I wanted to write you a letter to tell you how much your work means to me. When asked who my favourite author is, I always say Thomas Hardy, without hesitation. I still remember the moment it all started. I was 14 and stood in Blackwell’s in Oxford looking at the classics section. They were all marked down and my dad offered to buy me one. I spent a while deliberating and finally settled on one of your books, Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I will never know why I chose Tess, in hindsight it looks like fate, but I prefer to think I just got lucky.
I fell for Tess. You made me care about her because you cared about her. Tess was real to you, as real as any living person, if not more so, and I think that appealed to me back then because back then I too thought characters in books mattered more than real life.
I remember these lines, when Tess is thinking about all the important dates in the year, above all else:
She suddenly thought one afternoon, when looking in the glass at her fairness, that there was yet another date, of greater importance to her than those; that of her own death… a day which lay sly and unseen among all the other days of the year, giving no sign or sound when she annually passed over it; but not the less surely there.
I think back then that idea appealed to my morbid teenage mind. I say I was lucky I picked up your book on that day in Blackwell’s because I picked it up at the right time in my life. Like I said, I was a bit of a morbid teenager and you certainly do depressing very well. Or at least that’s what people think. People think Jude the Obscure is depressing, but to me it just seemed real. You didn’t give your protagonist a happy ending and that chimed with my view of the world at the time.
My world view has changed somewhat since then, but I still admire your bravery in writing a book that went so completely against the grain of your time. I sometimes think you would have been happier if you’d been born a century later. Not many people now would question that of course people are capable of loving one another outside of wedlock and that the church isn’t the preserve of all morals. But then, history needs people like you, people who plant the seeds of progress.
I also fell in love with your books because they are some of the only books that blind side me. Certain lines catch me off guard and force me to put down the book for a second or two just to absorb what I’ve read. Moments like this when you describe Casterbridge in The Mayor of Casterbridge:
Innumerable tawny and yellow leaves skimmed along the pavement, stole through people’s doorways into their passages with a hesitating scratch on the floor, like the skirts of timid visitors.
These lines fill me with the simple joy of the possibilities of language, of course leaves are like the skirts of timid visitors. And I love the way the worlds you create are so rich with detail, right down to the leaves in the streets of your fictional town. It only goes to show how real the worlds you wrote about were for you. As a writer its something I admire because it takes such patience, patience I often lack myself.
I have to confess after my initial devouring of your works I had a long break and it was only recently that I got round to reading The Return of the Native. Reading it only confirmed for me that you are still my favourite author.
I’m glad I saved it, because again it seemed as though your book came in to my life at the right moment. Having studied nature writing, I found a whole new level of love for your work because the natural world mattered so much to you. I read a biography of your life recently and I loved reading about how, as a child, on your long walk to school you would sometimes close your eyes and try to identify the trees around you by the sound of the wind in their branches.
It seems as though you poured all of that love of nature in to The Return of the Native. The inhabitants of Egdon Heath are inseparable from the heath on which they live – in the same way that you seem to have been inseparable from your native Dorset – as in this line about Eustacia Vye:
When her hair was brushed she would instantly sink into stillness and look like the Sphinx. If, in passing under one of the Egdon banks, any of its thick skeins were caught, as they sometimes were, by a prickly tuft of the large Ulex Europaeus – which will act as a sort of hairbrush – she would go back a few steps, and pass against it a second time.
I still have a few more of your minor works to read, but I’m certain many years of re-reading your books are ahead of me. I recently got a Kindle (basically a machine for reading books on – I wonder what you’d make of epublishing?) and what do you think was the first book I put on my Kindle? Tess of course.
P.S. I even love you for making me look up Ulex Europaeus (that’s gorse to the layman).