The Mayor of Casterbridge is the story of Michael Henchard, whom we first meet as a young man, out of work and walking from town to town in search of employment as a hay-trusser. On arriving in a small village near the town of Casterbridge and discovering that a country fair is taking place, Michael proceeds to get drunk and sells his wife, Susan, and baby daughter Elizabeth-Jane to a sailor for five guineas. In the morning he regrets what he has done, but Susan, Elizabeth-Jane and their new owner have already disappeared without trace. After swearing not to touch another drop of alcohol for twenty-one years – the length of time he has been alive – Henchard begins to rebuild his life.
Almost twenty years later, we rejoin Susan and her daughter as they return to Casterbridge. The sailor, Mr Newson, has been lost at sea and having only recently learned that her second ‘marriage’ was not legally binding, Susan is hoping that she and Elizabeth-Jane can find and be reconciled with Michael Henchard. Things have changed in the intervening years and Henchard has transformed himself into the sober and respectable Mayor of Casterbridge. How will he react to having his wife and daughter back in his life? With the arrival of two more newcomers – Lucetta, a pretty young woman from Jersey, and Donald Farfrae, a Scottish traveller – Henchard’s fortunes begin to change yet again and in typical Thomas Hardy fashion a series of mistakes and misunderstandings follow, sometimes with tragic consequences.
I loved this book as much as I expected to and enjoyed being back in Hardy’s Wessex (now that I’ve read quite a few of his books it’s fun to be able to notice the occasional references to characters and places from previous novels). There are some lovely descriptions of Casterbridge with its Roman ruins, and the beautiful countryside surrounding it. However, this is a less pastoral book than most of the others I’ve read – the action takes place in and around the market town of Casterbridge itself, which gives this book a slightly different feel to the more rural, farm-based ones such as Far From the Madding Crowd.