This winter I visited our family home by the coast. For the long train journey I took a book of short stories. The one which particularly embedded itself in in my memory was Barbara of the House of Grebe by Thomas Hardy. To me it has the feel of a family saga, which is difficult to capture in a short story. And it has the odd post-modern line where the writer speaks directly to the reader. I felt that Hardy was almost mocking the central character as he wrote. There was certainly a rather hysterical and farcical veneer to the story. I wonder if Hardy was perhaps mocking the temperament of young women as a whole.
But, having said that, there were some very thought provoking aspects to the story. I really enjoyed the plot structure; the young girl falls in love with a man mainly for his looks, he is then hideously disfigured in an accident. I like this as an alternative to the “she married a handsome prince and lived happily ever after” plot. It made me aware of how shallow the morals are in a lot of the stories we tell our children. Barbara’s hero is in fact a very noble character, his disfiguring injuries are a result of him rescuing others from a burning building. Hardy takes the brave step of suggesting his heroine is wanton and superficial. He later has her marry a rich man, whom she does not love. What I found interesting is that her love for her first husband Edmond, is supposed to be passionate and genuine (he is not rich and she elopes with him) yet this love vanishes as soon as he loses his good looks. Clearly her feelings are not as deep as she thought. It is nice to see this in a story, often the hero and heroine have an almost divine love, which nothing can touch. Despite the dramatic and Gothic style of the story, it does depict some very realistic characters, and Barbara’s struggle to love her hero after his accident is probably a more honest story than a ‘happily ever after’ fairytale.