The Hangman's Cottage at Casterbridge. Photographic frontispiece to Thomas Hardy's Wessex Tales. Source: the Macmillan Wessex edition (1912), facing title-page. Photograph by Herman Lea. 8.7 cm high by 13.2 cm wide. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

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Passage illustrated

At this date, and for several years after, there was a hangman to almost every jail. Gertrude found, on inquiry, that the Casterbridge official dwelt in. a lonely cottage by a deep slow river flowing under the cliff on which the prison buildings were situate — the stream being the self-same one, though she did not know it, which watered the Stickleford and Holmstoke meads lower down in its course.

Having changed her dress, and before she had eaten or drunk — for she could not take her ease till she had ascertained some particulars — Gertrude pursued her way by a path along the water-side to the cottage indicated. Passing thus the outskirts of the jail, she discerned on the level roof over the gateway three rectangular lines against the sky, where the specks had been moving in her distant view; she recognized what the erection was, and passed quickly on, Another hundred yards brought her to the executioner's house, which a boy pointed out. It stood close to the same stream, and was hard by a weir, the waters of which emitted a steady roar.

While she stood hesitating the door opened, and an old man came forth shading a candle with one hand. Locking the door on the outside, he turned to a flight of wooden steps fixed against the end of the cottage, and began to ascend them, this being evidently the staircase to his bedroom. Gertrude hastened forward, but by the time she reached the foot of the ladder he was at the top. She called to him loudly enough to be heard above the roar of the weir; he looked down and said, "What d'ye want here?" [VIII, "A Waterside Hermit," p. 101.]

Commentary

The reader encounters the satanic figure of the hangman at the Fennells' cottage in "The Three Strangers," but not his isolated thatched cottage, which appears briefly in "The Withered Arm," a tale of the uncanny. The multi-part short story in Wessex Tales (1888) concludes with Gertrude's being admitted to the prison and given the opportunity to touch the throat of the peasant who has been executed for arson (rick-burning being a common protest against land-owners in the 1840s).

The story was one of Hardy's favourites, and established him as a teller of folktales when it appeared in a periodical famed for its "tales of terror," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, in January 1888. It first appeared in volume form on 4 May 1888 in the first of two volumes, and was reprinted in the complete uniform Osgood, McIlvaine edition as Volume XIII (1896).

With a touch of typical Hardyan irony, it turns out that the condemned man was the illegitimate son of Farmer Lodge and Gertrude's former friend Rhoda Brook, who, Conjurer Trendle had earlier asserted, had caused Gertrude's arm to wither. Denounced by Rhoda as an interfering hussy, Gertrude faints, and dies three days later of shock — or preternatural agency.

In A Hardy Companion: A Guide to the Works of Thomas Hardy and Their Background, F. B. Pinion remarks of this Blackwood's tale, "It belongs to a period in the early part of the nineteenth century [i. e., circa 1830] when Wessex rustics commonly believed in supernatural agencies" (p. 71). Thus, the story may have a logical, scientific, and even psychological explanation, but Hardy's narrator, employing the limited omniscient point-of-view, never commits himself as to whether the cause of the catastrophe is witchcraft, the traditional peasant's explanation for "the uncanny," or mental stress, the modern, rational, enlightened explanation.

Such a tale of the supernatural requires a suitable atmosphere and a specifically suspenseful setting; however, whereas the usual Gothic tale of the Romantic era would be a gloomy, mediaeval castle, as in Sir Walter Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor (1819) and Anne Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1796), or a ruined abbey, as in Matthew G. Lewis's The Monk, Hardy democratizes the gothic by exploiting the dark and menacing atmosphere of the lonely cottage whose sole tenant is a terrifying presence to the local peasantry. The hangman does not rely on natural light or a roaring fire for illumination; rather, he makes do with a single candle, reinforcing the story's dichotomous light-dark imagery.

Like the other cottager whom Gertrude Lodge visits in "the heart of Egdon," Conjuror Trendle, the hangman lives outside the community, cut off neighbours and beyond the town of Casterbridge, at the roaring weir, immediately below the gaol. Moreover, she meets him at night, when a single candle illuminates Davies' visage, although his matter-of-fact handling of the interview is anything but eerie, and his mercenary motivation ("for a trifling fee") hardly smacks of the supernatural. Nevertheless, he concurs with Trendle's proposed solution to Gertrude's withered arm.

