Among Those Who Danced Most Continually Were the Two Engaged Couples by Charles Green — an illustration for Thomas Hardy's "Wessex Folk." 1891. Lithograph, 12 cm high by 18.8 cm wide. Scanned image, caption, and commentary by Philip V. Allingham [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL.]

From Thomas Hardy's "Wessex Folk" (subsequently renamed "A Few Crusted Characters") in Harper's New Monthly Magazine (March 1891): 594. If the series' opening story, "Tony Kytes, the Arch-Deceiver," encapsulates the comedic, "battle of the sexes" aspect of courtship and marriage, the second story presents a sharp contrast as we move from the romantic pastoral of Shakespeare to a fatalistic tale of star-crossed lovers, what was planned by nature having been undone in an impetuous moment in "The History of the Hardcomes."

In "Among Those Who Danced Most Continually Were the Two Engaged Couples" (p. 594, facing p. 595), the second illustration of the March 1891 instalment, Charles Green focuses upon the joyous celebration of old Christmas at Tony's "wedding-randy" in the time-honoured Wessex manner, with a fiddler (upper centre) providing a lively tune for the country-dance. Even though the styles worn by the young couples are of the metropolis, their values and usages are traditional. Again, Hardy distinguishes between what makes a thrilling romance, the attraction of opposites, and what constitutes the basis for an effective marriage, the partnership of those with equal tastes, perceptions, and aspirations. Caught up in the excitement of the dance, Steve and James Hardcome, first-cousins, unwisely exchange sweethearts and marry women ill-suited to their dispositions. The story that begins with a rollicking community party ends with the drowning of the one Hardcome and his cousin's wife, reunited in death. This fateful and melancholy outcome is contrasted by the "lively sexual atmosphere of the country dance [which] leads to an impulsive changing of partners" (Brady 144) not merely for the evening's dance, so positively conveyed in the yuletide chandelier and fashionably accoutred partners, but for the dance of life. Of the plate's twenty figures, males predominate, for the power of choice — for dance-partners and for life-companions — is in their hands. The female figures are largely eclipsed. Significantly, a seated elderly couple reduced to the status of mere spectators and commentators for both types of dance, contrasts the active courtship of the central figures, dressed by the artist in Regency attire to imply a chronological setting some sixty years earlier. Green has captured well the unemotional nature of the first male dancer and the lively charm and coiled blonde curls of his partner, the more outgoing Olive; the second couple reverse these dispositions, the young woman (presumably, Emily, again in bridal white) looking disagreeably at her fianc&eacut; James ahead of her. Already, then, the viewer is being prepared by the headnote illustration for the disruption in the dual courtship enacted prior to the dance.

The first two stories in Wessex Folk, that of Tony Kytes (not illustrated, except that the dance of the illustration is the social culmination of the young carrier's courtship) and that of the Hardcomes, are the keynote for the entire sequence: whereas the first focuses on the fickleness of the protagonist in making his marital choice, the second carries us beyond the courtship stage to two of life's other main events, marriage and death. Like Tony, as Kristin Brady notes, in changing life-partners after the dance and in attempting to undo that reversal after marriage, "Stephen Hardcome and his cousin's wife drift into an irrational state of sexual oblivion, carried by the tide of emotion into a forgetfulness of all their previous commitments and responsibilities" (145).

References

Brady, Kristin. The Short Stories of Thomas Hardy: Tales of Past and Present. London & Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1984.


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Last modified 13 June 2008