Hardy Fiction

Let the Reader understand - the star ratings are my own, and not those of a panel of renowned international Hardyologists. 

Desperate Remedies (1871) **
Hardy's first published novel - before this there was a novel that was refused on the grounds of offending the upper classes. But to be fair, this isn't all that good. Although having just re-read it, I had a lot more chance second time round.
Hardy had already had his real debut novel turned down, and he thought his best chance was getting into crime mysteries.  Hence this amazingly melodramatic novel.  
It's got a certain ingenuity; it's a murder mystery with chases and various potential dangers to womanly modesty, dodgy strumpets milling around the place and picturesque scenes.  But its main interest is the clues it gives to where Hardy was going in the future. There are smock-frocked yokels by the yard, a tortured hero, and an innocent yet strangely gormless heroine. So that draws the parallels withTessFar from the Madding Crowd and Under the Greenwood Tree, not to mention The Return of the Native. But this one is too far-fetched, too strange by half.  However, there is a really good description of communal cider-making. 
Worst of all, Hardy peppers it with quotations from French and Latin, like anyone was supposed to know what he was talking about. A shame he didn't run it past his mum before he sent it off to the publishers. 
My favourite bit is the case of the drunken postman - anyone who can walk every day from Anglebury (Wareham) to Mellstock (Stinsford) and back for a living deserves to get drunk first thing in the morning if you ask me. 

Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) *****
This is my personal favourite book - probably of all time. Which is surprising, because it's a book with about the least plot you will ever find in a novel. It's also on the short side. Unusually for Hardy's novels. it has a happy ending - however Far from the Madding Crowd, the next one he wrote, does too - it was only as Hardy's reputation grew that he could afford to upset his public at the end of every book. It is quite an autobiographical book. The fictional "Mellstock" is closely based upon the real villages and hamlets of Stinsford and Bockhampton, where Hardy was born and brought up; the Dewey's house is clearly Hardy's birthplace, and the ejection of the quire from the West Gallery based upon the Hardy family's experience with the vicar c. 1840.
The original of the Tranter's House - "Hardy's", Higher Bockhampton, Dorset.  Thomas Hardy's birthplace. 
There are two sub-plots more-or-less intertwined in this story - one is the story of Dick Dewey and his attempts to marry the new schoolmistress, Fancy Day. And that's about all there is to say about that plot.
The other sub-plot is the confrontation between the new vicar, Parson Maybold, and the "quire" of the church. At the time just prior to Hardy's birth, many churches in Dorset still retained the old "quire" - a group of musicians and singers, who led the music in services from the West Gallery, which is behind the congregation. In fact, Hardy's father, grandfather and uncle all played in the Stinsford church quire. The quire at Stinsford was replaced with an organ just about the time of Hardy's birth, and subsequent resentment about this explains why Maybold's removal of the quire is explained, in near-libellous terms, as due to his infatuation with Miss Day himself.
The novel contains the common thread of nearly all Hardy's writing - that of class. While Dick Dewey has been better-educated than the rest of his family, he is still marginally below the class of Fancy Day; her Father may only be a gamekeeper, but her mother was more elevated, and Fancy has had an expensive education. Hence Mr Day's interest in Farmer Shiner, the churchwarden, as a prospecive husband for Fancy; and also Fancy's interest in Maybold the parson. The class distinctions are also made clear between the leading members of the choir and the lesser lights.
Although this is a light-hearted book, the tragic thread of Hardy's writing is always there as well. The sadness of life shows through Mr Penny's daughter, who is pregnant with her fifth child, having already buried three. Thomas Leaf the village idiot is the only one of twelve brothers and sisters to survive even the first few days of life. And Dick gets soaking wet, walking to the funeral of a young friend of his who has died of tuberculosis.
But the reason why the novel is so good, is the portrayal of the assorted rustics. The quire-members are full of traditional reason, pious reasoning and common sense. They enjoy a good time, sing their Christmas carols with devotion, fight with the vicar, gossip and swap old stories. The story brims with all the things that Hardy must have enjoyed in his own childhood, with the problems only hinted at - good drink, good food, good friends, (generally) loving families and the love a naive young man can have for a slighlty more calculating young woman. There are some finely-drawn characters - the wry, cynical "tranter", Reuben Dewey; his father, the cellist in the quire; the determined but unworldly vicar; the gormless but loveable Leaf; the witch; and Geoffrey Day's amazingly strange wife. It's a book that, with a minimal amount of plot, manages to make the atmosphere, and the descriptions of the English seasons, go a long way.
As an aside, the characters turn up in other Hardy novels and poems - Reuben Dewey and Farmer Ledlow (the latter always just off-stage, although his wife gets her own mention in the description of the Christmas Day service) are both dead in Mellstock Churchyard, as is Grandfather William, in Friends Beyond, while William's grave also gets a mention in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. The Deweys also crop up, in reference to their playing, in the short story, The Fiddler of the Reels.

