Thursday, 16 February 2012


At last I can return to writing more on my blog for those who are interested. I have had several writing commissions to fulfil including contributions to a magazine devoted to Military History, contributing to Wiki and writing a Play for forthcoming performance.

Anyway, enough on that; let us get back to the visit of Rhoda Brooke and Gertrude to Conjurer Trendle. We remember Gertrude is attempting by Paranormal Means to discover the identity of the one who attacked her in the night and blasted her arm. So here goes:

Trendle informs Gertrude that it is beyond the power of medicine to cure for 'Tis the work of an enemy'. He divines who the enemy might be. Rhoda waits outside whilst the procedure takes place:

       He brought a tumbler from the dresser, nearly filled it with water, and fetching an egg, prepared it in
       some private way; after which, he broke it on the edge of the glass, so that the the white went in and
       the yoke remained. As it was getting gloomy, he took the glass and its contents to the window, and
       told Gertrude to watch the mixture closely. They leant over the table together, and the milkwoman
       could see the opaline hue of the egg-fluid changing form as it sank in the water, but she was not near
       enough to define the shape it assumed ...."Do you catch the likeness of any face or figure as you
       look?" demanded the conjurer of the young woman. .  She murmured a reply, in tones so low as to
      be inaudible to Rhoda,  and continued to gaze intently into the glass. (V)

Though the technique is pre-Victorian, and this means of looking into the future was once used in the Scottish Lowlands for love-sick maidens attempting to find a suitor, however, this fictionalisation is drawn from Hardy's own experience as his diary entry for 1884 shows.

Rhoda, deducing that she  has been identified as the culprit, 'experienced a sense of triumph', nor did she 'altogether deplore that the young thing at her side should learn that their lives had been antagonized by other influences than their own' (V)

The climax of the story arrives and Rhoda's paranormal ritual makes its fullest impact. Six years after Gertrude's visit to Trendle her arm has become worse and her husband finds her tolerably abhorrent because of this blight on her beauty.Gertrude's personality has either changed or her true personality, hinted at earlier, has surfaced. She is an 'irritable, superstitious woman, whose whole time was given to experimenting upon her ailment with every quack remedy she came across' These include 'bunches of mystic herbs, charms, and books of  necromancy'. Out of sheer desperation at the failure of these nostrums she decides to visit Trendle again.

Here we have an 18th century visit to a Quack Doctor

Her second visit to Trendle is a further attempt to utilise the paranormal to ensure the survival of her marriage. He advises her to 'touch with the limb the neck of a man who's been hanged. (VI) , resulting in a turning of the blood and the eradication of the disease from her system. Even though this is a gruesome paranormal ritual Gertrude reconciles herself to the idea by suggesting that the conjurer's words were 'capable of a scientific no less than a ghastly interpretation. She also prays each night 'O Lord, hang some guilty or innocent person soon!' (VII)

Hearing that there was to be an execution in July and taking advantage of her husband's absence, apparently on a business trip, she departs for Casterbridge. However, when the hangman mentions the possibility of a reprieve she involuntarily exclaims, 'O - a reprieve - I hope not' (VIII) Clearly, a man's life means less to her than her own relief from this paranormal blight.

Survival, in Darwinian terms is her basic drive: to be in a fit condition to satisfy her husband biologically. As she approaches the newly hanged man she seems to experience a mesmeric trance: 'a grey mist seemed to float before her eyes .. she could scarcely discern anything: it was as though she had nearly died, but was held up by a sort of galvanism.' Hardy's vocabulary juxtaposes ancient beliefs in a sort of tension with Victorian equivalents.

Here is a Seventeenth Century Public Hanging

Placing her arm on the neck of the dead man, 'Gertrude shrieked: "the turn o' the blood", predicted by the conjurer had taken place.' At which point Rhoda Brook and Farmer Lodge appear. The dead boy is their son. Hardy through Rhoda reveals the source of the midnight encounter: 'Hussy - to come between us and our child now! .. This is the meaning of what Satan showed me in the vision! You are like her at last!' (IX). This comment may be a concession to those Victorian readers who believed that paranormal occurences were from some evil source. So great was the shock to Gertrude, of her blood turning 'too far', of the tension experience in the previous twenty four hours, and of seeing Rhoda and her husband together, that she dies shortly afterwards.

In a Darwinian sense, then, Gertrude is unfitted to survive in her new environment. Inexorably, forces come into play which eliminate her, and, perhaps in this regard, it is of some significance that she could bear no children to Farmer Lodge. Farmer Lodge leaves Holmestoke and Rhoda, disclaiming the ample provision he had made for her, continues milking until her old age

This story, therefore, contains a strange mixture: biological Darwinism which produces shifts in Rhoda Brook's  social status; paranormal rituals which attempt to redress the balance (in the case of Rhoda Brook it succeeds, but in Gertrude's case it fails); bodily projections; mesmerism, and ancient methods of divination. Hardy moves easily between two modes of thought as if they were inter-changeable. The paranormal material in this story is not a mere literary device. Hardy uses it realistically and perhaps to give a warning that one's circumstances are capable of modification only within certain limits.

The main point of the story is that it was a paranormal ritual which changed the destiny of the two women, operating within a framework of biological Darwinism.

In the next Post - THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE - I shall pick up the theme of the paranormal and the Darwinian struggle for survival

Source of images Wikimedia Commons

Literary Source, 'The Withered Arm' New Wessex Edition (London 1977)

No comments:

Post a Comment