I chose to listen to this audiobook as part of what I anticipate will be an ongoing project designed to overcome my long-held prejudice against Thomas Hardy; a prejudice entirely grounded in my strong dislike of Tess of the D'Urbervilles. The experience of listening to this book has been less successful in achieving that end than my previous excursion into Hardy's work: the truly wonderful audiobook of The Return of the Native, narrated by Alan Rickman. That said, the novel itself and its narration by Robert Hardy (a descendent of the author? I really have no idea), are not without their charms.
The plot is simple. Hardy opens with the story of the Mellstock choir, a group of church musicians whom the new vicar, Mr Maybold, plans to replace with a church organ to be played by Fancy Day, a beautiful young schoolteacher. Interwoven into this story is that of the romantic entanglements of Fancy Day, who attracts the love of three men: Dick Dewy, the son of the local "tranter" or carrier, rich farmer Frederick Shiner and the vicar Mr Maybold. The action takes place over close to a year, with each section of the book taking place in a different season.
The strength of the novel is, not surprisingly, in the language. Hardy the poet is always present in Hardy the novelist and his evocation of the natural world and the change in seasons is breathtaking: paintings are created with words. The novel contains some truly memorable scenes: the dance which takes place at a party on Christmas night and the preparation for a wedding, for example. In addition, Hardy's ear for the language of country people is unerring and is lovingly rendered into sharp, often witty dialogue. In addition, unusually for a novel by Thomas Hardy, no one is depressed and no one dies. So the novel has an appealing lightness of touch.
What I liked much less is the character of Fancy Day. She is silly, vain, shallow and manipulative. Frankly, all of the men who fall in love with her could do much better for themselves. My irritation with Fancy persisted through the novel and made me like it much less than I otherwise might have. However, near the end of the story, I realised that Fancy is no different from many young women. She is human and because she is human, she is flawed. But she is not vicious and has insight into her weaknesses. Hardy treats her with compassion and I eventually felt compassion for her as well. However, it seemed that the apparently positive note on which the novel concludes - a wedding - may not be the happily-every-after moment which on the surface it appears to be.
Overall, this was a good literary experience, although not a great one. Much as it surprises me to say so, I prefer the grand tragedy of The Return of the Native or Jude the Obscure to this altogether more lightweight offering.