Most famous quote - "Good, but not religious-good"

Wessex locations:
  • Mellstock - Bockhampton/Stinsford, Dorset
  • Weatherbury - Puddletown 
  • The tranter's cottage - Hardy's Cottage, Higher Bockhampton
  • Yalbury Wood - Yellowham wood, on the Puddletown-Dorchester road
  • Casterbridge - Dorchester
  • Gray's bridge is Gray's bridge, Dorchester, out on the road to Stinsford and Poole

A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) 

Like a dry run for Tess in some respects. This is of real interest because it's so autobiographical. To understand the importance of the village of Endelstow (East and West) you have to bear in mind Hardy's own experience of travelling to "Lyonesse" or "Off Wessex" (Cornwall, to the rest of us). A thirty-something Hardy, still struggling with his future career, came to St Juliot working as a jobbing architect. He fell in love with the sister-in-law of the local priest, Emma Gifford (the sister-in-law, that is, they didn't let women be priests in those days). He subsequently married her, and regretted it until the day she died.
The story reflects Hardy's own life-story. Two men compete for the hand of Elfride Swancourt - an idealized version of Emma. One is an architect (Hardy's profession at the time); one is a writer (the profession he was trying to break into). The architect is too poor (like Hardy was) for the girl's family. Eventually, after many adventures, the men come back to Cornwall to see who she will have. Unfortunately they forgot they were in a Hardy novel..... but I'll leave you to discover the ending.
As I said, a dry-run for Tess. Through no fault of her own, Elfride's reputation is "ruined". Why are Hardy's heroines often so perfect?  

Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) 

The novel that started the Wessex bandwagon... 
A concept so successful he retrofitted it to such works as "Under the Greenwood Tree". 

 Puddletown church with "gurgoyles" 

The story in essence:  Gabriel Oak is a strong, quiet shepherd who plays the flute.  He's quite enamoured with Bathsheba Everdene. She's a bit above his station, and more so after his dog drives all his sheep off a cliff and he ends up broke.  
Bathsheba inherits a farm and decides to manage it in her own right.  Like all central female characters in Hardy she has a number of men after her: Gabriel (boring but trustworthy); Farmer Boldwood (old but implausibly romantic); Sergeant Troy (the inevitable dashing cad).  She marries Troy.  But of course  Troy is a love rat, having left poor Fanny Robin (his girlfriend) to follow him around the barracks.  Fanny is of course pregnant and dies tragically, in childbirth, in Casterbridge workhouse.  Troy goes a bit mad as a consequence and much business results with a "gurgoyle". 
Troy is missing, presumed drowned, turns up as a circus act (honest); Boldwood thinks he's going to marry Bathsheba, Troy spoils the party but Boldwood shoots him.  Boldwood is found guilty but declared insane, so just gets banged up for life instead of swinging from Casterbridge gallows.  
Gabriel and Bathsheba..... but that's spoiling the ending. 
The novel the Victorian public just wanted Hardy to keep writing.  Complete with burning hayricks, exploding sheep and more rustics than you can throw a smock at.  The rustics, as general in the earlier Hardy novels, are a terrific part of the plot - not just a sort of Greek chorus on the outside. Joseph Poorgrass and his "multiplying eye" are worth the entrance fee alone.  
The character's name - "Gabriel Oak".  Well, Oak's a strong kind of tree - kind of Hardy, if you know what I mean.....  
Farmer Boldwood also crops up in The Mayor of Casterbridge, as a much younger man.  Curiously, so does Bathsheba's name - her uncle's stall features at the Casterbridge Cornmarket (and so does Mr Shiner from Under the Greenwood Tree for the same reason).

