"The hag opened a little basket behind the fire, and, looking up slyly, whispered, 'Just a thought 'o run in it?" by Robert Barnes. Plate 2, Thomas Hardy's Mayor of Casterbridge, which appeared in The Graphic, 9 January 1886

The hag opened a little basket

Although her observations are generally astute, Arlene M. Jackson is incorrect when in her analysis of Barnes's plates for the 1886 serialisation she states that this second picture illustrates one of the story's key moments, "Susan returning to Casterbridge Fair" (Illustration and the Novels of Thomas Hardy, p. 102). The scene, of course, is Susan's return to the livestock fair at Weydon-Priors, where Michael Henchard sold her at auction in the furmity-vendor's tent years before. Susan as drawn by Barnes still seems a youthful beauty, though now approaching forty; she was "pretty, even handsome" (17) as she looked down at her infant in Barnes's first plate, and seems to have aged but little in this second (over her shoulder is her mirror image, the face of her grown-up daughter). That the furmity-vendor and Susan are depicted in conversation immediately alerts the reader to the fact that Henchard, having failed to find his wife and sailor all those years before, has become the object of Susan's search in this second weekly number. Once again, we are in the vicinity of Weydon-Priors (Weyhill), but at the annual fair rather than on the highroad, as in the previous plate, and as Jackson points out, "The banners and posters in the Casterbridge Fair [sic] are a delightful means of conveying local color, and ironically emphasize the gaiety of the scene against the somberness of Susan Henchard's search" (103-104).

In addition to being a vivid realizer of scene by means of the careful depiction of detail (much of it not given in the letter-press) Barnes was an excellent hand at juvenile figures, so that by our glimpse of her in the background his Elizabeth-Jane is as fetching in both face and figure as her mother in the first plate, as one might expect from reading Hardy's letter-press. The second plate, "The hag opened a little basket behind the fire, and, looking up slily, whispered, 'Just a thought 0' rum in it?'" (9 January 1886) shows a curious, thoughtful, and sympathetic young woman, but not one with the bitter smile of recognition at the "old trick" that led to her separation from her first husband. At first glance, we might take this self-confident beauty for Elizabeth-Jane, although Hardy's text indicates clearly that the mother has told the girl to "bide here" [42] "while her mother went forward") attired in respectable, middle-class mourning (suggestive of the death of the genial sailor who bought all those years ago), in contrast to the crooked form and weathered face of Mrs. Goodenough and the rough-and-tumble working class folk behind her. Compare the figures' hands: the furmity-vendor's are sinewy, powerful, almost masculine; Susan's are more delicate, serviceable hands as in "Her mother whispered as she drew near, 'Tis he.'" (16 January 1886). The artist's using yet another distinctive nose to provide an instantly recognizable feature is well illustrated in Barnes's depiction of the heroine, the same feature identifying her in "Then it's somebody wanting to see us both" (6 February 1886).

Barnes's conception of the bucolic past is almost archaeologically realistic in some matters (particularly costume) and romantic in others. Instead of dwelling, as Hardy does for example in Ch. 3, on the decline in "the real business of the fair" (41) at Weydon-Priors, Barnes draws the viewer's attention to the "Vanity Fair" aspect of the backdrop for the second meeting of Susan and the old furmity vendor, Mrs. Goodenough. With swirling crowds, fanciful banners, an 'erection' "devoted to shooting for nuts" (note the weapon being brandished by one customer), and possibly even a specimen of those "machines for testing rustic strength and weight" (41), the scene's set suggests festive gaiety rather than the Hardyan pervasive melancholy and economic decline which the text conveys in the absence of tradesmen's stalls and vehicles. One of Barnes's difficulties, of course, was that he was powerless to depict the absence of anything.

The respectable young woman (her weeds again in an immaculate condition hardly suggestive of many days spent traveling afoot) looks with innocent curiosity rather vthan sardonic detachment at the old furmity-vendor (her repetition of her offer of alcohol in the porridge suggestive of a machine-like nature that defies time) as the latter offers to put "Just a thought '0 rum in" (42) the bowl of gruel the younger woman holds, spoon poised.

Hardy describes Elizabeth-Jane as carrying "a withy basket of old-fashioned make" (41), transformed by Barnes into a more urban and less markedly Wessex-style reticule, and transferred by the illustrator from daughter to mother. Presumably Barnes has freed the mother of the encumbrance of the "blue bundle" to show her form to greater advantage. The crook-backed, troll-like furmity-vendor is portrayed with detailed accuracy: her apron stained and ripped, her face and hands as gnarled as her basket from which, Caliban-like, she draws her liquor bottle. She is a witch who has lost her power, as is suggested by the lack of flame beneath her cauldron in the foreground; she has neither tent, nor benches, nor other customers. Her grizzled, bent condition is contrasted by the upright posture and clear features of the young woman, and by the vigorous life surrounding her. although the furmity-vendor appears a third time in the novel (when Henchard acknowledges the truth of her accusation in court that he once sold his wife), she does not appear again in Barnes's program. However, Susan appears in the four of the first five scenes, and Elizabeth-Jane in eleven of the twenty plates, more, in fact than "The Man of Character" himself, for Michael Henchard appears in only nine.

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Last modified 7 June 2003