Carol Senf, “‘The Fiddler of the Reels’: Hardy’s Reflection on the Past”


While Thomas Hardy was invited to submit something to a special number of Scribner’s Magazine that was published to celebrate the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the story he submitted, “The Fiddler of the Reels,” focuses on several characters whose lives are impacted by the Great Exhibition of 1851. The focus on the two world’s fairs might lead readers to believe that Hardy was an advocate of the kinds of scientific and technological progress that such spectacles tended to celebrate. However, Hardy’s story demonstrates the power of more primitive forces and actually undermines such an easy belief in progress. By ending with a character that clearly represents primal forces that are never suppressed, the story demonstrates that the power of the primitive past is never far from the surface and may emerge at any moment to triumph over the representatives of the present.

Photo of Thomas Hardy

Figure 1: Photograph of Thomas Hardy (c. 1910-15)

Even though Thomas Hardy wrote “The Fiddler of the Reels” as a contribution to a special “Exhibition Number” of Scribner’s Magazine (May 1893) that was commissioned to celebrate the Chicago World’s Fair (also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition), it centers on the Great Exhibition of 1851 (see Audrey Jaffe, “On the Great Exhibition”) and opens with the unnamed narrator’s glowing description:

The only exhibition that ever made, or ever will make, any impression upon my imagination was the first of the series, the parent of them all, and now a thing of old times―the Great Exhibition of 1851, in Hyde Park, London. (191)

The elderly narrator further comments on the power of the Great Exhibition, observing that “exhibition” became an “adjective in honour of the occasion: It was ‘exhibition’ hat, ‘exhibition’ razor-strop, ‘exhibition’ spirits, sweethearts, babies, wives―for the time” (191). The comparison invites the individuals who are listening to the narrator (and readers) not only to contemplate the changes that have taken place but also to contemplate the power that the past holds over the present. “The Fiddler of the Reels,” which focuses on the power of the primitive past, links Hardy to other fin de siècle writers and thinkers who question the progress celebrated in the exhibitions.

According to Martin Ray in “‘The Fiddler of the Reels’: A Textual Study,” Hardy wrote the story for Scribner’s between late-November 1892 and mid-January 1893 in response to a letter asking “for a short story for the Exhibition number of the Magazine” (55). Hardy’s choice of the two world’s fairs may simply be the result of an author seeking a subject. Indeed, Ray quotes from The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy and observes that Hardy responded “on 20 November 1892 to say that ‘I am in receipt of your letter of the 28th ult. asking for a short story for the Exhibition number of the Magazine: & I will during the next week or two ascertain if I can think of such a story, & could get it written in time’” (289). Although this letter indicates that Hardy did not immediately have an idea for the story, the speed with which he completed it suggests that the idea to incorporate the two fairs must have come to him quickly. Surely something about the two events must have piqued his interest.

While Hardy scholars have not explored his interest in the Great Exhibition, a number have commented on his interest in history, especially in the contrast between past and present. Among these scholars are L. Mackenzie Osborne, R. J. White, and David Cornelius. According to Osborne, Hardy’s fiction was characterized by an “inclination to be always looking in two directions at once, the past and the present” (543), though he also indicates that Hardy’s fascination with time “reflects the nineteenth-century’s own preoccupation with it, caused in part by the drastic change in times from an agrarian pace of life to the hurry-up tempo of a modern industrial state” (543-44). “The Fiddler of the Reels” tackles the topic of change directly, by contrasting two periods in recent history and then reminding readers of a more primitive past.

Looking at the issue of Scribner’s Magazine in which “The Fiddler of the Reels” was published (available online at demonstrates that Hardy’s fellow contributors did not feel obligated to use the World’s Columbian Exposition as a subject or to comment on the passage of time. The special Exhibition Number (13.5 [1893]) includes fiction by Sarah Orne Jewett, Henry James, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Bret Harte; poems by Graham R. Tomson and Robert Louis Stevenson; a memoir by W. D. Howells; and a chapter from Walter Besant’s History of the Twentieth Century. While Hardy’s story uses the two world’s fairs to focus on change, other contributors are interested only in the current exhibition. For example, Octave Uzanne writes an essay, “The Arts Relating to Women, and Their Exhibition in Paris,” and Francisque Sarvey writes about “The Comedie Francaise at Chicago.” Still others (including Jewett, James, Tomson, and Stevenson) contribute material that seems to have little to do with exhibitions at all. The magazine concludes with a brief editorial explaining that the editors had “taken special pains to bring together in this Exhibition Number those in whose work the public of its readers is especially interested” (689).

In addition to the awareness of time and change that pervades his fiction, there may be other reasons for Hardy’s fascination with the Great Exhibition and with the “Crystal Palace” (the name was coined by Punch and quickly became a metonym for the entire exhibition because Joseph Paxton’s glass and iron exhibition space seemed to be itself a visible symbol of progressive change). Hardy was familiar with London, having lived there for five years, and he returned there frequently for cultural events. In their study of Hardy’s shorter fiction, Sophie Gilmartin and Rod Mengham note that Hardy also refers to the area around the Crystal Palace at the beginning of “A Changed Man” (1900), his only work of fiction set in the twentieth century (130). Michael Millgate, Hardy’s biographer, observes that the author spent time in London, though he was “eventually driven back to Dorset by the effects upon his own health of its fog, smoke, and dirt, its ‘rayless grime’” (82). Living in London from 1862 to 1867, Hardy would undoubtedly have known the area around Hyde Park, which changed dramatically as a result of the Great Exhibition. The area had been recently transformed by the addition of the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1857, and discussion of future museum spaces appeared in newspapers and other types of publications. Although he had not lived in the city for thirty years when he wrote “Fiddler” in 1892, Hardy would have been aware of the whole complex of buildings erected in South Kensington where the Great Exhibition had been held. Writing about the impact of the Great Exhibition on the area, Jeffrey A. Auerbach notes:

Ultimately, what emerged out of the Great Exhibition was the educational and museum complex in South Kensington that includes the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, Imperial College of Science and Technology, and the royal Albert Hall all of which were built on land purchased with the profits from the exhibition. (3-4)

While most of the buildings in South Kensington evoked the changes that took place over the course of the nineteenth century, there were other reasons the area might have intrigued Hardy. As an architect, he would have been interested in the Crystal Palace itself, which was dismantled and moved to Sydenham Hill in 1854 (see Anne Helmreich, “On the Opening of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, 1854”), where it remained until it was destroyed by fire in 1936. And as an early reader (and supporter) of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) and the naturalistic ideas contained therein, he might have been attracted to the exhibits at the Natural History Museum as well as to the curriculum at Imperial College of Science and Technology. (See Cannon Schmitt, “On the Publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species, 1859.″) Millgate examines Hardy’s transformation from a young man who wished to become an Anglican minister to a decidedly skeptical man whose reading of Darwin and the biblical criticism of Essays and Reviews (1860) caused him to abandon religious belief.

While there is much evidence that Hardy thought deeply about the changes that were taking place in England and personally witnessed many of the changes that impacted both London and the rural area in which much of his story is set, “Fiddler” is a piece of imaginative fiction that transforms his experience of the world into a memorable literary work that reveals how some of these changes affected the lives of his characters. Parts of the story take place in London, near the area around South Kensington, but the story reveals a profound awareness of rural England also. In fact, “Fiddler” begins and ends in the south of Hardy’s Wessex, in those “outlying shades of the world, Stickleford, Mellstock, and Egdon” (191)[1] whose real-life bases his fiction would immortalize. The central portion of the story carries his rural characters to London and to the Great Exhibition, on which one character works and to which the others travel. Most important to this discussion is the fact that Hardy uses the Great Exhibition as a touchstone for the transformation that was taking place between traditional England and modern England. This transformation is demonstrated most clearly by Hardy’s characterization, by the fact that the three central characters are “oddly touched at points by the Exhibition” (191), and by the fact that the narrator weaves references to the Exhibition through the story. Established in the mid-century, the Exhibition’s full name, “The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations,” suggests its scientific and technological orientation as well as its celebration of a particularly British form of progress. That perspective is powerfully articulated in Henry Cole’s introduction to the Official Catalogue of the Exhibition, in which he quotes Prince Albert’s belief that it is the “duty of every educated person closely to watch and study the time in which he lives; and, as far as in him lies, to add his humble mite of individual exertion to further the accomplishment of what he believes Providence to have ordained” (3). Indeed, Cole adds his own ideas about progress to those of Prince Albert, noting that science provides the laws that allow humans to “conquer Nature” (4).