Wessex locations:
  • Weatherbury - Puddletown 
  • Weatherbury Upper Farm - Waterston House, Puddletown 
  • The great barn - based on tithe barns such as at Abbotsbury 
  • Casterbridge - Dorchester
  • Yalbury Hill - Yellowham Hill, nr Upper Bockhampton - off the A35 east of Dorchester
  • Casterbridge Union-House - Damers Hospital, Dorchester
  • Greenhill (site of the fair) - Woodbury Hill, near Bere Regis 

The Hand of Ethelberta  (1876) 

One of the novels that tries quite hard without actually succeeding. Unusually for Hardy, it's set to a large extent in London. 
Ethelberta is the widow of a young rich chap.  She now lives with her in-laws and is behaving like a very well-brought-up young woman.  
But Ethelberta has a shocking secret.  She is the daughter of a butler.  And her mother is the sort of indolent, useless mother who could easily have come from Jane Austen.  And she has loads of brothers and sisters.  
In order to keep all her brothers and sisters she takes on a new profession as a teller of stories.  This delights all of London society; but all the time she is employing half her family as her servants.  
After all this she marries a rich, old, obnoxious lord.  
There's a bit of love interest with a penniless musician, but he fails to win her in the end.  
It's interesting as containing a lot of the ideas that seem to have permeated "the  Poor Man and the Lady", Hardy's first novel, which was roundly rejected and no longer exists intact.  It is extremely alive to social class divisions.  Its rendering of the London social scene is quite heartless.  But the trouble for me was that none of the characters really engaged my sympathy.  

Wessex locations:

  • Knollsea - Swanage 
  • Sandbourne - Bournemouth 
  • Anglebury - Wareham 
  • Corvsgate Casle - Corfe Castle 

Return of the Native (1878) 


I've always regarded this novel as Hardy's finest work.  The only reason I prefer Under the Greenwood Tree is that the latter is far more fun.  This is a lot more serious. 
Eustacia Vye is an attractive woman, living with her grandfather, on the wastes of Egdon Heath.  She'd much rather be living amidst the heady delights of Paris - or, at least, Budmouth (Weymouth).  She's having an on-off romance with Damon Wildeve, which is somewhat blighted by his repeated attempts to marry Thomasin Yeobright.  When Clym Yeobright, Thomasin's cousin, returns from Paris, it sets off a chain of events where he marries Eustacia, Damon marries Thomasin, and then the trouble starts.  
The novel has something almost unheard of - apart from a couple of tragic deaths it has a happy ending.  But Hardy puts in a footnote that he doesn't actually agree with the happy ending himself, and explains how he really wanted it to end!  
In many ways this novel is more like a painting than a work of art.  "Egdon Heath" is the heath that starts at Hardy's house and used to stretch all the way to Bournemouth.  He captures the atmosphere of the place, the roll of the heavens around it, the inhabitants recreating activities that previous occupants of the heath carried out thousands of years earlier.  The previous generations are never far from the surface in this novel.
It also has some of Hardy's best yokels.  Grandfer Cantle and his useless son Christian are two of the best, but there are plenty of others, not least Susan Nunsuch and her residual beliefs in witchcraft. 

Wessex locations:

  • Weatherbury - Puddletown 
  • East Egdon - Affpuddle
  • Blooms End  - The location may be down near Lower Bhompston Farm, in Lower Bockhampton, but the building itself seems to resemble Hardy's cottage, Higher Bockhampton. #

The Trumpet Major (1880) 

Boy meets girl, another boy meets girl, third boy meets girl.  First boy meets another girl, third boy pretends to meet second girl, second boy also meets the same girl.  First boy marries first girl, second boy marries second girl, third boy dies tragically. Oh, and middle-aged man marries middle-aged woman.  
Well that's the story.  One of the lighter novels, set at the time of the Napoleonic wars when all Dorset expected Boney to arrive any minute and the countryside was full of dashing soldiers.  In the middle of which, three families indulge in matchmaking, feuds and intrigues.  
Or to be more helpful: Anne Garland lives with her widowed mother in half of a mill.  The miller, who lives in the other half, is pleased when his son, a soldier, is stationed on the hill nearby.  This is the "trumpet major" of the story.  His second son comes back from sea.  Needless to say, both sons, while acting honourably, are rivals for Anne.  They have a further rival, the comic villain Festus Derriman.  
The King comes to Budmouth for his holidays, Thomas Hardy's namesake, the admiral who Nelson made the strange request to, pops up for a cameo appearance.  
The sailor fights at Waterloo, a woman of loose morals turns up to confuse the issue, and all ends partially happily ever after.   

One of the fun things about this story is spotting the links in characters to those in other books.  For anyone who's read the Trumpet Major, can I suggest for your consideration:
Miller Loveday  =  Tranter Reuben (Under the Greenwood Tree
Festus Derriman = Alec D'Urberville = Captain Troy 
John Loveday = Gabriel Oak 
Mrs Garland = Tess's Mum
Anne Garland = Fancy Day = Bathsheba Everdene 
I know, it wouldn't stand up in a thesis without a bit more evidence, but it's an interesting thought... 

Wessex locations:
  • Budmouth - Weymouth
  • Overcombe - Sutton Poyntz
  • Oxwell Hall - Poxwell House
  • Pos'ham - Portersham

Two on a Tower (1882) 

One of Hardy's more experimental novels.  A wander into the realms of science, with much metaphysics thrown in. 
Lady Constantine falls in love with young Swithin St Cleeve (I kid you not), a lad of (needless to say) lower social class.  Yet another re-creation of the "Poor Man and the Lady" motif.  And some other typical Hardy tricks; a marriage that isn't, the rustics in the church quire.  Of course there are complications, a baby born almost in wedlock, for example.  But the main feature of this novel is the way that it centres around a telescope on a tower.  Swithin's real passion is for science rather than women. 
You can see a parallel with Return of the Native, in that in the earlier novel the main characters played out their lives and passions against the backdrop of the seemingly timeless heath; whereas in Two on a Tower, their loves are set against the entire universe.  So how important are a man and a woman?  How much damage can they do in their breaches of conventional morality? 

Wessex Tales (1880) 

Thomas Hardy wrote a number of short stories as well as his novels and poems.   Many of these stories had a supernatural element. 

"Wessex Tales" is a fine collection of short stories, albeit written at a time when the art of short story writing was in its development.  The stories are all set deeply within Hardy's homeland, with all the usual locations - Mellstock, Budmouth, Casterbridge and so on - showing up. 
The stories are effectively told in the manner of folk-tales, which gives the impression that maybe there is more truth in them than in just a story. 

The Three Strangers

Twist in the tale of some unexpected visitors at a party.  Well-drawn characters; the shepherd and his wife bearing a distinct resemblance to Reuben and Ann Dewy.  

A tradition of Eighteen Hundred and Four

Based apparently on a local folk-tradition.  Yet another example of Hardy's interest in the times of "Boney", when Wessex was on the front-line. 

The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion 

Napoleonic love-story, again apparently based on a local tale.   


The withered arm 

Excellent supernatural tale of unintended revenge and disappointed lives. 


Based out on the edge of "Mid-Wessex", at Bridport (Port Bredy).   Excellent evocation of the place, which is completely identifiable from the descriptions.  More disappointed people, doomed love and noble behaviour.


Interlopers at the Knap 

Definitely my least-favourite in the book.  A story of (guess what) disappointed loves and lives with too much going backwards and forwards up the same road. But a typically Hardy ending.  

The distracted preacher

Funny, exciting tale about how the young Methodist preacher got caught up in smuggling.  Hardy's grandfather had assisted the smugglers in the past (until stopped by Hardy's grandmother), and the interest and evocation of an old way of life shows.  Excellent local detail but a disappointing (to Hardy) happy ending....  The story's set in "Nether Moynton" (Owermoigne), which has an interesting cider museum. However the cider they sell there is made in Somerset (or was in 2000, when I visited).  

A tradition of Eighteen Hundred and Four

Based apparently on a local folk-tradition.  Yet another example of Hardy's interest in the times of "Boney", when Wessex was on the front-line.

Wessex locations:
  • Mellstock - Bockhampton/Stinsford, Dorset
  • Owermoigne  - Nether Moynton
  • Stickleford - Tincleton 
  • Rushy Pond - Near Hardy's Birthplace, now fully in Bhompston Wood 
  • Angleford - Wareham 
  • Ringsworth - Ringstead 
  • Port Bredy - Bridport (and its harbour, at West Bay) 
  • "The Cove" - Lulworth Cove 
  • Shottsford - Blandford Forum 
  • Higher Crowstairs - On Waterston Ridge, north of Dorchester
  • Long Ash Land - Now the A37 Yeovil road 
  • Evershead - Evershot 
  • Chalk Newton - Maiden Newton 
  • Holmestoke - West/East Holme and East Stoke 
  • Casterbridge - Dorchester

A Laodicean (1881) 


"And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God; I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.  So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth."   (Rev 3:14-16, KJV)
 The basic premise of a Laodicean is that they cannot make up their mind; they're neither one thing, nor the other.  So it is with Paula Power.  She can't make her mind up in religion, nor in love. 
Once again, the rich woman is being attracted to a relatively poor man, and needless to say an architect, who has come down from the smoke to restore - not a church - a castle for her.  As in Two on a Tower, there is an interest in scientific progress; Paula's father made his money as an engineer, but also the use of the telegraph drives the plot along.  In some ways, reading the novel, you get the impression that Hardy's writing a novel about email.  

Wessex locations:
Although there are hints that the story was orginially envisaged as laying closer to the Wessex literary heartland, it is actually set on the Somerset coast.  Stancy Castle is based on Dunster. 

The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) 

One of the group generally regarded as Hardy's finest novels (the others are Far from the Madding Crowd, The Woodlanders, Return of the Native, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure - and I would add Under the Greenwood Tree, just because I like it so much).  Together with Life's Little Ironies and Wessex Tales, Hardy grouped the above novels as his "Novels of Character and Environment". 
Michael Henchard, in a drunken state, sells his wife and daughter to a sailor.  In remorse, he swears he will not drink for twenty-one years.  Many years later, Mrs Henchard - now going under a new name as the sailor's presumed widow - and her daughter find him greatly raised in the world - the Mayor of the title.  But the strong character that has made his fortune also brings his downfall.  The young Donald Farfrae wins the daughter's heart, but marries someone with more connections to Henchard than anyone at first realises.  When Farfrae's loyalty to Henchard is broken by the older man's stubbornness and pride, Henchard discovers that he is out of depth as a backward rustic in a modern world. 
As often in Hardy's work, an overarching theme is the way that the old Wessex is changing.  The old business ways, as well as agricultural methods, are being overturned in the march of progress.  The most important thing to the success of the novel is the sheer power - for good and evil - of the central character.  The tragedy comes out of the knowledge that he need not have been like that; and yet, this being a Wessex novel, he did. 

