Home > 19th Century, British Literature, Classics, Hardy Thomas, Short Stories > Love is an unceremonious thing

Love is an unceremonious thing

Life’s Little Ironies by Thomas Hardy (218 pages)

I wanted to discover Thomas Hardy and I chose to read Life’s Little Ironies because of the title. This reading is part of my list for Sarah’s Not a Rat’s Chance in Hell’s Challenge and is my choice for the “Investigate a canonical writer hitherto most shamefully overlooked” category. Unsurprisingly, reading Hardy in English was difficult for me. It’s a high level of language for the narration and characters speak a local dialect. It required a lot of concentration but I wasn’t that lost, being French probably helped a little.

The short-stories included in Life’s Little Ironies were written from 1888 to 1893 (check) and Hardy put his last hand on this short-story collection in 1912. He chose the tales he would gather and also determined the sequence. I know these tales have been dissected by armies of students and teachers in literature. What I’m going to write is based on nothing else than my perception of this work.

French literature is in the background. As pointed out in the foreword, An Imaginative Woman has something about Emma Bovary. Ella (Emma?) is married to an unsuitable husband and is carried away by her imagination. (“An impressionable palpitating creature Ella was”). A Tragedy of Two Ambitions made me think of Le Rouge et le Noir, because of the two young peasants not rich enough to go to university and using the church to make a career, losing their soul in the dark pool of their ambition. Thomas Hardy also refers to the symbolists, a current in French literature. I’m not familiar enough with short-stories written by Maupassant to find similarities.

In Life’s Little Ironies, all the tales have the same setting (Wessex villages and London) but the landscapes aren’t thoroughly described, just briefly painted to give the reader a quick image of the scenery or of the neighbourhood. Similar themes cross-over the stories: love, marriage, lust, ambition, greed, jealousy, selfishness.

Thomas Hardy doesn’t seem to have a definitive opinion about marriage. Love, lust and reason are equally bad motives to marry someone. He shows how a marriage can be miserable when the spouses have ill-matched tempers.

Marchmill considered his wife’s likes and inclinations somewhat silly; she considered his sordid and material.

Love is a boisterous child whose consequences are unplanned for:

They gazed at each other with smiles, and with that unmistakable expression which means so little at the moment, yet so often leads to passion, heart-ache, union, disunion, devotion, overpopulation, drudgery, discontent, resignation, despair.

Several tales depicts the power of imagination over sense and reason and the power of words. Poetry can give birth to tender feelings. Love can be fostered by well-crafted love letters or in the contrary or extinguished by poor “pen-and-ink work”.

Marriage isn’t a good way to climb the social ladder when the spouse coming from a lower social class is unable to adapt. Two women marry above them and they happen to be incapable to behave – and speak, ah the importance of accents in English – like ladies. As a consequence, their husbands’ careers are limited.

In several tales, marriage is forced upon someone. A groom is too drunk to be married. His bride asks that he be locked in the church until he sobers up because she fears he runs away. A selfish man presses a woman to marry him to ease his guilty conscience.

In the end, the best spouse seems to be someone who comes from the same social class and is best attuned in temper and vision of life.

For Victorian times, sex is incredibly present is all these stories. Hardy describes how rules no longer matter when physical attraction is involved. Music wreaks havoc on weak minds, liberates sexual energies and leads to whimsical decisions.

Sex out of marriage is everywhere. One woman absolutely needs to be married because she is so pregnant anyone can see. Two ones are left behind with baby girls. Women dream of having sex with other men than their husbands. It must have been shocking at the time. It is said so neatly that the reader doesn’t really pay attention at the moment, but thinking about it afterwards, it’s really obvious.

The situation of women is also well put forward. Conjugal sex can’t be avoided. Whether Ella thought of England or of her beloved poet when her husband imposes sexual intercourse on her isn’t indicated. Not that he is violent, he does enquire after a possible headache, he’s just sure of his good right and the idea that she should be in the mood too never crosses his mind. Woman always depend on a man, father, husband, son. Sophy can’t re-marry because her son doesn’t agree with her choice of a new husband. That she is miserable is of no importance to him. The only woman who had managed to respectably stand by herself is prompted to marry to protect her daughter’s prospects.

Hardy also lightly questions the notion of fatherhood. In the Fiddler of the Reels, Ned considers Carry as his child even if he isn’t her biological father. This idea of fathering on the basis of love and not of blood seems very modern to me. However, in An Imaginative Woman, Marchmill suspects his wife cheated on him, he starts loathing his own son.

Greed, jealousy and envy are also masterly depicted. Uncontrolled ambition is a bad master leading to disaster and lost of moral compass. Lives are lost because of improper pride and greed.

