The Reddleman Can

Considering that Diggory Venn is the only character I remembered from my first reading of Hardy’s Return of the Native and is the only character I found admirable after my second reading, I was a little dismayed when I read this brief analysis from Cliff Notes:

Since the reddleman is used by Hardy as the connector in developing the plot of the novel, he is hardly a character at all in the usual sense. True enough, he is persistent, resourceful, hard-working, and prudent, but he is so little a character in the book that it is something of a surprise to see him appear as Thomasin’s suitor in Book Sixth. For all of his appearances in the story, the reader knows less about him really than about any other character. Not even his marrying Thomasin lessens the mystery, though Hardy implies in a comment about the novel that it will. Perhaps Hardy decided to marry him off to Thomasin as a reward for plot services rendered.

I began to wonder if we’d both read the same book, perhaps not. In fact, the more I read criticism on the net, the more I’m sure we’re not seeing the novel through the same eyes. Surely if this critic had actually read the novel he would have known that the reason Diggory became a reddleman was because he had been rejected by Thomasin two years earlier:

He sat down on a three-legged milking stool that formed the only seat in the van, and, examining his packet by the light of a candle, took thence an old letter and spread it open. The writing had originally been traced on white paper, but the letter had now assumed a pale red tinge from the accident of its situation; and the black strokes of writing thereon looked like the twigs of a winter hedge against a vermilion sunset. The letter bore a date some two years previous to that time, and was signed “Thomasin Yeobright.” It ran as follows:–

DEAR DIGGORY VENN,–The question you put when you overtook me coming home from Pond-close gave me such a surprise that I am afraid I did not make you exactly understand what I meant. Of course, if my aunt had not met me I could have explained all then at once, but as it was there was no chance. I have been quite uneasy since, as you know I do not wish to pain you, yet I fear I shall be doing so now in contradicting what I seemed to say then. I cannot, Diggory, marry you, or think of letting you call me your sweetheart. I could not, indeed, Diggory. I hope you will not much mind my saying this, and feel in a great pain. It makes me very sad when I think it may, for I like you very much, and I always put you next to my cousin Clym in my mind. There are so many reasons why we cannot be married that I can hardly name them all in a letter. I did not in the least expect that you were going to speak on such a thing when you followed me, because I had never thought of you in the sense of a lover at all. You must not becall me for laughing when you spoke; you mistook when you thought I laughed at you as a foolish man. I laughed because the idea was so odd, and not at you at all. The great reason with my own personal self for not letting you court me is, that I do not feel the things a woman ought to feel who consents to walk with you with the meaning of being your wife. It is not as you think, that I have another in my mind, for I do not encourage anybody, and never have in my life. Another reason is my aunt. She would not, I know, agree to it, even if I wished to have you. She likes you very well, but she will want me to look a little higher than a small dairy-farmer, and marry a professional man. I hope you will not set your heart against me for writing plainly, but I felt you might try to see me again, and it is better that we should not meet. I shall always think of you as a good man, and be anxious for your well-doing. I send this by Jane Orchard’s little maid,–And remain Diggory, your faithful friend,

THOMASIN YEOBRIGHT.

Dude, that simple letter makes clear Diggory’s motivation throughout the novel — he loves the woman. Before her marriage he continually returns in hope that he can change her mind and win her over.

Rejected suitors take to roaming as naturally as unhived bees; and the business to which he had cynically devoted himself was in many ways congenial to Venn. But his wanderings, by mere stress of old emotions, had frequently taken an Egdon direction, though he never intruded upon her who attracted him thither. To be in Thomasin’s heath, and near her, yet unseen, was the one ewe-lamb of pleasure left to him.

Then came the incident of that day, and the reddleman, still loving her well, was excited by this accidental service to her at a critical juncture to vow an active devotion to her cause, instead of, as hitherto, sighing and holding aloof. After what had happened it was impossible that he should not doubt the honesty of Wildeve’s intentions. But her hope was apparently centred upon him; and dismissing his regrets Venn determined to aid her to be happy in her own chosen way. That this way was, of all others, the most distressing to himself, was awkward enough; but the reddleman’s love was generous.

