Most people, even people who know Thomas Hardy, aren’t aware of just how much he wrote. While he was no Anthony Trollope, Hardy really cranked them out in his day. 18 novels and over 50 “short stories” according to Wikipedia’s list. I say “short stories” because The Distracted Preacher comes in at 98 pages in my edition making it a novella in my book. Add his poetry and his non-fiction to this and you have one very busy writer.
I’ve read more Thomas Hardy than most–this is not my first obscure piece of his work by any means–and I can honestly say that he writing runs from great to good, sometimes in the same book. (See Jude the Obscure for example.) I haven’t found anything truly bad. (Well, maybe that bit about the dead children in the closet in Jude. That was truly bad.)
The Distracted Preacher is good.
In The Distracted Preacher young Mr. Stockdale arrives in a very small coastal village to fill in for the local minister, a Methodist. This is Stockdale’s first assignment so he is full of high ideals and idealism, most of it unsuited for village life. Because no one was expecting him, no one arranged a place for him to stay forcing him to take lodgings with Lizzy Newberry, a young widow who takes in boarders.
If you’re thinking this sounds like a comedy, you are correct.
Stockdale is, of course, drawn to young Lizzy who seems unaware of how attractive he finds her at first. But he soon declares his love, in spite of her misgivings. He wants to marry her, but cannot do so unless she agrees to change her wayward habits.
The main problem is that Lizzy, along with most of the village, is involved in a smuggling ring, bringing in various goods from France, mostly liquor, under cover of darkness in order to avoid paying the King’s tax.
Throughout the novel, Stockdale tries to convince Lizzy to abandon her smuggling while she tries to put Stockdale off. Meanwhile, the entire town is trying to avoid the King’s agents, the excise men, who have arrived to root out the smuggling ring. Since he is always following Lizzy around, even when she thinks he isn’t, Stockdale soon gets in the way of the smugglers who sometimes dress as women to avoid detection.
“Root out” is a pretty good joke, but you won’t get it unless I give away part of the ending. So I’m going to give part of it away.
The villagers have hidden their smuggled goods in an orchard underneath the trees which have been planted in wooden containers that are placed over the contraband and then filled in with loose dirt. When they want to move their contraband, they simply lift up the trees by the containers’ rope handles.
I had a very good time with The Distracted Preacher. It’s not great art but it was a good time.
The Distracted Preacher counts as book number three in the 20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge.