Monday, January 26, 2009

Hardy and Austen compared

Hardy and Austen: two takes on English society of the day

Robert L. Fielding

Two of our most well known, most beloved authors wrote mostly about the world they inhabited; Hardy - (2 June, 1840 – 11 January, 1928), Austen - (16 December 1775 – 18 July 1817). There the similarity ends: Hardy used much larger canvasses – Austen had a sharper focus – both wrote about characters from very different perspectives.

Hardy used his extensive knowledge of the rural life of his native Wessex, together with his inclination to use circumstances akin to those in Greek tragedy to weave his tales. Austen used her mastery of English, particularly her own use of free indirect speech to construct lives little different from her own cloistered life in one rural community in Southern England.

For Hardy, the rustic and the gentry rubbed shoulders and were both integral parts of his stories. For Austen, members of social classes from other than the one she focused on were merely incidental asides – tradesmen bringing goods to the house – with very little bearing on events.

Hardy drew upon characters from all walks of life – from gentry farmers such as Boldwood (Far From the Madding Crowd), Melbury (The Woodlanders) through a mélange of rustics, to newly returned inhabitants (Clym Yeobright (Return of the Native) to outsiders such as Donald Farfrae (The Mayor of Casterbridge) and then he intertwined their lives as perhaps no other English writer ever has. Adding to this pot pourri , Hardy used ingredients from earlier literary traditions to show how lives were altered, improved, or utterly destroyed by the hand of the gods, and what he called satires of circumstance in his poetry.

Austen sharpened her focus and dwelt upon mental machinations to sketch the self-delusion of Emma Woodhouse (Emma), the contrast offered by the upright dealings of stalwarts like Mr. Knightly (Emma) and the workings of the minds of mothers intent on landing well-to-do husbands for her daughters – Mrs. Bennet (Pride and Prejudice).

The outcomes of stories by the two, perhaps more than any other aspect of their writing display two differing world views: Hardy used tragedy and suffering to highlight the dilemmas of his protagonists, from the hapless and tormented Tess Durbeyfield (Tess of the D’urbervilles) and her somewhat pure-minded would be suitor, Angel Clare, to the archetypal tragi-hero, Michael Henchard (Mayor of Casterbridge), and showed the reader his own view of lives that were all too often nasty, brutish and short.

Since Austen concentrated her literary efforts into re-educating her wayward heroines, the outcomes were often far more cheerful and offered the reader the fruits of lessons learned by being too headstrong, or too opinionated, usually both.

Austen taught, Hardy painted and depicted. The influences at work in Austen were mental more than societal. Hardy used both but dipped his pen into the workings of somewhat malevolent and baleful gods, and woeful circumstance, to try the patience of his protagonists. I once asked my English Lit teacher at school, “Miss, did Hardy write any happy books?” That question never arose after reading Austen.
Robert L. Fielding