Though, I’ll have to admit I’ve never loved anyone enough to actually help a woman I’ve loved to marry another man, it almost seems admirable that he was willing to do so. In fact, if one were to insist that Diggory is merely a “plot device,” one might argue that his love for Thomasin serves as a foil to Clym’s destructive, romantic “love” for Eustacia.

Having seen Wildeve and Eustacia together, the “perspicacious” Diggory rightly decides that the reason Wildeve had stood up Thomasin was because of his love for Eustacia and attempts to convince her to reject Wildeve. After a less direct argument fails, the

reddleman had decided to play the card of truth. “I was at the meeting by Rainbarrow last night and heard every word,” he said. “The woman that stands between Wildeve and Thomasin is yourself.”

It was a disconcerting lift of the curtain, and the mortification of Candaules’ wife glowed in her. The moment had arrived when her lip would tremble in spite of herself, and when the gasp could no longer be kept down.

“I am unwell,” she said hurriedly. “No–it is not that–I am not in a humour to hear you further. Leave me, please.”

When even the truth and the possible embarrassment that involves fails to convince Eustacia, he finally offers a bribe that might well have convinced someone less opposed to work:


“My uncle has been for five and twenty years the trusty man of a rich widow-lady who has a beautiful house facing the sea. This lady has become old and lame, and she wants a young company-keeper to read and sing to her, but can’t get one to her mind to save her life, though she’ve advertised in the papers, and tried half a dozen. She would jump to get you, and Uncle would make it all easy.”

“I should have to work, perhaps?”

“No, not real work–you’d have a little to do, such as reading and that. You would not be wanted till New Year’s Day.”

“I knew it meant work,” she said, drooping to languor again.

“I confess there would be a trifle to do in the way of amusing her; but though idle people might call it work, working people would call it play. Think of the company and the life you’d lead, miss; the gaiety you’d see, and the gentleman you’d marry. My uncle is to inquire for a trustworthy young lady from the country, as she don’t like town girls.”

“It is to wear myself out to please her! and I won’t go. O, if I could live in a gay town as a lady should, and go my own ways, and do my own doings, I’d give the wrinkled half of my life! Yes, reddleman, that would I.”

“Help me to get Thomasin happy, miss, and the chance shall be yours,” urged her companion.

“Chance–’tis no chance,” she said proudly. “What can a poor man like you offer me, indeed?–I am going indoors. I have nothing more to say. Don’t your horses want feeding, or your reddlebags want mending, or don’t you want to find buyers for your goods, that you stay idling here like this?”

Of course the interview does advance the plot by revealing that the very thought of work causes the beautiful Eustacia to droop to lanquor. She wants “live in gay town as a lady should,” but just as importantly it reveals that Diggory is a practical, inventive man who will do what has to be done to protect someone he loves.

When Diggory returns from his failed attempt to convince Eustacia to give up Wildeve, he encounters and offers himself as an alternative to Wildeve to Mrs. Yeobright, thinking Mrs. Yeobright might no longer object to Diggory now that she’s seen how Wildeve has mistreated her niece:

“I should like to say a word first,” said Venn firmly. “Mr. Wildeve is not the only man who has asked Thomasin to marry him; and why should not another have a chance? Mrs. Yeobright, I should be glad to marry your niece and would have done it any time these last two years. There, now it is out, and I have never told anybody before but herself.”

Mrs. Yeobright was not demonstrative, but her eyes involuntarily glanced towards his singular though shapely figure.

“Looks are not everything,” said the reddleman, noticing the glance. “There’s many a calling that don’t bring in so much as mine, if it comes to money; and perhaps I am not so much worse off than Wildeve. There is nobody so poor as these professional fellows who have failed; and if you shouldn’t like my redness–well, I am not red by birth, you know; I only took to this business for a freak; and I might turn my hand to something else in good time.”

“I am much obliged to you for your interest in my niece; but I fear there would be objections. More than that, she is devoted to this man.”

“True; or I shouldn’t have done what I have this morning.”

“Otherwise there would be no pain in the case, and you would not see me going to his house now. What was Thomasin’s answer when you told her of your feelings?”

“She wrote that you would object to me; and other things.”

