I’ve been reading Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native for a walk I’m leading. The strange thing about Hardy is that you seem to feel the need to offer an excuse as to why you’re reading him, or maybe that’s just me. But anyway –
Clym Yeobright (the ‘Native’) has recently returned to Egdon Heath, where he was born, and has just told some of the local inhabitants, denizens of the heath as he was, that he plans to remain close to the heath and open a school. Whilst they say nothing, they are clearly taken aback; Why would someone who had escaped the heath and become a diamond-seller in Paris choose to return to this poor, backwater of a place – a place that everyone else dreams of leaving?
The answer is that Clym has become an idealist.
Yeobright loved his kind. He had a conviction that the want of most men was knowledge of a sort which brings wisdom rather than affluence.
However, because of his studious time in Paris, he was far in advance of his erstwhile fellow inhabitants of the heath – ‘the rural world was not ripe for him.’
‘A man should be only partially before his time: to be completely in the vanguard in aspirations is fatal to fame [ … ] Successful propagandists have succeeded because the doctrine they bring into form is that which their listeners have for some time felt without being able to shape.’
Doesn’t this just perfectly describe Steve Jobs, by the way, and in particular the iPad? Just enough ahead of the game, and able to fulfil aspirations that people were only dimly aware that they had.
But, unlike Jobs – at least in his speeches – Hardy is scornful of idealism:
‘Was Yeobright’s mind well-proportioned? No. A well-proportioned mind is one which shows no particular bias … It would never would have allowed Yeobright to do such a ridiculous thing as throw up his business [he was a diamond seller in Paris] to benefit his fellow-creatures.’
Yeobright dares to dream – and is punished for it.
By this time in his life Hardy had endured scorn and rejection himself – in people’s low expectations of the kind of job he might aspire to, and in the way his (now) in-laws had looked down upon him as the suitor of their daughter. Despite winning the woman and succeeding in the career he had set his hopes on – to be a writer – he allowed these early slights to colour his whole outlook.
Incidentally, not wholly unlike Picasso who, as John Richardson recounts in his biography of the artist, never forgave the lack of interest from dealers during his early years in Paris. But I digress.
Hardy damns Clym’s idealism, and throughout his novels those who aspire to escape the position into which they are born tend to pay a heavy price. Just think of Jude. And Clym.
I wonder if the reason Hardy feels so unfashionable right now is that in contradiction to today’s (welcome) mantra of ‘Yes you can!,’ Hardy seems intent on saying ‘No, you can’t’ and insisting on the insignificance of the individual. Despite the fact that he made it all the way to the top.
He is buried in Westminster Abbey – except for his heart. That’s back home in Dorset, in Stinsford churchyard, close to his birthplace. And the heath.