Clergymen aren’t really well treated in there. The Established Church is seen as a mean to climb the social ladder, the clergymen being more ambitious than pious. In another tale, the parson and his clerk’s passion is hunting. They are so carried away by hunting foxes that they forget to come back to the church to celebrate a wedding. This blood lust isn’t really what we expect from a clergyman, is it? 

Music and dancing play an important part in these villagers’ lives. Musicians have opposite roles. They play Christmas carols at the Squire’s mansion and holy tunes in the church. They also play “the devil’s tunes” at inns and weddings. In all cases, music has the power to elevate souls or lose them.

Thomas Hardy is such a subtle painter of human tempers. The irony is everywhere, in his use of the language and in the events of the tales, as the capital decision made by a character rarely gives the expected outcome and often ends up with the opposite situation to the one searched for. The language is artistically polished. Hardy can picture a scene, a character in a few words.

To the eye of a man viewing it from behind, the nut-brown hair was a wonder and a mystery. Under the black beaver hat, surmounted by its tuft of black feathers, the long locks braided and twisted and coiled like the rushes of a basket, composed a rare, if somewhat barbaric, example of ingenious art. One could understand such weavings and coilings being wrought to last intact for a year , or even a calendar month; but that they should be all demolished regularly at bedtime, after a single day of permanence, seemed a reckless waste of successful fabrication.

I really loved how Hardy politely mocks social conventions and denounces the hypocrisy of social rules and roles. He never judges the characters. There is no intention to teach a moral lesson. I find him quietly subversive and I love that.

I wonder if Maugham tried to imitate Hardy’s collection of tales in The Trembling of a Leaf, although it is acknowledged that Maupassant was his master. There’s a similarity in the work, the gathering of the tales, their themes. Both have a unity in place (Southern Seas / Southern England) and describe disappointing marriages and the difficulty to marry outside your class. They point out that marriages based on lust are failures but marriages based on reason are no better matches. The two books include stories about clergymen, adventurers, true love and lust driven fates.

To me, Hardy and Maugham depict the same vision of life: we are the result of our decisions. We don’t realise all the potential consequences of our choices when we make them, because our mind is weak or blinded but we have to live with their inevitable consequences. Hardy and Maugham want to tell us that what we call “bad luck” or “fate” is actually nothing else than the unwanted outcome of a choice, tiny or major, thought through or whimsical, that we made at one given moment. We’d rather find comfort in thinking that some god manipulated our actions than face the truth. There is no more god in Southern England than there is in the Southern Seas.

Life has its own inner logic and Hardy looks at it through the lenses of irony. As I share his stern vision of life and its accompanying mix of lucidity and irony, I loved these short-stories and want to read more of him.

 PS: My favourite stories are An Imaginative Woman, On the Western Circuit and A Tragedy of Two Ambitions.

  1. March 16, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    Wow! Wonderful post. And you read the book in English. That really was a challenge.

    Most of my Hardy reading was done as a teenager and I didn’t get a lot out of him besides feeling depressed. I have not read Life’s Little Ironies, but I feel now that I must. I will be glad to put off Jude the Obscure (currently on my shelf) for another year.

    I did read The Native last year, and am therefore able to agree with you about the sex, with regard to which he does have a refreshingly frank approach. Above all I am interested in your view that ‘fate’ in Hardy is self-inflicted. A criticism that often comes his way is an over-reliance on coincidence and, well, fate. Next time I will read with closer attention. I have perhaps done him an injuctice.

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    • March 16, 2011 at 9:44 pm

      Thank you. Talking about challenge, I need to make the link with the challenge page.

      I’m not sure a teenager is mature enough to understand such a subtle writer. Is Hardy taught in high-school? It seems a difficult read.

      Unconsciously self-inflicted fate : that’s how I perceived it. It made me think of Sartre and of Greek tragedies and also of a sort of scientific view of life: ingredients (events) put in a given order can only bring the result shown in the book. But the characters don’t know the recipe and put the ingredients together without knowing what will happen. It’s hard for me to explain.

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      • March 16, 2011 at 10:33 pm

        Hardy was not taught at school. I tried to go it alone, but you’re right: I wasn’t mature enough and would barely have noticed sexual references, let alone anything really subtle.

        Your explanation is excellent.

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  2. March 16, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    Hardy is one of my favourite 19th C British writers. I am going to have to return to him soon. As I said before, I cannot think of a more difficult 19th c writer to translate, so you are to be commended.

    I really think you would like his novels. They are intense and not many happy endings there, I am afraid. Yes, his characters seem to bring on their own unhappiness, their own destruction.

    Class rears its head in both Tess and Jude the Obscure–both wonderful albeit depressing books. I can think of many, many of his novels you would like. Sex plays quite a role there too.

    For music and dancing–the Woodlanders.

    Interesting that you make the Maugham/Hardy connection. Two great favourites, and of course class plays a large role in Maugham’s tales.

    Ok that’s it. I’m reading a Hardy next.

