The Mayor of Casterbridge | Study Guide

Thomas Hardy

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The Mayor of Casterbridge | Author's Preface | Summary

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Summary

Writing in the years 1895 to 1912, some years after The Mayor of Casterbridge was published (in 1886), Thomas Hardy comments on several aspects of the novel. He notes younger readers may have no vivid memories of economic conditions in the 1830s and 40s, when the story is set. In particular, uncertain harvests and heavy speculation characterized the home corn trade, which was a key part of the British economy. Trade in wheat, rye, and barley was long subject to intense regulation. Imports were taxed, and exports were penalized. These regulations, known as the Corn Laws, were relaxed and ultimately suspended in favor of free trade during the mid-to-late 1840s.

In the preface Hardy also mentions the sale of a wife by her husband, which constitutes the novel's dramatic opening, as a historical event. In addition, he mentions some editorial changes prompted by the appearance of the novel in an American edition.

Finally, Hardy comments on the dialogue he devised for Donald Farfrae, one of the novel's most important characters. In the story, Farfrae is said to hail from Scotland. Some of Hardy's critics, however, noted the dialect expressions Hardy employs are not authentically Scottish. Along with some counter-testimony, Hardy offers an ingenious justification. Farfrae's language, he declares, was not intended to reproduce Scottish pronunciation with complete accuracy, but only to illustrate how his accent and dialect would have appeared to "southerners," namely people who lived farther south in England.

Analysis

Hardy's preface is noteworthy because of its emphasis on the novel's historical background. This emphasis does not imply the writer was totally wedded to historical fact; rather, it indicates he built his fiction on a generally authentic social and economic scaffolding. The Corn Laws and their repeal were major economic facts of life during the period of the novel's action. They would have dominated people's existence in an agricultural center like the town of Casterbridge. Both Henchard and Farfrae make their living and operate businesses in this sector of agriculture, and Henchard's rise and fall as well as Farfrae's are closely linked with the fluctuations Hardy notes.

The preface is also notable because it conveys the author's scrupulous attention to detail. No aspect of language or incident, no minor inconsistency between editions, seems to escape Hardy's attention. The preface, despite its relative brevity, gives a picture of Hardy as a "writer's writer."

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