Michael Henchard sells his wife and child to a sailor at a fair; a terrible drunken act and something which comes back to haunt him with a vengeance. Eighteen years later the sailor is lost at sea, presumed dead, and Susan seeks out her former husband to discover that Henchard has not only established himself as a wealthy corn merchant, but is also the Mayor of Casterbridge. Anxious to save his reputation and partly out of a sense of duty, Henchard marries Susan again, pretending Elizabeth Jane is his step-daughter – but Susan hides a dark secret, and Henchard has already promised a future to Lucetta Templeman. When a handsome, straight-speaking Scotsman, Donald Farfrae, arrives in town Henchard is quick to employ him and his clever business ideas, but then matters become compounded when both Lucetta and Elizabeth Jane are romantically inclined towards Farfrae, and Henchard is thrown into a state of flux. As their relationships – both business and pleasure – become hopelessly intertwined and fraught with wrong turns, Farfrae’s fortunes look set to rise and Henchard finds himself on the downward spiral as his past rushes to meet him.
The narrative is quite hard-going, partly down to a lot of old English words and the rural slang of the day. The dialogue is authentic, especially the regional variations, and it’s also a rich and vivid portrait of country life in 1840’s Dorset. There are a few convenient deaths and the overall atmosphere is one of melancholy and redemption, but the strength of this novel lies in the twisty plotting and how well it is structured. Characters are multi-dimensional and rise and fall by their own hand. Henchard, although he tries to do the right thing isn’t quite the moral upstanding man his image represents, and the author really does make him pay! It’s a great story, one with a strong social and moral conscience.