The Woodlanders (1887) 

Set amid the forests of Little Hintock, a book of crossed loves and, needless to say, tragic deaths.
Marty South is in love with Giles Winterbourne.  Giles is in love with Grace Melbury.  But Grace's father, having previously wanted her to marry Giles, now encourages her to marry Edred Fitzpiers.  Edred's the dashing young doctor from a traditional family (now a bit come down in the world, D'Urberville-like).  But he's already been in the hay with Suke Damson, who to be frank is a bit of a goer.  And once he's married Grace, he's busy becoming acquainted with the local rich widow, Felice Charmond.   
Edred runs off to the Continent with Felice, Felice dies.  Edred comes back, to wonder what Grace has been up to in the hut in the woods with Giles.  There's no point in asking Giles, as needless to say he's dead.
It all ends up with a touching scene by Gile's graveside. 
But forget the plot - it's the stuff Hardy's good at that makes the story.  The last set of decent locals, drinking cider, stripping trees, strange superstitious activities late at night, fermenting cider, chopping down trees, cider apple trees in flower, apple trees with apples, woods in the dead of winter, mantraps, pressing cider.  That's what makes this book one of his best -  I'd put it up with Return of the Native, and a mile beyond Jude or Tess
Giles himself is one of Hardy's best suffering heroes.  Slings and arrows of outrageous fortune barely cover it; through betrayal, homelessness, fever and social embarrassment, Giles just goes on regardless.  Sad that he comes to a sticky end, but then that's Hardy for you. 

A Group of Noble Dames (1887) 

A collection of short stories.  Probably of less interest than the Wessex Tales, or Life's Little Ironies as stories, but interesting as a group.  The title gives it away - this is a collection of stories about interesting women.  As in Tess, Hardy is making women the main characters.  And they are an interesting group for all their different reasons.  They have strong characters, their love lives are complicated, they show bravery and loyalty.
The whole is wrapped around as a portmanteau story with the conceit of each being told by a member of the Wessex Field and Antiquarian Club.  This was an activity in which Hardy had a great deal of interest, and it was his digging into archives that inspired this book and some other short stories.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891) 

One of Hardy's major classics.  Really upset the critics; even its sub-title, "A Pure Woman", was enough to annoy people.
A small-village part-time carrier, with tendencies to idleness and drink, discovers his ancestors were a well-to-do lot.  John Durbeyfield is the offspring of the d'Urbervilles, who came across with the Conqueror.  The problem is, he's dead poor.  What he does have is a very attractive daughter, Tess.  When John's wife Joan (Austenesque, as an unthinking, idle mother), discovers a family of Stoke-d'Urbervilles  living a way off, she sends Tess off to "claim kin". 
Unfortunately for Tess, the "kin" are in fact midlanders who've taken the name because it sounded good.  And her "cousin", Alex, takes full advantage of Tess's inferior position. 
After running home, and having the baby who (inevitably) dies, Tess goes off to work as a milk-maid where she falls in love with, and marries, the (in?-) appropriately named "Angel".  The wedding fails on the wedding night when Angel finds out about her past, and Tess ends up wandering again to find somewhere to live and something to support her. 
A chance encounter with Alex (who is miraculously now a born-again Christian) and a trip to the seaside set the scene for a really tragic end. 

A couple of themes in Tess: 
The contrast in religious and philosophical attitudes; Tess's unthinking mixture of paganism and Christianity becomes won over to Angel's atheism.  Alex goes from immoral debauchery to extreme evangelicalism - and back again.  Hardy often refers to the paganism of the milkmaids - appropriately, since in Latin "pagus" is literally the people who live in a village.  Angel's dad is an old-fashioned evangelical; Angel's brothers are liberal clergymen. And throughout it all there are the Christian (Old and New Testament) and Classical references.  But Hardy's theme seems always to be that if there is a God, he is an uncaring one. 

