect relationship. When Raye discovers that Edith Harnham is the author of the letters, he demands a kiss on the cheek only if all was "pure invention" but otherwise on the lips. And on the lips it is.

For Edith Harnham the outcome is tragic. She feels that she has "ruined" Raye, for she "would not deal treacherously" toward Anna. There is the unspoken implication that she has ruined herself by lacking the courage to break out of a loveless marriage. Raye's ruin, however, is more operatic than real, expressed in the over-blown simile "She [Anna] did not know that before his eyes he beheld as it were a galley, in which he, the fastidious urban, was chained to work for the remainder of his life, with her, the unlettered peasant, chained to his side." Nevertheless, he is not angry. He can speak to her "gently," and he can even acknowledge that "it serves me right." And for Anna things are not as bad as they might be, for at the end of the story she is not a ruined maid but a married woman.

Readers can savor the irony of physical and spiritual mismatchings, of illusions shattered, and of the contrast between an ending of prose and a beginning of vividly contrasted poetry. But it may also be felt that, of the two marriages of convenience, the one between a London sophisticate and a Wessex innocent is less stale than the one between a middle-class old man and a middle-class young woman. The astringency of the ending is not incompatible with a degree of comic laughter.

—R. P. Draper

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