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    • March 16, 2011 at 9:54 pm

      Thanks. I’ll try the novels, but in French and following your recommendation, will start with The Mayor of Casterbridge.

      Which Hardy are you going to re-read ?

      I should re-read Emma Bovary. There’s something between An Imaginative Woman and Emma Bovary. I was already thinking about it anyway, as I wonder how I would respond to it now.

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      • March 17, 2011 at 2:50 am

        I’m not sure which one–I’m chewing over several titles–an old favourite or a lesser known one.

        If you read Madame Bovary, I’d be fascinated to see what you make of Zola’s La Curée.

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        • March 17, 2011 at 10:13 pm

          I’ll see the one you choose, then.
          I’ve read your review of La Curée, it helped me understand why you linked the two books. Reading your review, I also wonder why I haven’t read it yet. Wow, you’ve added another book to my book pile…again.
          Emma Bovary is a great character of literature but not someone I would have wanted to be friend with, unlike Elizabeth Bennet for example.

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  3. March 17, 2011 at 6:41 am

    Interesting post, really. I got The Mayor of Casterbridge lined up for my first time Hardy reading, so I’m really not familiar with the author. I wouldn’t have thought that sex would be so omnipresent. I was impressed by the second quote. That struck me as particularly discerning. The inter-textual part is interesting too, all these allusions to French authors. I am sure I would read this and others of his books with interest, but I am not sure yet I will also “like” him.

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    • March 17, 2011 at 10:08 pm

      I really liked the second quote too. It made me think of one quote by Romain Gary in Adieu Gary Cooper, one of those phrase not included in the English version of the book.

      I’ll be interested in your review of The Mayor of Casterbridge when you read it.

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      • March 17, 2011 at 11:23 pm

        He got into a lot of trouble with Jude the Obscure. Booksellers sometimes sold his books in plain brown bags….

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  4. March 18, 2011 at 9:03 pm

    Well here are, I suppose, some spoilers, but nothing you wouldn’t come across if you read a summary of the novel. Jude is basically tricked into marriage by the earthy charms of Arabella (there’s no horrible scene in which she slaughters a pig–which Jude cannot do). She later abandons him. Jude, who has a desire (and unrealistic expectations of)for education, falls in love with his cousin Sue. She marries a much older man & hates sex (the opposite of Arabella). Sue and Jude eventually ‘live in sin.’ I won’t give you any more of the plot but the novel really shows how people make decisions based on sex and sexual attraction. There are characters with so-called healthy sexual appetites (Arabella), and characters whose sexual appetites are subverted and are very twisted as a result (Sue). Religion is seen as a negative force which helps twist human beings and rob them of them ability to think and act independently.

    This is not exclusive to Jude the Obscure, but it’s rawer in this novel. Many of Hardy’s novels were scandalous for their time (in the Mayor of Casterbridge, a man auctions off his wife and child), but in Jude the sexual themes are relentless. It’s really an incredible novel but very, very depressing and was considered obscene when it was published.

    There is a wonderful BBC adaptation from 1971 (my favourite version).

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    • March 18, 2011 at 9:25 pm

      Thank you very much for the explanation. I understand why it was such a scandal.

      And I also see the link between Thomas Hardy and DH Lawrence. It was mentioned in the essay I read but it’s not that obvious in the short stories. (Have you seen Lady Chatterley by Pascale Ferran?)

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      • March 19, 2011 at 2:41 am

        Yes I have seen it and I wasn’t crazy about it, but then I really can’t stand Lady C.

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  5. March 22, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    I’ve only read The Mayor of Casterbridge. My wife persuaded me to read it and it was tremendous. I’ve not read more though, he’s somehow quite a daunting writer.

    This sounds great. I may see if it’s available on Kindle. It should be given it’s out of print.

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    • March 23, 2011 at 5:22 pm

      Second recommendation for The Mayor of Casterbridge, it’s my next Hardy.

      The short-stories were really marvellous. It’s not out of print though. You meant “in the public domain” maybe? You should find them on kindle. I would have missed the essay and the explanatory notes, though.

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  6. March 24, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    I decided to pick The Well-Beloved. It’s not my absolute favourite Hardy but it’s close and I probably think about this book more than any of his others.

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    • March 24, 2011 at 3:52 pm

      Thanks to keep me posted. I’ll read your review, as always.
      PS : my copy of Sachs’ memoirs came in the post last week. Do you have yours?

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      • March 24, 2011 at 5:28 pm

        Yes it’s here. Do you want to coordinate? I could read it next after Hardy.

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        • March 24, 2011 at 5:41 pm

          I need to finish Balzac and Henry James first. End of April, would that be OK with you?

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  7. March 24, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    Starting at the end of April or read-by the end of April?

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  8. March 24, 2011 at 10:58 pm

    Ok, no problem.

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  1. July 19, 2011 at 11:38 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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