The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy.
The Return of the Native is Thomas Hardy's sixth published novel, first published in Belgravia, a magazine founded by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, from January to December 1878. It is one of Hardy's most interesting novels so far for me - a mixture of Greek tragedy and a novel very ahead of its time.
Fate and chance play great parts in the novels of Thomas Hardy, and in this all of the action is a consequence of some irregularity in a marriage license: on Guy Fawkes Day (5th November) Damon Wildeve and Thomasin Yeobright were to marry in Anglebury, but the license was for another town, Budmouth. The pair return unmarried to Egdon Heath (Dorset, Hardy's 'Lower Wessex') separately - Thomasin heartbroken and humiliated, Damon with second thoughts. He thinks of the his former love, Eustacia Vye, and considers rekindling their romance. On their return, Bonfire Night, these little fires are seen for miles around:
Red suns and tufts of fire one by one began to arise, flecking the whole country round. They were the bonfires of other parishes and hamlets that were engaged in the same sort of commemoration. Some were distant, and stood in a dense atmosphere, so that bundles of pale straw-like beams radiated around them in the shape of a fan. Some were large and near, glowing scarlet-red from the shade, like wounds in a black hide. Some were Maenades, with winy faces and blown hair. These tinctured the silent bosom of the clouds above them and lit up their ephemeral caves, which seemed thenceforth to become scalding caldrons. Perhaps as many as thirty bonfires could be counted within the whole bounds of the district; and as the hour may be told on a clock-face when the figures themselves are invisible, so did the men recognize the locality of each fire by its angle and direction, though nothing of the scenery could be viewed.
As Eustacia stands watching her bonfire Damon approaches her, believing she has summoned him with her fire: "Eustacia!" he said, "could I forget that last autumn at this same day of the month and at this same place you lighted exactly such a fire as a signal for me to come and see you? Why should there have been a bonfire again by Captain Vye's house if not for the same purpose?"
He attempts to convince her to start a new life with him in America but she refuses to forgive him for leaving her for Thomasin. Like all the best Victorian heroines she is a romantic soul wanting more excitement than provincial life can offer and suddenly this becomes a possibility: the 'native' of the title, Clym Yeobright (Thomasin's cousin) returns from Paris where he worked as a diamond merchant, however he rejected the materialism of his earlier life and wished to begin life anew as a school teacher in the place of his birth. He is essentially the centre of the novel, the point of unity of the plot and characters, yet the most striking character of all is the witchy Eustacia. She is the outsider, suspected of being an actual witch, though she proves to be anything but in the end, and she is never able (nor really willing) to fit in. She is an enigma, even for the reader: her strength and insecurity, her humanity (it is so easy to identify with her in some respects) and her other-worldliness make her one of the most remarkable characters in English literature. And despite such strength of personality circumstances stack up against her, pulling her down an ill-fated path.
This is one very beautiful novel, perfect almost in its symmetry. Egdon Heath, as much of a character as Eustacia, Thomasin, Damon, and Clym, is portrayed so vividly, the descriptions are some of Hardy's best of the natural world. It is a tragic tale, full of darkness, magic, and fire; it has the scope of the Ancient Greeks, yet with themes of sexuality and infidelity it is truly a modern tale. Compared to what came before The Return of the Native (Desperate Remedies, Under the Greenwood Tree, A Pair of Blue Eyes, Far from the Madding Crowd, and The Hand of Ethelberta) it is Hardy's most impressive.
And on a lighter note, I must share this - a Monty Python sketch "Novel Writing" - Thomas Hardy writing the first sentence of The Return of the Native: