He offers to sell his wife and daughter to the highest bidder. He isn't entirely serious, but when a sailor offers five guineas a lot of money to a poor man back then , Henchard takes it. Susan thinks it's a binding arrangement and that she now legally belongs to the sailor, so she takes the baby and leaves. When Henchard wakes up sober and sorry, he tries to trace his wife and daughter.
No luck. He swears a solemn oath not to drink any more alcohol for twenty years. After several months, he learns that the sailor has probably taken Susan and Elizabeth-Jane to North America, and he gives up hope of ever finding them. He settles down in the town of Casterbridge. The scene changes.
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It's eighteen years later. Susan and her daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, are traveling to Casterbridge to track down Michael Henchard. The sailor, whose name was Newson, has died, and Susan who now calls herself Mrs.
Newson, since she thought that her marriage was actually legally transferred to Newson has decided that it's only right to return to her first husband to see if he can do anything for Elizabeth-Jane. When they arrive in Casterbridge, they find that Henchard has worked his way up from a lowly hay harvester to a hay and grain merchant.
He's wealthy now and has even been elected Mayor of the town. When he learns that Susan and Elizabeth-Jane are not only still alive, but in Casterbridge, he decides that it's only right to take them in and support them. But, as you might guess, he doesn't want to admit to anyone that he auctioned off his wife eighteen years earlier. So he suggests that Susan live in Casterbridge and call herself the widow Mrs. Newson, and he'll pretend to fall in love with her and propose to marry her.
Then they can all live together, with Elizabeth-Jane as his "stepdaughter" instead of as his real daughter. Susan agrees, they follow the plan, and Susan and Elizabeth-Jane are soon living in the Mayor's house.
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Around this same time, Henchard hires a young Scottish man, Donald Farfrae, to help manage his affairs. Farfrae has a much better head for business than Henchard does, and he quickly whips Henchard's business into shape. The two men become friends, and Elizabeth-Jane develops a crush on Farfrae. Henchard confides everything to Farfrae, including the drunken auction eighteen years earlier.
He even admits to him that before Susan and Elizabeth-Jane showed up, he had had a romantic entanglement with a young lady from Jersey the British one, not the one with the Shore. The young lady was head over heels in love with him and didn't hide it, and everyone assumed they'd been sleeping together. They hadn't, but her reputation was ruined anyway. She wanted him to marry her to save her reputation, and he was going to — until Susan showed up.
Farfrae is sympathetic when he hears the story and feels sorry for the other girl. Still, he agrees that Henchard did the right thing by remarrying his original wife. Then things start to unravel. Henchard becomes jealous of Farfrae because the employees like him better. He fires Farfrae, who starts up his own business across town and does really well.
Then Susan dies. Henchard tells Elizabeth-Jane that she's his real daughter, saying that he and Susan had been "separated" from each other for a long time he doesn't admit to having auctioned them off. But then he reads a letter that Susan left for him before her death admitting that Elizabeth-Jane isn't his real daughter. She's actually the daughter of Captain Newson, and the original Elizabeth-Jane the baby who was auctioned off along with Susan died as a baby. Crazy, huh?! Henchard decides he doesn't really want Elizabeth-Jane around anymore and starts being mean to her.
And the drama continues.
Elizabeth-Jane moves out of Henchard's house to live with a wealthy young woman who has just moved to Casterbridge. Turns out, that young woman is the one who was in love with Henchard before! Her name is Lucetta, but she changed her last name from Le Sueur to Templeman after inheriting a lot of money from a wealthy aunt named Miss Templeman.
She has moved to Casterbridge because she heard of Susan's death and still wants Henchard to marry her. Henchard feels guilty about having messed up her reputation even though he still swears they never slept together so he's all for marrying her. He has since risen from his humble origins to become a respected pillar of the community in Casterbridge, but his secrets cannot stay hidden forever. In his writing, he immortalized the site of his birth—Egdon Heath, in Dorset, near Dorchester, England. Delicate as a child, he was taught at home by his mother before he attended grammar school….
More about Thomas Hardy.
The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
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The Moral and Legal Consequences of Wife Selling in The Mayor of Casterbridge
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