The old ways giving way to new ones: "Between the mother, with her fast-perishing lumber of superstitions, folk-lore, dialect, and orally transmitted ballads, and the daughter, with her trained National teachings and Standard knowledge under an infinitely Revised Code, there was a gap of two hundred years as ordinarily understood."  The old ways of living in the country are changing; people moving more often, the pace of harvesting changes as industrial methods are brought in, to the point where, in the threshing scene, it's not the machines serving mankind but the other way round. 

Life's Little Ironies (1894) 

A group of short stories.  Aka "Selected Short Stories".  Typical Hardy, in that each of these stories deals with the problems associated with marriage.  A good set of stories, and a collection well worth reading. 

An Imaginative Woman

This is a brilliant story, based around a frustrated woman's infatuation with the poet she has never met. 

The Son's Veto

Working-class woman marries middle-class man.  Son never forgives her for where she's come from.  Just goes to show, money don't make you happy. 

For Conscience' Sake

Interesting tale of someone wrecking other people's happiness while trying to appease his own conscience.  If you add up the ages of the protagonists, and when the events are supposed to occur, you'll find quite an anomaly.

On the Western Circuit

Flash lawyer marries dull girl, due to the interference of another frustrated housewife.

To Please his Wife

Should have stuck to shopkeeping...

The Fiddler of the Reels

One of Hardy's best pieces of work, in my opinion.  Near-supernatural in the telling, with the power of sexuality and music at the centre.

A Few Crusted Characters

An excellent portmanteau story, introducing us to the sort of characters at which Hardy excels.  A brilliantly-plotted collection of miniature tales.   

Jude the Obscure (1896) 

See, the trouble is, try as I might, I can't really get into Jude.  I should do, I know.  It's meant to be one of his all-time greats.  It's got all the great Hardy themes of people trying to avoid their destiny (and failing); a family curse (drunkenness, in this case), marriages, remarriages, divorces - everything you'd expect.  And it has the moment where the children arrange a mass suicide.  Which was moving the first time I read it. Trouble is, there's too much melodrama,. too many massive co-incidences, too much heart-rending.  And above all, it's too damn depressing.
Anyway, the plot... You'll forgive me if I miss a turn, I know, particularly if you've read the book.
Jude is a poor boy, but a bright one.  He's a bit of a dreamer.  He dreams of going to Christminster (a barely-disguised Oxford) and learning.  But poor boys don't go to Oxford. So he gets a job as a stonemason.  He also marries Arabella, a woman who has previously made her mark on him by throwing lumps of dead pig at him.   But they split up, and he moves to Christminster where he falls in love with his cousin Sue, who works selling religious statues.  It turns out she is far more the modern, "enlightened" girl than he ever imagined, but she ends up marrying Jude's former schoolmaster.
But they fall out, Jude and Sue end up moving from town to town, divorcing and having various children who then end it all in a violent and melodramatic way.  Jude never does get to be an educated man, but ends up dying in Arabella's bed, while Arabella's off looking for her next man. 
I've missed tons out.  Sorry if I've spoilt the end.  Are there any good bits?  Probably, but I'm not really the person to ask.  It misses all the stuff I love in other Hardy - like well-drawn country workfolk, and decent scenery.  Instead it comes across as a rail against religion. 

The Well-Beloved (1897) 

Now this one is just plain strange.  The last Hardy novel to be published, as it happens.  Full of strong ideas, but never quite one of his "greats". 
Jocelyn Pierston is the sculptor son of an Isle of Portland stone quarry owner.  He falls in love with a succession of women, in each of whom he sees an avatar of the Well-Beloved; a spiritual rather than a physical concept of womanly perfection.  Three women - mother, daughter, grand-daughter - each possess the Well-Beloved in turn, but from young man to old, he never really acquires her.  Not surprising really.  A study in arrested development and a fear of emotional commitment?  Well, you decide.