When you read a story by Thomas Hardy, whether it be one of his novels, or short stories, you know that it’s not going to have you rolling in the aisles. There is a tragic sensibility that permeates the bulk of Hardy’s work, and it can get more than a little grim at times. Whereas most people who are familiar with his writing are better acquainted with his novels, he was also an excellent writer of short stories, including the six gathered together in this volume – Thomas Hardy’s Tales from Wessex – which was published in 1973, a good eighty or ninety years after they first appeared before the reading public. The BBC dramatized these stories for television in that same year, and it was in watching one of these – The Withered Arm – that I first became acquainted with the supernatural as portrayed on the small screen.
The Withered Arm is a tale of spurned love, jealousy, and unwitting supernatural vengeance, set some years before Hardy’s birth in the early part of the nineteenth century. This was a time when folk belief in witchcraft and sorcery persisted in rural areas, despite it having long since been jettisoned by the educated classes, and when the vogue for capital punishment was at its peak, with the ‘Bloody Code’ listing some 220 crimes for which the death penalty might be imposed. Marriage to an eligible yeoman farmer would have been something to aspire to for the majority of women at the time, although such men would not infrequently get a woman with child, and then abandon her to her fate, ruining her reputation on account of the bastard that he had sired upon her. Such a woman is Rhoda Brook, a milkmaid of around thirty years of age, whose son one day encounters upon the highway Farmer Brook, a prosperous yeoman farmer some years older than she, accompanied by his pretty new wife – a woman many years the junior of either.
From these ingredients, Hardy weaves a haunting tale featuring a visitation by a succubus (which he incorrectly describes as an ‘incubus’), a supernatural injury, divination with the assistance of a cunning man on Egdon Heath, and a macabre remedy for the afflicted arm. This is as close as the author gets to penning a ghost story, and it possesses the trademark tragic and ironic twist that characterises the other five of his tales that the BBC chose for adaptation back in the early seventies. Of the remaining five, Barbara of the House of Grebe, set in the 1780s, is pure Gothic, and whilst lacking any element of the supernatural, may rightly be adjudged to be a horror story. The others – Fellow-Townsmen, A Tragedy of Two Ambitions, An Imaginative Woman, and The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion – are all fine works of thwarted love and ambition, with the protagonists’ fates being constrained by the social mores of their time, that prevent them from finding the fulfilment which would otherwise have been possible. All in all, a fine collection of stories, albeit not an uplifting one.
Whereas Thomas Hardy’s Tales from Wessex has long been out of print, seemingly having been published as a tie-in for the BBC series, five of the stories, together with more, are currently available in The Distracted Preacher and Other Tales.