Published in 1886, The Mayor of Casterbridge offers a very sensational premise: while drunk, Michael Henchard sells his wife and child to a passing sailor. Afterwards, he regrets his actions, gives up alcohol for twenty one years, and tries to locate them but can't find them. He proceeds to the town of Casterbridge where he works very hard to rise up to be mayor of the town. But when his 'widowed' wife Susan returns with his grown-up daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, he is compelled to do the right thing and marry her. However, this involves letting down another woman he had hopes of marrying, Lucetta. Intertwined with all this is his new assistant, Donald Farfrae, a man Elizabeth-Jane has taken a shine to. What ensues is a tangled web of deceit, love and retribution.
This is such a complex book with more twists and turns than I can count. Hardy draws on the conventions of the sensation writers he read earlier in his career but adds logic and psychological analysis to what could have been simply a book of events. Hardy's representation of Henchard as a man struggling to master guilt, jealousy and the desire for revenge throughout the book is a powerful one. Henchard is a complex character, but one the reader understands. This is less true for Donald Farfrae, first Henchard's friend then his bitter rival, but Farfrae is not the focus of the book. As for the female characters, Elizabeth-Jane is something of an insipid paragon of virtue, blindly submitting when the man she loves demonstrates an attraction for someone else. Susan and Lucetta are distinctly unmemorable but the array of incidental characters are fascinating enough.
Perhaps the main strength of this novel is the description that Hardy employs so well in many of his novels. Much of his description is necessary, relating to the plot or character, although there are a few superfluous passages. His eye for detail certainly adds realism to the story of the over-stretched mayor, almost bringing the reader into Casterbridge itself. The Roman roots of the town are expertly exploited, particularly in the Amphitheatre, the site of Henchard's first meeting with his long-lost wife in chapter eleven.
What impressed me about this book was that the preamble was actually kept to a minimum. Time could easily have been wasted examining the 'lost' years of Susan and Elizabeth-Jane's lives but Hardy sprinkles necessary details in as the story progresses. There is much more involved in this novel than the blurb suggests and it surprises and fascinates throughout. I regret leaving this spine to bleach on my bookshelf for seven years but I think the pleasure of reading was worth the wait.