On January 2, 1886, the day on which the first installment of The Mayor of Casterbridge was published, Hardy wrote in his diary, “I fear it will not be so good as I meant.” Although Hardy’s fiction up to this point had received mixed reviews, critics generally disagreed with the author about the quality of this book and gave it high marks. Hardy’s autobiography says of the novel, “others thought better of it than he did himself” and mentions that the author Robert Louis Stevenson liked the book and even asked Hardy for permission to adapt it as a play (which Stevenson never did). H. M. Alden’s review in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1886 began, “In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Mr. Hardy seems to have started with the intention of merely adventurous fiction and to have found himself in possession of something so much more important.” Alden continued, “Mr. Hardy has never achieved anything more skillful or valuable . . . we are not sure that he has not placed himself abreast of Tolstoy and the greatest of the continental realists.”
Through the decades, the consensus has remained that The Mayor of Casterbridge is one of the greatest novels of a great writer. Hardy’s characterization— especially of Michael Henchard— has most often been singled out for praise. Martin Seymour-Smith wrote in the introduction to a 1978 edition of The Mayor of...
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