The Distracted Preacher by Thomas Hardy

Last week marked the publication of several new titles in Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, and you know how I love those adorable little things. Since I complained last week on Twitter about the ending of Thomas Hardy’s The Distracted Preacher, I’ll write about that one first.

The preacher in question is a dissenting one, and he’s been sent to the small village of Nether-Moynton at some point in the 1830s, as a temporary stand-in while the town waits for someone permanent. Young Mr. Stockton arrives to find the only place available to lodge is with a young and attractive widow, Lizzy Newberry. Would it be giving anything away to say, distraction!!! No, no it would not. But like Mr. Stockton, I will allay the distraction, at least for a time.

Hardy is at his best here, as I thought he was in Far from the Madding Crowd as well, when he’s describing Nether-Moynton and especially its inhabitants. From the very first chapter:

[Mr. Stockton] had scarcely as yet acquired ballast of character sufficient to steady the consciences of the hundred and forty Methodists of pure blood who, at this time, lived in Nether-Moynton, and to give in addition supplementary support to the mixed race which went to church in the morning and chapel in the evening, or when there was a tea—as many a hundred and ten people more, all told, and including the parish-clerk in the winter-time, when it was too dark for the vicar to observe who passed up the street at seven o’clock—which, to be just to him, he was never anxious to do.

It was owing to this overlapping of creeds that the celebrated population-puzzle arose among the denser gentry of the district around Nether-Moynton; how could it be that a parish containing fifteen score of strong full-grown Episcopalians, and nearly thirteen score of well-matured Dissenters, numbered barely two-and-twenty score adults in all?

Right out, a picture of a cute, funny place. I like it. And I like Lizzy Newberry, too, who helps Stockton cure his head-cold his first night in town by introducing him to a small supply of brandy smuggled from France. He’s not happy at the illegality, but after all he’s only had a dash of it and it does make him feel better.

It turns out, though, the Mrs. Newberry is much more involved in this smuggling than he can guess, and after weeks of flirting and practically becoming engaged, Stockton discovers that she would simply never make a good minister’s wife, at least not unless she agrees to give up this unlawful trade. Unfortunately for their future together, Lizzy has little interest in doing so.

I could write a whole post associating The Distracted Preacher with my project on work, and I’ll keep that in my back pocket at least. There is plenty shown of the work of smuggling, not to mention the work of the king’s men in trying to stop the smugglers. And I suppose Mr. Stockton does a bit of work too, though not very much. But none of that gets at my complaint—which is an extreme spoiler, so please be warned: I found the ending absolutely absurd and unsatisfactory.

One of the things that made me love Lizzy most is that she gets a line I had been saying to myself all along as Mr. Stockton scolded her for her smuggling: “‘You dissent from Church, and I dissent from State,’ she said, ‘and I don’t see why we are not well matched.’” You tell him! (I really did say this to myself for several chapters.) This should be the winning argument—poof, Stockton’s scruples go up in smoke! But instead, and seriously people, if you don’t want a spoiler, stop reading, we get the absurd final chapter.

Stockton has left Nether-Moynton for two years after Lizzy’s refusal to quit smuggling, and while he was gone, guess what happened? Everyone in town got caught. Lizzy’s cousin, who ran the show, had to smuggle himself off to Canada, and she was even accidentally shot (though not seriously). When the minister “gravely” (I would imagine it more “passive-aggressively” myself) asks her, “And what do you think of smuggling now?” the good woman “own[s] that we were wrong”—a far fall from her days of proclaiming that the folk of Nether-Moynton were honest traders being robbed by the king! But now her and Stockton can be married, and “[i]t is said that in after-years she wrote an excellent tract called ‘Render unto Caesar; or, The Repentant Villagers.’” I’m pretty sure, in fact, that I just read that tract—or at least something equally cheap. I wish I could find some sort of irony in this ending to rescue it for me, but I don’t see any. All I see is Hardy being an absolute fool, and poor Lizzy brought low to marry a man not worth the mud on her smuggler’s coat.

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