“She was in a measure right. You must not take this unkindly–I merely state it as a truth. You have been good to her, and we do not forget it. But as she was unwilling on her own account to be your wife, that settles the point without my wishes being concerned.”

“Yes. But there is a difference between then and now, ma’am. She is distressed now, and I have thought that if you were to talk to her about me, and think favourably of me yourself, there might be a chance of winning her round, and getting her quite independent of this Wildeve’s backward and forward play, and his not knowing whether he’ll have her or no.”

Mrs. Yeobright shook her head. “Thomasin thinks, and I think with her, that she ought to be Wildeve’s wife, if she means to appear before the world without a slur upon her name. If they marry soon, everybody will believe that an accident did really prevent the wedding. If not, it may cast a shade upon her character–at any rate make her ridiculous. In short, if it is anyhow possible they must marry now.”

I’d have hoped that even if the CliffsNote critic had missed the original rejection letter he might have caught this encounter and it would have been less of “a surprise to see him appear as Thomasin’s suitor in Book Sixth.” In the rejection of Diggory’s offer, we’re also reminded of just how conscious Mrs. Yeobright is of her good name, and how worried her niece’s actions might reflect badly upon her, despite the fact that she had originally opposed Thomasin’s marriage to Wildeve. Apparently her concern for her niece’s welfare is even less important than what townsfolk, who she looks down upon, of course, would think of the family if they didn’t get married.

Despite her insistence that Thomasin should marry Wildeve, Mrs. Yeobright, and Clym, for that matter, do not attend the wedding because of her dislike for Wildeve and their recent argument. No, only Diggory ensures that the marriage goes through and reports back to her:

“Is she married?” Mrs. Yeobright inquired, turning to the reddleman a face in which a strange strife of wishes, for and against, was apparent.

Venn bowed. “She is, ma’am.”

“How strange it sounds,” murmured Clym.

“And he didn’t disappoint her this time?” said Mrs. Yeobright.

“He did not. And there is now no slight on her name. I was hastening ath’art to tell you at once, as I saw you were not there.”

“How came you to be there? How did you know it?” she asked.

“I have been in that neighbourhood for some time, and I saw them go in,” said the reddleman. “Wildeve came up to the door, punctual as the clock. I didn’t expect it of him.” He did not add, as he might have added, that how he came to be in that neighbourhood was not by accident; that, since Wildeve’s resumption of his right to Thomasin, Venn, with the thoroughness which was part of his character, had determined to see the end of the episode.

Seeing things through, rather than worrying but failing to act, sets Diggory apart from most of the characters in the novel. You certainly wish Clym had this trait later in the novel, for its lack leads to most of the tragedies in the novel.

Diggory seems resigned to his loss, and wishes the best for Thomasin, though it was hard for this reader to imagine any such happiness:

“Well, it is no matter,” said the reddleman. “The thing is done at last as it was meant to be at first, and God send her happiness. Now I’ll wish you good morning.”

He placed his cap on his head and went out.

From that instant of leaving Mrs. Yeobright’s door, the reddleman was seen no more in or about Egdon Heath for a space of many months. He vanished entirely. The nook among the brambles where his van had been standing was as vacant as ever the next morning, and scarcely a sign remained to show that he had been there, excepting a few straws, and a little redness on the turf, which was washed away by the next storm of rain.

Accepting what is, dealing with Reality, or, perhaps, even, Fate, is another of those traits that sets Diggory apart from most of the characters in the novel.

A common charge made against Hardy is that Chance plays a large part in his novels, and that same charge could be made in his use of Diggory. For instance, it seems highly unlikely, considering his occupation, that Diggory could really have observed Wildeve cheat Mrs. Yeobright’s servant out of the coins intended for Thomasin and Clym. Of course, it seems more believable that Diggory could beat Wildeve as easily in dice as Wildeve defeated the superstitious servant.

The reddleman came up as they slowly turned the corner. “I beg pardon for stopping you, Mrs. Wildeve,” he said. “But I have something to give you privately from Mrs. Yeobright.” He handed a small parcel; it consisted of the hundred guineas he had just won, roughly twisted up in a piece of paper.

Thomasin recovered from her surprise, and took the packet. “That’s all, ma’am–I wish you good night,” he said, and vanished from her view.