There is no question that the Great Exhibition was also designed as a bit of public relations for British scientific and industrial progress, as Louise Purbrick notes in her “Introduction” to a series of essays on the Great Exhibition:

Visitors were positioned as the recipients of industrial plenty produced by mechanical means. Six million visits were made to the Great Exhibition during the entire period when it was open from 1 May to 31 October, and most were on the Shilling Days: Mondays to Thursdays from 26 May. Each of these days repeated a performance of rational recreation where industrial workers learn in their own time about the benefits of a technological regime. (2-3)

And certainly Hardy’s anonymous rural narrator has bought into the notion of progress, describing the year of the Great Exhibition as a pivotal moment, “a precipice in Time” when “we had presented to us a sudden bringing of ancient and modern into absolute contact, such as probably in no other single year since the Conquest was ever witnessed in this part of the country” (191). Herbert Sussman’s study of Victorian technology also points to the fact that the Great Exhibition represented a clear change in English attitudes to work and progress:

The title, The great exhibition [sic] of the Works of Industry of All Nations, especially the use of the word industry, suggests the complex transformation of England that was celebrated by the Exhibition. . . . It was only in the early nineteenth century that the term industry applied less to a human quality than to the set of institutions organized for the purpose of mechanical production. Thus, by the middle of the nineteenth century, the moment of the Great Exhibition, the term industry had come to refer to what we now call industrialism, the system of machine production. (54-55)

Encouraged to visit London and see the wonders of the Great Exhibition, people from all over England also saw that their country was leading the industrial activity that would define future progress. Indeed, Sussman observes that the official tally showed there were “6,039,195 visitors through the mere five months the Exhibition was open” (60).

Although “Fiddler” is seldom explored in discussions of Hardy’s fiction, Gilmartin and Mengham comment briefly on the importance of the Great Exhibition, noting that it “figures . . . as the progenitor of modernity: it announces a cataclysmic change, a seismic shift, an awareness of the culture of modernity which . . . operates on an international scale and in an immanent fashion” (107). Osborne examines Hardy’s interest in looking at the relationship between the past and the present. Finally, the historian R. J. White explores the way that Hardy weaves an awareness of history into his fiction. White notes that history “was not merely something in a book. It was alive and all about him at Higher Bockhampton [the site of his cottage]” (76), adding that Hardy had a unique way of looking at the past:

[H]e was entirely devoid of the superstitions of the ‘professional’ historian. More especially was he skeptical about the worth of historical documents. Beyond the articulation of a skeleton they were worthless as compared with oral tradition. ‘Is not the present quasi-scientific system of writing history mere charlatanism?’ He [sic] asked himself while writing the best of his own truly historical novels, The Mayor of Casterbridge, in 1884. (77)

“Fiddler” begins with the anonymous narrator looking back at the Great Exhibition, which he contrasts with similar exhibitions. Even though the old gentleman has lived until 1893, most of the story takes place in the period immediately before and after the Great Exhibition. The story examines the Exhibition’s impact on people living at the time, including the three central characters: Ned Hipcroft, Car’line Aspent, and Mop (renamed “Wat” in some versions of the story) Ollamoor, the eponymous fiddler. The three constitute a love triangle, as well as signifying types of people who lived at mid-century. Car’line is a simple village girl whose family approves of the solid mechanic Ned to whom she is engaged. Nonetheless she allows herself to be seduced by the romantic musician Mop. Rejected by Car’line, Ned goes off to London, where he is involved in “the construction of this huge glasshouse, then unexampled in the world’s history” (196). Receiving a letter from Car’line four years later, and not knowing that she has given birth to Mop’s daughter, Carry, he invites her to London to renew their relationship. Mother and daughter ride one of the “special trains, called excursion-trains, on account of the Great Exhibition” (198)[2] to meet him. Surprised by the presence of the child, Ned nonetheless falls in love with her and decides to marry the mother. On their wedding day, they visit the Exhibition where, “standing near a large mirror in one of the courts devoted to furniture” (201), she is startled to see “the reflection of a form exactly resembling Mop Ollamoor’s” (201).

A year passes, and when Ned finds himself without work, he and Car’line decide to leave London: “Both being country born and bred, they fancied they would like to live again in their natural atmosphere” (202). Before they reach home, however, Car’line encounters Mop and falls under his spell again. When she recovers, she discovers that Mop has kidnapped their daughter. Distraught at the loss of his stepdaughter, Ned searches unsuccessfully for her. The story concludes forty years later:

That Carry and her father had emigrated to America was the general opinion . . . There, for that matter, they may be performing in some capacity now, though he must be an old scamp verging on three-score-and-ten, and she a woman of four-and-forty. (208)

Or, if one does the math, the final date is 1893―the year in which Hardy wrote “Fiddler.”

Even though “Fiddler” focuses on a limited cast of characters, it would be a mistake to catagorize it as a character study. One might argue, however, that Hardy crafted his three central characters to examine many of the changes that were taking place during the second half of the nineteenth century. Ned, for instance, is a good example of the new interest in technology that was celebrated at the Great Exhibition, though Hardy also reveals that the power conveyed by a familiarity with technology is not necessarily permanent. Having been rejected by Car’line, he takes off for London on foot, “one of the last of the artisan class who used that now extinct method of travel to the great centres of labour” (196). Though successful in the city―for the next four years he is “never out of employment” (196)―Hardy suggests that something is lacking in him. Despite finding steady work in London, including on the Crystal Palace, Ned “neither advanced nor receded in the modern sense; he improved as a workman, but he did not shift one jot in social position” (196). David Cornelius sees Ned’s life as characteristic of what was happening at the time: “Ned’s need to find regular employment in London reflects the rural depopulation of Wessex. His becoming an itinerant labourer further instances the uprooting of established village people by economic change” (126). Cornelius does not attempt to explain why Ned is so ineffectual, though Gilmartin and Mengham suggest that the respectable mechanic is no match for the romantic Mop:

This attempt to bring the phenomenon within the scope of modern, rational terms of analysis, regarding Car’line almost as the subject of a practical experiment, remains on the outside of her experience. The failure of scientific language reflects the failure of the ‘respectable mechanic’ Ned, builder of the modern world, to make any headway against the primeval compulsions bound up in Wat’s music. (109)

The conflict between the two men also suggests a tension between the forces of the progressive present and a primitive past whose power is represented by the music that Mop plays.

Hardy’s female character Car’line Aspent is caught between Ned and Mop. Engaged to Ned, she nonetheless falls for Mop and his “weird and wizardly” music, and the anonymous narrator describes his influence over her as “discomfort . . . pain and ultimate injury” (193). Describing her, the narrator also hints at a weakness in her character: “She was a pretty, invocating, weak-mouthed girl, whose chief defect as a companion with her sex was a tendency to peevishness now and then” (193). Her most distinctive trait, however, is the ease with which she falls prey to Mop’s mesmerizing music; hearing it, she is “unable to shake off the strange infatuation for hours” (194). She thus resembles several of Hardy’s other female characters that allow themselves to succumb to more powerful individuals. Writing of the power of music over Tess, Mark Asquith might also be describing Car’line when he observes that Hardy replaces the “language of mesmerism with that of Darwinian sexual selection as Tess is aroused by the music of Angel’s harp”:

In The Descent of Man (1871) Darwin argues that music has such a strong emotional power over the listener because it arouses the same emotional intensity as that felt during the ‘courtship display’ of our distant ancestors. At such times, the male of the species would ‘pour forth his song’ in the hope of securing a mate ― a display which can still be heard most clearly in birdsong. As Angel’s music combines with the mists of pollen in the garden where uncultivated field grasses smear Tess with their juices, it is clear that she is part of that nature which ‘writhes feverishly’ under the governance of the laws of sexual selection (Ch. 19). (194)

There is more to Car’line than mere animal response, though. She reestablishes her relationship with Ned by tracking him down in London, a task that she describes to him as difficult when she confesses that her “willful wrong-headedness had since been a grief to her many times” (197), and she proves to be “a very good wife and companion” (202) to Ned and mother to little Carry. In fact, she seems to forget Mop entirely, though she is briefly startled at thinking she sees his reflection in a mirror at the Great Exhibition. Only when they return to the country and Car’line encounters Mop once again does his power over her reappear. Once under the spell of alcohol and Mop’s music, she falls into convulsions, and Mop steals away with their child. Curiously, though, she is less concerned about the loss of the child than is Ned, and one wonders whether Hardy was thinking of the fact that women at the end of the century were no longer identified only as wives and mothers. It is almost impossible to say, because Hardy invests Car’line with almost no inner life.

Hardy’s male characters are equally devoid of introspection. One of Hardy’s most interesting creations, Mop is more symbol than human character. Never using human speech, Mop is associated with music of a particularly primitive type. Whereas Ned is affiliated with technology and with the forward movement of the nineteenth century, Mop is decidedly more primal. Writing of him, Kristen Brady links him to the folk tradition and argues that he represents an ancient power that continues under the surface of modernity:

His wizardry moves beyond the confines of the rural folk tale to become an emblem of the irrational instincts that will always drive men, even in the most prosperous and civilized of societies. . . . ‘The Fiddler of the Reels’ portrays the essential sameness of ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’, of past and present. (133)

Another way to make this assertion is to recognize that the supposedly progressive present has not really supplanted the primitive past.

One of the few critics to examine “Fiddler,” Brady considers the significance of Mop’s power over his daughter, a power that Brady finds even more sinister than the quasi-sexual power he has over adult women:

An emblem of the future generation, she [Carry] represents in her subservience to Mop the extension of his powers into the present and into the new world. In this context, the vision of Mop and Carry ‘performing in some capacity now’ . . . in America (the audience for which the story was first written) becomes the most disturbing image in the whole story, and the year 1851, which the old gentleman had referred to as ‘an extraordinary chronological frontier’ . . . is seen for what it truly is: one of many chapters in the endless and repetitive history of man’s struggle, even as the technological achievements of civilization become more sophisticated, with his own primitive psyche. (140)

Thus Brady posits that “Fiddler” is a kind of cautionary tale, suggesting the power that primitive forces continue to wield over contemporary life. Initially frightened of him, Carry begs her mother to leave. Shortly after that, however, she too apparently falls under his spell.

Exploring “Fiddler,” readers might surmise that Hardy is using the two world’s fairs to encourage readers to contemplate what had taken place during the second half of the nineteenth century. Using the Great Exhibition of 1851 as a milestone for a time when England first became aware of its modernity and its movement toward a scientific and technological future, Hardy nonetheless creates characters in “Fiddler” that demonstrate that the forces of the past have not been displaced by powers more arguably modern. Indeed, “Fiddler” demonstrates that dark and irrational forces lurk beneath the bright and shiny modern surface.

While the relationships among his characters reveal the extent to which primitive powers remain latent in the modern age, nowhere are those powers more evident than in the references to folk elements, especially the folk ballads that underlie his tale of people living at the time of the Great Exhibition. Among the traditional songs that Hardy associates specifically with Mop are “My Fancy-Lad” and “The Fairy Dance.” Both songs suggest supernatural forces impacting the lives of ordinary humans and are, according to Florence Hardy’s The Life of Thomas Hardy, songs played by Hardy’s father as well as songs that moved a young Hardy to tears (15). Similarly, Hardy suggests that Mop’s strangely powerful music “could make any child in the parish, who was at all sensitive to music, burst into tears in a few minutes” (192). Describing him as repulsive to men and seductive to women, the narrator suggests something sinister or otherworldly about Mop. Not only does he compare him to Niccoló Paganini, whose power was sometimes said to be diabolic, but he also notes that he is associated with demonic powers:

Mop had . . . never bowed a note of church-music from his birth; he never once sat in . . . Mellstock church where the others had tuned their venerable psalmody . . . had never, in all likelihood, entered a church at all. All were devil’s tunes in his repertory. (193)

A number of critics―including Nemesvari, Brady, Cornelius, and White―comment on Hardy’s use of a primitive oral tradition. Examining the connection between Hardy’s novels and sensation fiction, Richard Nemesvari quotes Donald Davidson’s 1940 essay, “The Traditional Basis of Thomas Hardy’s Fiction,” which provides the first concerted argument for the orality of Hardy’s narratives and claims that “the characteristic Hardy novel is conceived as a told … story, or at least not as a literary story; that it is an extension, in the form of a modern prose fiction, of a traditional ballad or an oral tale” (15). Nemesvari goes on to explore some of the reasons behind Hardy’s employment of melodramatic conventions:

The recurrence of sensational incident, the emphasis on plot development over character development, and the presentation of extreme emotional and physical conflict are all strategies the storyteller uses to hold the attention of her or his listener, just as they are the strategies the melodramatist uses to hold her or his audience, and they are also characteristic elements of Hardy’s novels. (4)

While sensation novels might have influenced Hardy’s “The Fiddler of the Reels,” the fact that he includes the titles of two traditional ballads in the story suggests that he was remembering the equally melodramatic folk ballads that he heard growing up. Full of drama and sensational violence, they include warfare, unfaithful lovers, treachery, murder, supernatural creatures and events, and other horrific details. In fact, David Cornelius notes Hardy’s connection to the folk tradition: “In at least a third of his stories the supernatural is present in one form or another. Using Gothic effects he re-constructs the macabre folk myths of the community and provides them with dramatic clothing to conceal their subversive meaning” (124). White also observes that, while Hardy was greatly influenced by modern science, his “roots ran deep into an ancient society which had never lost touch with its intellectual ancestry”:

His temperament had the immutable quality of the folk of the fields who wear neither spectacles nor blinkers, yet he grew up to employ the lingo of a pseudo-scientific age. Living between two worlds, the rural world of his fathers and the up-and-coming world of the universal bourgeoisie, he uttered the last judgment of his kind upon the dilemma of modern man. (17)

Brady also comments on Hardy’s connection to ancient tradition, referring to his narration and its habit of linking past and present:

This co-presence in ‘The Fiddler of the Reels’ of folk and legendary elements with contemporary ways of explaining experience is part of the story’s essential method and complexity. . . . The double point of view permits the reader to apply mythical concepts to realistic scenes. (133)

Hence, Ned’s work on the Great Exhibition and the excursion trains that bring people to London are juxtaposed with Mop, a reminder that the primal forces of Nature are still alive in the community.

Looking at the apparent contrast between the Great Exhibition and the World’s Columbian Exposition, readers might be tempted to conclude that Hardy was thinking about the progress that had occurred in the forty-two years since the Great Exhibition, a period roughly equivalent to that during which he had lived. Instead of celebrating the material progress that had taken place during his lifetime, however, Hardy creates a story that more clearly demonstrates that all this material and scientific progress has not eradicated the power of the ancient past. Indeed, “The Fiddler of the Reels” concludes with a reference to the supposed movement of its eponymous character and his daughter to the United States. Hardy thus cautions readers that new inventions, new scientific developments, and new lands cannot overcome the primal power of the ancient past.

Carol Senf is Professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA. She has written three books on Bram Stoker and a number of articles on Stoker and other nineteenth-century writers, including the three Brӧnte sisters, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, and Sarah Grand.


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[1] Thomas Hardy, The Fiddler of the Reels and Other Stories. Ed. Keith Wilson and Kristin Brady. London: Penguin, 2003, 191. All future references to this story in the text are to this edition.

[2] Sussman notes that the “railways commissioned special trains to bring people from throughout the country” (60).