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There is a Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) for almost any critical history of the English novel that you care to mention: Hardy the last Victorian or the proto-modernist, the rural idyllist or the social-problem novelist, bearer of the last vestiges of the folk-tale or pioneer of the feminist heroine and the working-class hero. Whether you are looking for a historical novel or a Bildungsroman, a tragedy or a social satire, there is at least one among Hardy's fourteen novels that can be pressed into service. At the beginning of his career in the early 1870s, when his first novels were published anonymously in accordance with a common convention of the time, reviewers were apt to compare him, whether in admiration or by way of reproof for a perceived excess of indebtedness, to George Eliot: this was particularly true of his first major success, Far from the Madding Crowd (1874). By the end of his time as a writer of fiction, his challenging last novels were seen by some of his contemporaries as fifth columnists within the solid ranks of English literature, subversively opening the way for the invasive forces of French naturalism, Scandinavian 'Ibscenity', or other foreign influences, most notably the case with Jude the Obscure (1895). Despite the often unsympathetic reviews that dogged his career, Hardy's reputation, both with the general reading public and with his successors, seems to have been less subject to vicissitudes than some. His work remains continuously in print in multiple editions, and novelists with as little in common as Marcel Proust and D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and John Fowles, have found much in him to praise and from which to learn.
Central to all of the novels under discussion here is a story of love, courtship, and marriage. More particularly, for the central female character in each case, this central fable takes the form of an erotic or marital “double choice,” to use Franco Moretti's phrase; the woman is first attracted to the “right” partner, then distracted by one or more “wrong” partners before confirming - whether emotionally or formally - the “rightness” of the original choice. Also central to all three, though, is a perhaps less familiar story of class mobility and social allegiance, focused through the narrative structures of fluctuating economic fortunes, ownership of property, the accumulation of financial or social capital, trading, and inheritance. These two central points of concern are, of course, deeply interconnected, thematically and in narrative terms. The triangulated relationships of potential lovers represent marital choice as the primary mode of class transition for women; it is evident that, though Fancy, Bathsheba, and Grace have all received a good education, in each case it functions rather as a marital asset than as an alternative path for class mobility.
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