Hardy’s greatest novels, selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) wrote 14 novels, so picking a top ten won’t prove too difficult a task. What are the best Thomas Hardy novels? This is undoubtedly going to prove a difficult and controversial issue, but we thought we’d take this chance to select the ten we think are worth reading – and we’ve even ranked the novels in order (and the order, too, is bound to prove controversial). Do you agree with our ordering and general choices? We’ve included some interesting facts about the novels in each description of the novel, and a link to what we think is the best available edition of each novel on Amazon.
If you enjoy this list, check out our pick of Thomas Hardy’s ten best poems.
10. Under the Greenwood Tree (Oxford World’s Classics) (1872). Hardy adopted an overtly pastoral title for this, his second published novel. His first, Desperate Remedies (1871), was an example of sensation fiction (a genre more usually identified with Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins). It didn’t fare particularly well, so Hardy took the title of his next book from a song sung in Shakespeare’s As You Like It and wrote about a rural community, centred on the village choir, in an attempt to appeal to the city-dwelling London market. The book introduces a common trope seen in Hardy’s fiction: the love triangle (sometimes, in later novels, it would prove more of a rhombus) whereby several men are trying to win the heart of the same woman. Some of the names here are unbeatable: Dick Dewy and Fancy Day, for instance, for the romantic leads.
9. The Pursuit of the Well-beloved and the Well-beloved (Penguin Classics) (1897). This novel has the accolade of being Hardy’s final novel. It’s often said that Jude the Obscure (1895) was his last novel, and that after the negative reception that greeted that book Hardy resolved to give up writing fiction. (He would turn to poetry instead, writing classic poems such as ‘The Darkling Thrush’ at the end of the century – though he’d started out writing poetry too, as his early poem ‘Neutral Tones’ demonstrates.) Whilst this is partly true, it’s not the whole truth: he actually went back to an earlier book which had been serialised in 1892 (under the title The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved) and revised it for book publication in 1897. This novel is almost mythic in structure, telling as it does of how a sculptor, Jocelyn Pierston, falls in love with three successive generations of the same family.
8. A Laodicean: Or the Castle of the De Stancys (Penguin Classics) (1881). This is the only novel from the ‘London period’ of the early 1880s which we’ve included here, and although we can recommend those other novels, especially The Trumpet-Major (a pleasant pastoral tale set during the Napoleonic Wars), we’ve opted for this 1881 offering because it is so utterly unlike any of Hardy’s other novels. This is partly because he didn’t ‘write’ it himself – but before you accuse us of being an ‘anti-Bockhamptonian’ (or whatever the Hardyan equivalent of being anti-Stratfordian would be), we don’t mean he didn’t compose it, merely that he didn’t physically write down much of the novel. He was ill at the time, and confined to bed, so his first wife, Emma, acted as his amanuensis. Although stylistically hardly the most sophisticated Hardy novel, this story of the modern world clashing with traditional values and customs is an entertaining Sunday afternoon read (as Hardy himself later said in the 1912 Preface to the Wessex Edition). It tells of Paula Power, the heir to her father’s fortunes made on the railways; Paula is a modern woman in all sorts of ways – not least because she is the ‘Laodicean’ of the novel’s title (pronounced ‘LAY-e-de-SEE-un’, it refers to someone who is lukewarm in their religious faith) and appear to harbour a homoerotic attraction towards her friend Charlotte. Add some telegrams and photographs into this belated sensation novel (the novel’s ‘villain’, Will Dare, is perhaps the first photographer in English fiction), and you have the recipe for an exciting, if unevenly paced, tale. We’ve written a longer summary of Hardy’s A Laodicean here, with an account of the novel’s themes.
7. A Pair of Blue Eyes (Oxford World’s Classics) (1873). Hardy’s third published novel, it tells of Elfride Swancourt, a young woman from a good family, who is drawn into a relationship first with a trainee architect (Hardy was here drawing on his own courtship of his wife, Emma) and then a London book reviewer (not to give too much away, this reviewer chap will later end up dangling from a cliff gazing into the empty, fossilised eyes of a trilobite). This was the first of his novels to carry his name, and helped to make up his mind about his hitherto uncertain future: when he started the novel he was unsure as to whether he could afford to write full-time, but the handsome payment he received for this book (it was also his first to be serialised in monthly instalments, which proved lucrative) meant he quickly made up his mind. From now on, he would be a full-time writer. He and Emma could also afford to marry, and they did so, the following year. Indeed, 1874 was also the year of his next book, which was…
6. Far from the Madding Crowd (Oxford World’s Classics) (1874). One of those previously mentioned ‘love rhombus’ narratives, in which two farmers and a soldier vie for the affections of Bathsheba Everdene, who herself runs a farm beset by problems. It helped to consolidate Hardy’s career as a successful novelist, although Henry James, who reviewed the novel, was not as impressed as many readers, quipping that ‘Everything human in the book strikes us as factious and insubstantial; the only things we believe in are the sheep and the dogs.’ Ouch. We reveal some more interesting facts about this novel in our separate post on Far from the Madding Crowd.
5. The Mayor of Casterbridge (Oxford World’s Classics) (1886). This novel, about a man, Michael Henchard, who, while drunk, sells his wife and daughter at a fair, is one of Hardy’s mature tragedies (and we’re not giving anything away there: the novel’s subtitle is ‘The Life and Death of a Man of Character’).
4. The Return of the Native (Oxford World’s Classics) (1878). The opening to this novel is one of the most celebrated pieces of Hardy’s prose writing: the first chapter, describing the setting of the novel, Egdon Heath, shows the merging of the modern and the primal, the natural and the ritualistic, in an evocative passage that immediately draws us in: the heath is like a character itself.
3. The Woodlanders (Oxford World’s Classics) (1887). This was one of Hardy’s favourites among his own novels, especially for the story. There is some evidence that Hardy began the novel in 1874, following the success of his earlier novel, Far from the Madding Crowd, only to set it aside for over ten years. Indeed, there are certain parallels between, for instance, the rustic, luckless, faithful and dependable Giles Winterborne and Gabriel Oak from that earlier novel.
2. Jude the Obscure (Oxford World’s Classics) (1895). This novel was reportedly burned by the Bishop of Wakefield, though whether it’s because of the relationship between Jude Fawley and his cousin Sue Bridehead, or the sibling murder (and suicide) committed by one of their children, is hard to say. It’s undoubtedly a bleak book, with the working-class Jude harbouring aspirations to enter the world of ‘Christminster’ (that’s Oxford in Hardy’s world), though the world – and his love affairs – threaten to conspire against such a plan at every turn.
1. Tess of the d’Urbervilles (Oxford World’s Classics) (1891). We’ve written about this before in our post about the best Victorian novels ever written where we placed it at number 3, so we’ll add little here except to say that Hardy drew on a number of details from local news stories – the blood dripping from the ceiling, for instance, was taken from a real-life event – to create this, his greatest tragedy and probably his finest novel. ‘Tess’, by the way, is short for Teresa, the heroine’s full given name.
If you enjoyed this whistle-stop tour of Hardy’s best fiction, take a look at these interesting facts about Thomas Hardy’s life and our discussion of his classic poem ‘During Wind and Rain’. You might also enjoy our pick of Joseph Conrad’s best novels and Dickens’s best novels. Shakespeare fans might like our 10 Shakespeare plays everyone should read.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Images (top to bottom): Thomas Hardy by William Strang, 1893, public domain; Map of locations in the Wessex of Thomas Hardy’s novels (JasonAQuest), public domain.