‘Deeds of Darkness’: Thomas Hardy and the Art of Murder

Minna Vuohelainen
Minna Vuohelainen

In his posthumously published Life (1928/1930), Thomas Hardy narrates a startling incident from his youth.

Blithely breakfasting in Bockhampton, young Hardy recalls that a man was to be hanged in Dorchester that morning, grips a “big brass telescope” and “hasten[s] to a hill on the heath a quarter of a mile from the house” (Hardy and Hardy [1928/1930] 2007, p. 29).

Across a “distance of nearly three miles”, the sun illuminates a panoramic view of “the white façade of the gaol, the gallows upon it, and the form of the murderer in white fustian, the executioner and officials in dark clothing and the crowd below” (Hardy and Hardy [1928/1930] 2007, p. 29).

“At the moment of his placing the glass to his eye”, Hardy recounts in the third person, “the white figure dropped downwards, and the faint note of the town clock struck eight” (Hardy and Hardy [1928/1930] 2007, p. 29).

Startled by the sight greeting his eyes through the telescope, Hardy feels himself “alone on the heath with the hanged man”, regrets his morbid curiosity and never attends an execution again, this being the second he had witnessed (Hardy and Hardy [1928/1930] 2007, p. 30). Although we now know that the execution in question took place on 10 August 1858, when James Seale, murderer and arsonist, became the last man to be publicly hanged in Dorset, Hardy does not provide us with details of the crime or of the criminal’s death; nor does he name Elizabeth Martha Brown, whose execution for the murder of her drunken, violent husband he had attended two years previously.

Narrated across a distance of space and time, dominated by the spectacularly lit but sinister architectural structure of the gaol, and framed through the powerful, focused but severely circumscribed eye of the telescope, which “nearly [falls] from Hardy’s hands” as he averts his eyes from the gruesome spectacle, the execution is, Hardy’s reaction implies, brutal and grotesque (Hardy and Hardy [1928/1930] 2007, p. 30). The dropping of the telescope, therefore, represents an averted gaze, a sense of unease and shame, and a rejection of the knowledge on offer, which can be read as a poignant critique of the gruesome spectacle of public execution.

This factual account proves illustrative of Hardy’s fictional approaches to murder and its punishment. In his novels ‘Desperate Remedies’ (1871), ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ (1874) and ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ (1891), Hardy approaches acts of murder and their punishment through narrative strategies that foreground non-mimetic generic elements, including Gothically inflected setting, framing, patterning and indirection, which are akin to the averted gaze described in ‘The Life’ in their tendency “to suggest” rather than to show (Thomas 2013, p. 437; emphasis in the original).

What Michael Irwin says about ‘Desperate Remedies’, Hardy’s “improbable literary début”, is also true of the other two novels: the reader is offered “two reading experiences for the price of one” — a “serious literary” text, experimental and original, and “a page-turner dealing lavishly in death, deception, detective work, flight and pursuit” (Irwin 2010, p. v).

Nestling amidst other sensational “deeds of darkness” in ‘Desperate Remedies’ lurks the murder of Eunice, the estranged wife of the land steward Aeneas Manston, which leaves him free to pursue a new love interest, the novel’s protagonist Cytherea Graye (Hardy [1871] 2010, p. 96).

In the ironically titled ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’, obsessive Farmer Boldwood shoots dead Francis Troy, the supposedly dead husband of the novel’s protagonist Bathsheba Everdene, after Troy returns dramatically and unexpectedly to claim his wife, thereby spoiling Boldwood’s engagement to a woman whom he has long coveted.

In ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’, the title character Tess Durbeyfield stabs to death Alec Stoke-d’Urberville, the nouveau-riche lover whose unwanted sexual advances have ruined her chances of happiness, after her estranged but beloved husband Angel Clare unexpectedly returns to resume his life with her.

In each novel, murder is a sensational crime of passion motivated by sexual jealousy, disappointment or obsession — the territory of melodrama and sensation fiction — and brought about by the unexpected, uncanny and therefore Gothic return of a character believed either dead or irretrievably lost.

Murder, then, functions as a plot device that troubles the texts’ predominantly realist framework and moves the narratives towards non-mimetic generic registers, particularly the Gothic, framed and set in ways that increasingly present the Gothic as the characteristic mode of modern consciousness.

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