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.
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Jude and Tess belong at the head of that list, no doubt. Which deserves first rank is something I could never decide permanently. :)
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I would be inclined to put Jude at number 1 and Tess at number 2, but I would not have Under the Greenwood Tree on the list at all. It’s one of the most boring books I’ve ever read.
Tess was freaking boring, I couldn’t even make it through. And Jude was too depressing. Return of the Native is far and away his best!
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Jolly interesting. I think The Mayor of Casterbridge is his masterpiece — a truly great novel. I thought I knew Hardy fairly well but there are three here I haven’t read. Yes the beginning of The Return of the Native is amazing, but I think the novel goes downhill rather after that.
Thanks so much for writing about Hardy, anything about him, because he is my most favorite Victorian writers. I’ve read his six books with ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ is my most beloved one, in fact, it is one of my favorite novels of all time because I’m so in love with Micheal Henchard that I can hate, like, have a sympathy with him while reading the book. Hardy’s excellence in creating the character with so many good and bad sides is the one that makes Henchard is so human and the novel a perfect one for me. ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ is my second most favorite. “Jude the Obscure’ is hard reading. I love ‘The Return of the Native’, ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ and ‘The Woodlanders’, too. So far, I think ‘Far’ is the fairest of all which ends happily, ‘happy’ according to Hardy’s point of view, which means realistic. I’m sorry if I write too many spoilers here…
I would probably put Jude first and Tess second, though I love Tess and it is one of my favorite books of all time.
Haven’t read the Tess, but the Mayor of Casterbridge continues to be one of my favorites to this day!
I’m with Henry James as far as Far From The Madding Crowd goes, which I only took the trouble to read last year. Would happily re-read many of the others though, with The Return of the Native being my favourite. And then there’s the poems….
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After my indulgent ramblings on Far From the Madding Crowd, I thought I would share some Thomas Hardy love from people who actually seem to know what they are talking about. Enjoy!
Sorry I never really have taken to Hardy as a writer. Maybe it is his prose style but I found Hardy difficult to get into and never enjoyed the books.
i always love to read Hardy’s novels again and again and again…. :)
Far From the Madding Crowd is #1 (for me). One of the happier-ish endings for a TH book. In reality, I love them all, even the ones I don’t like.
Wonderful post. Hardy is one of my favorite authors, but I didn’t realize there was so much more to read. Tess is by far my favorite and the first one of his novels I read. I still have the small hard-back copy that I bought in an Ontario bookstore over 30 years ago.
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I personally feel that “Jude the Obscure” is Hardy’s greatest novel, if not necessarily his most perfect. Indeed, it is quite easy pointing out its various flaws in the work. But really, the flaws don’t matter: not in this case, at least, and not for me.
The climax of the novel comes not at that horrible moment that has made this novel so notorious (I won’t describe this moment in case anyone reading this has not yet read the novel), but in what comes afterwards: the image of Jude in high fever trudging through the rain, and more than half hoping that the exertion will kill him, is among the great tragic images in literature: it sears itself into the reader’s imagination.
Interesting. Care to share why the four you didn’t include didn’t make it? Personally, The Mayor of Casterbridge is my favorite, but I didn’t even know about some of these. I see I have a lot more Hardy to read.
By the way, a new film version of “Far from the Madding Crowd” is coming to theaters on May 1.
Thanks, didn’t know about the new film adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd!
The four I left out were left out largely because they’re not viewed as his best: his attempts to write sensation fiction and society novels, exemplified in his three ‘Novels of Ingenuity’ (Desperate Remedies, The Hand of Ethelberta, and A Laodicean) are all flawed novels, but A Laodicean seems to me a much more interesting failure than the other two, largely because of the very modern things it features (such as photography and telegraphy). So I left out the two earlier novels in that category.
The other two are both from Hardy’s ‘Romances and Fantasies’ category, and whilst I love The Trumpet-Major I don’t think it adds much to the Hardy canon that he hadn’t already done better with Far from the Madding Crowd (its interest as a historical novel notwithstanding). Two on a Tower is intriguing – it’s a novel that takes astronomy as its central ‘theme’ or plot device – but its ending is unsatisfactory (to me) and most critics view it as an attempt to appeal to the American market, without really succeeding in matching, say, Hawthorne’s skill at this sort of tale.
That said, I could happily have included several of those as well – maybe I should have made it a ‘top dozen’ rather than a top ten…
Nice post. Only read three (Jude, Tess and Mayor of Casterbridge). The latter being my favourite. Great character Henchard. Jude is bleak but definitely close to M of C. Tess I liked the least out of the three. All in my humble opinion.
He also wrote some pretty good poems. He thought of himself as a poet at the beginning of his writing career.