'The Three Strangers' - Shepherd Fennel and his wife are celebrating the christening of their second child, a daughter. It's a dark, wet night and three strangers come to knock at their door. Shepherd Fennel thinks because it's a party, he can't turn anyone away, though his wife is a little peeved when one of the strangers starts guzzling all the good mead. The three are strangers to Shepherd Fennel, but not to each other. It looks dodgy for a bit there, but this story started off the book on a very un-Hardy note.
'A Tradition of Eighteen Hundred and Four' - Think about that year. You might guess Napoleon is involved, "his bullet head, his short neck, his round yaller cheeks and chin, his gloomy face, and his great, glowing eyes." And so he is! One of two stories set on the south coast of Wessex.
'The Melancholy Hussar' - Phyllis has an understanding (a little less than an engagement) with Humphrey Gould, "neither good-looking nor positively plain," "an approximately fashionable man of a mild type." Then a regiment of German hussars, in the service of the King, show up.
'The Withered Arm' - a tale of magic. The well-to-do dairy farmer Lodge brings home his new wife Gertrude. But he has a child in the neighbourhood by one of his milkers, Rhoda Brook. Almost at once Gertrude's arm develops a mark and begins to wither. What could be causing it? She's willing to try folk-magic to heal it and keep her husband.
'Fellow-Townsmen' - Downe and Barnet are acquaintances. Downe is a lawyer, poor at first but coming up; Barnet is a rich farmer who inherited. Barnet made a 'good' marriage, but wishes he'd married the poor girl Lucy he loved before. Downe is blissfully happy in his marriage, with his two children. But accidents occur.
'Interlopers at the Knap' - The wealthy farmer Darton is off to propose to Sally Hall, but gets a little lost in the rain and the dark. Darton had been in love before, but had been refused; a marriage with Sally seems like it would be good for everybody. He arrives eventually, but not before Sally's brother Philip, with his wife and children, arrives at the Knap, the Hall home. Philip has been in Australia where he was not a success. His health was ruined and he dies that very evening. Of course the engagement and the wedding must be put off. But for how long?
Those two stories, while perhaps not Tess of the D'Urbervilles tragic, are more what one thinks of as typically Hardy.
'The Distracted Preacher' - The Other Reader said, surely you're not still reading Hardy? And it's true: I was laughing out loud while reading this story. Stockdale, a newly-minted Methodist preacher, is assigned the chapel at Nether-Moynton until the town's permanent Methodist minister can arrive. He's told Mrs. Lizzy Newberry, a widow, is the only person in town who rents rooms, and when Stockdale arrives at the house and meets an older woman, he assumes that's who he's met. When a young woman comes into the room, he inquires, "Miss Newberry?" But no, she's Mrs. Newberry; it was her mother, Mrs. Simpkins he'd met earlier.
He's good-looking and so is she. But Nether-Moynton is on the south coast of Wessex, convenient for smuggling brandy from France. The whole town's in on it, and the church makes a convenient place to stash the goods.
Hardy says he based this on a real story he'd heard, and it ended differently from what he wrote in real life. He would have followed the actual events more closely, but what the market wanted at the time (the story is from 1879, the earliest in the book) was something different. And "the stories are but dreams, and not records."
Anyway quite entertaining, and much more varied than I was expecting. One off my classics club list, and good for this years Back to the Classics challenge.