Thus Venn, in his anxiety to rectify matters, had placed in Thomasin’s hands not only the fifty guineas which rightly belonged to her, but also the fifty intended for her cousin Clym. His mistake had been based upon Wildeve’s words at the opening of the game, when he indignantly denied that the guinea was not his own. It had not been comprehended by the reddleman that at halfway through the performance the game was continued with the money of another person; and it was an error which afterwards helped to cause more misfortune than treble the loss in money value could have done.

Not even someone as observant as Diggory can know everything, as we’ve seen before, and this mistake leads to a greater split between Mrs. Yeobright and Clym.

Hardy makes it clear that Diggory doesn’t linger nearby hoping that Thomasin’s marriage will fail. It isn’t until much later that Diggory happens by again and Thomasin asks him for help:

Those words of Thomasin, which seemed so little, but meant so much, remained in the ears of Diggory Venn: “Help me to keep him home in the evenings.”

On this occasion Venn had arrived on Egdon Heath only to cross to the other side–he had no further connection with the interests of the Yeobright family, and he had a business of his own to attend to. Yet he suddenly began to feel himself drifting into the old track of manoeuvring on Thomasin’s account.

He sat in his van and considered. From Thomasin’s words and manner he had plainly gathered that Wildeve neglected her. For whom could he neglect her if not for Eustacia? Yet it was scarcely credible that things had come to such a head as to indicate that Eustacia systematically encouraged him. Venn resolved to reconnoitre somewhat carefully the lonely road which led along the vale from Wildeve’s dwelling to Clym’s house at Alderworth.

It’s pretty obvious he still loves Thomasin and would do anything for her, which suggests he’s a better man than I’ve ever been capable of being. Either that, or he’s wasting his time on someone he should have probably forgotten since hanging on to old loves never seems to turn out well.

It’s Diggory that saves Clym and rescues the bodies of Wildeve and Eustacia from Shadwater Weir after Thomasin urges him to help her find Wildeve after she suspects he is going to run away with Eustacia and leave her and the baby behind:

At first he could see nothing. Then amidst the glistening of the whirlpools and the white clots of foam he distinguished a woman’s bonnet floating alone. His search was now under the left wall, when something came to the surface almost close beside him. It was not, as he had expected, a woman, but a man. The reddleman put the ring of the lantern between his teeth, seized the floating man by the collar, and, holding on to the hatch with his remaining arm, struck out into the strongest race, by which the unconscious man, the hatch, and himself were carried down the stream. As soon as Venn found his feet dragging over the pebbles of the shallower part below he secured his footing and waded towards the brink. There, where the water stood at about the height of his waist, he flung away the hatch, and attempted to drag forth the man. This was a matter of great difficulty, and he found as the reason that the legs of the unfortunate stranger were tightly embraced by the arms of another man, who had hitherto been entirely beneath the surface.

At this moment his heart bounded to hear footsteps running towards him, and two men, roused by Thomasin, appeared at the brink above. They ran to where Venn was, and helped him in lifting out the apparently drowned persons, separating them, and laying them out upon the grass. Venn turned the light upon their faces. The one who had been uppermost was Yeobright; he who had been completely submerged was Wildeve.

“Now we must search the hole again,” said Venn. “A woman is in there somewhere. Get a pole.”

The tacked-on ending to the novel demanded by publishers because the novel lacked a “happy ending” has Clym objecting to the Thomasin’s marriage to Diggory because his mother had objected to it:

“Then how could you say that I should marry some town man? I am sure, say what you will, that I must marry Diggory, if I marry at all. He has been kinder to me than anybody else, and has helped me in many ways that I don’t know of!” Thomasin almost pouted now.

“Yes, he has,” said Clym in a neutral tone. “Well, I wish with all my heart that I could say, marry him. But I cannot forget what my mother thought on that matter, and it goes rather against me not to respect her opinion. There is too much reason why we should do the little we can to respect it now.”

“Very well, then,” sighed Thomasin. “I will say no more.”

“But you are not bound to obey my wishes. I merely say what I think.”

“O no–I don’t want to be rebellious in that way,” she said sadly. “I had no business to think of him–I ought to have thought of my family. What dreadfully bad impulses there are in me!” Her lips trembled, and she turned away to hide a tear.

Clym, though vexed at what seemed her unaccountable taste, was in a measure relieved to find that at any rate the marriage question in relation to himself was shelved. Through several succeeding days he saw her at different times from the window of his room moping disconsolately about the garden. He was half angry with her for choosing Venn; then he was grieved at having put himself in the way of Venn’s happiness, who was, after all, as honest and persevering a young fellow as any on Egdon, since he had turned over a new leaf.

You’d have thought that Clym might have learned something from his tragedy, but apparently very little. He’s a dreamer who seems incapable of seeing the world around him for what it really is and is still bound by his mother’s beliefs of what were proper and of the importance of people’s place in the world. If mother says the reddleman was inferior, he must be despite the fact that he’s saved Clym’s life.

Of course, poor silly little Thomasin has even more reason not to trust Mrs. Yeobright’s opinions and even more reason to trust Diggory. She ought to have seen where thinking of your family first leads. Though some might well argue that her sudden wealth might well have countered any other inconveniences she’s suffered.

I suspect if he’d had any other viable alternative, Hardy would have left poor Diggory alone and not joined him throughout eternity with the poor, silly little girl. Unfortunately, unless he was going to write another five hundred pages there weren’t any other viable alternatives available. Certainly Clym wasn’t ready for another “great romance,” and I’m not sure his suggested (shudder) marriage to his mother’s niece because they lived to together under the same roof would have done much to assuage Hardy’s readers’ anger. So we end with Diggory’s final reward:

She scrutinized his face. “Yes, you guess right. It is going to be after all. He thinks I may as well make up my mind, and I have got to think so too. It is to be on the twenty-fifth of next month, if you don’t object.”

“Do what you think right, dear. I am only too glad that you see your way clear to happiness again. My sex owes you every amends for the treatment you received in days gone by.”*

* The writer may state here that the original conception of the story did not design a marriage between Thomasin and Venn. He was to have retained his isolated and weird character to the last, and to have disappeared mysteriously from the heath, nobody knowing whither–Thomasin remaining a widow. But certain circumstances of serial publication led to a change of intent.

Readers can therefore choose between the endings, and those with an austere artistic code can assume the more consistent conclusion to be the true one.

I don’t remember exactly how I felt about this as a high school senior, and though I don’t really have an “austere artistic code,” my head tells me Thomasin would never have gone against societal values and married Diggory, particularly since he had been a reddleman. She’s shown no real signs of being able to think for herself and resist the societal forces that demand that she act prescribed ways, perhaps with good reason when she’d seen what happens to people like Eustacia and Wildeve who consciously break the code to feed their own passions.

Even Clym who broke the code for better reasons suffers nearly unbearable punishment. He loses everyone he loves in life. Of course, it’s his impracticality, his idealism, that dooms him more than breaking any social mores. He is naive enough to believe that his love for Eustacia will cause her to forget about leaving Egdon Heath, that her hatred for the place can be overcome by their love. What can you expect from someone who abandons his profession to redeem the inhabitants of Egdon Heath as first a teacher than as a preacher, a preacher without a religion?

This is a “modern novel” and there are no heroes, but it certainly seems to me that the best adjusted person in the novel is Diggory himself. Thomasin’s original rejection of him because he’s only a dairyman forces him to reject society’s rules. He purposely chooses a vocation that most people look down upon because it gives him the freedom to get away that owning a farm didn’t give him. Attuning himself to Egdon Heath gives him new strengths and new awarenesses. He sees things that those who are bound by their station cannot see. He adjusts to the Heath in ways that few others do, at least few villagers do. Standing on the outside his confident of who he is, is able to see through other’s deceptions, and is generally happy, though unfulfilled because he is unable to have the one he loves.

One thought on “The Reddleman Can

  1. Thanks for these excellent essays on Hardy, Loren. I do intend completing ‘Return of the Native’ – but it won’t be for a little while. I’ve been very busy sorting out the chaos of my father’s house after his death; also I start a new job on Monday which will be taking me away from home quite a lot. So reading has unfortunately taken a back seat. But I will re-read this piece later.

What do you think?