Even the landscape participates in this web of interconnections. Though the action of the story seems to move away from Holmstoke to Casterbridge, the river connects the "water-meadows" of the dairy to the cottage of that "water-side hermit," the hangman: "the Casterbridge official dwelt in a lonely cottage by a deep slow river flowing under the cliff on which the prison buildings were situate​— the stream being the self-same one, though she did not know it, which watered the Stickleford and Holmstoke meads lower down its course" (WA, p. 76). The two sites are further connected by the "many-forked stand made as usual of the peeled limb of an oak-tree, set upright in the earth, and resembling a colossal antlered horn" (WA, p. 57) upon which the milkers hang their buckets. This structure takes the place of the gallows, which receives the briefest of descriptions. As Gertrude approaches Casterbridge, she sees indistinctly, on the county jail's roof, "specks moving about; they seemed to be workmen erecting something. Her flesh crept" (WA, p. 75). Later, "she discerned on the level roof over the gateway three rectangular lines against the sky, where the specks had been moving in her distant view" (WA, p. 76). ["Keys," p. 111-112]

Hardy's decision to have Macmillan's issue a new authorized edition of his works resulted in the British publisher' commissioning an entirely fresh sequence of frontispieces to replace the eighteen engraved 1896-97 frontispiece of Henry Macbeth-Raeburn. In the case of the present volume (that is, the ninth, but in fact one of the first four issued) the firm's decision to commission photographer Herman Lea to provide eighteen such initial illustrations meant substituting a fictional cottage (that at Higher Crowstairs) for a real-world location, the Hangman's Cottage at Dorchester. Whereas the former cottage serves as the principal setting in "The Three Strangers," and is therefore a logical choice for the frontispiece of the 1896 Osgood, McIvaine edition, the latter dwelling is a minor feature of "The Withered Arm." However, the atmospheric photograph emphasizes the authenticity of the folklore traditions behind Gertrude's ailment and the cure proposed by the Conjuror. Although it does not reflect Hardy's description of the location of the cottage (underneath the Casterbridge Gaol), it also signals the significance of the nocturnal interview between Farmer Lodge's young wife and the Casterbridge executioner. As the prospectus for the Wessex Edition of the Works of Thomas Hardy at the very back of this volume makes clear, despite the continuing popularity of such novels as Tess of the D'Urbervilles, the present volume was one of the first four issued in the series, and this illustration was therefore one of the first of Lea's photographic illustrations of the real Hardy Country just a two-and-a-half-hour train-ride away from London. Although the volume contains several novella-length stories, it is not a novel, and therefore fits uncomfortably under "I. — Novels of Character and Environment."

The Henry Macbeth-Raeburn Frontispiece for the 1896 Edition

Above: Henry Macbeth-Raeburn's atmospheric rendering of an imaginary setting, Shepherd Fennel's Cottage, Higher Crowstairs, the frontispiece for the 1896 Osgood, McIlvaine edition [Click on image to enlarge it.]

The Categories of the Various Volumes in the Wessex Edition, 1912 (Macmillan)

Left: Prospectus for Macmillan's Wessex Edition, No. 1 through 9 (May 1912) in Hardy's Wessex Tales, Vol. 9. Right: Prospectus for Macmillan's Wessex Edition, No. 10 through 20 (May 1912) in Hardy's Wessex Tales, Vol. 9. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Related Material

References

Hardy, Thomas. Wessex Tales. The Wessex Novels I. — Novels of Character and Environment. London: Macmillan, 1912. 21 vols. With photogravure frontispieces. [The frontispiece of the Hangman's Cottage is facing the title-page.]

Kay-Robinson, Denys. The Landscape of Thomas Hardy, with photographs by Simon McBride. Exeter: Salem House & Web and Bower, 1984.

Keys, Romey T. "Hardy's Uncanny Narrative: A Reading of 'The Withered Arm'."​Texas Studies in Literature and​Language. Vol. 27, No. 1, Nineteenth-Century English Literature (Spring 1985), pp. 106-123.

Pinion, F. B. ​A Hardy Companion: A Guide to the Works of Thomas Hardy and Their Background. Trowbridge, Wiltshire, and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1968, rpt. 1984.

Purdy, Richard L. Thomas Hardy: A Bibliographical Study. Oxford: Clarendon, 1954, rpt. 1978.

Wright, Sarah Bird. Thomas Hardy A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 2002.


Last modified 20 September 2017