A fine example of Thomas Hardy’s skillful use of irony, this story alerts readers to the danger of making hasty decisions. The heroine, Baptista Trewthen, attempts to create a better life for herself through marriage, but she encounters unusual obstacles to her plans. She hates her new job as a schoolteacher and decides to marry David Heddegan, an older man whose wealth will guarantee her a more comfortable lifestyle. However, on her way home to be married in the island village of Giant’s Town, Baptista is delayed in the port city of Pen-zephyr, where she meets an old school friend, Charles Stow. Also a teacher, Charles is dismayed at Baptista’s decision to marry a much older man and claims that he would have asked for her hand himself had she waited. Charles then convinces Baptista to marry him immediately. While waiting for a connecting steamer in Pen-zephyr, Charles decides to swim in the sea. The current carries him away, and although Baptista seeks help from the local villagers, Charles drowns. Baptista, now a widow, continues her journey. She has kept the marriage secret for propriety’s sake and cannot delay her arrival without inciting concern. Once at home, she cannot find an opportunity to announce her marriage to Charles, and she quietly marries Mr. Heddegan the next day. Baptista settles into a quiet existence with Heddegan until a glazier, who was a witness to her first marriage, chances upon her one day. When the witness realizes that Baptista has kept Charles a secret, he blackmails her, but Baptista soon confesses the truth to Heddegan. Far from being angry, Heddegan promptly confesses that he too has been widowed. He had married a woman from Pen-zephyr just before her death and was now responsible for her four daughters. He admits that he married Baptista so that he could bring the girls home for her to teach since they are too old to attend school. Baptista is angry at having been deluded, but she doggedly undertakes the task of educating the girls. Eventually, she learns to love them and develops a friendship, if not a love, for Heddegan.
Hardy published “A Mere Interlude” in the Bolton Weekly Journal and later collected it as part of A Changed Man and Other Tales (1913). It was widely reprinted and pirated in Britain and in the United States, although Hardy himself did not consider the tale especially good. The story’s title establishes the irony that pervades the plot, since the interlude of Baptista’s first marriage is far from trivial. Moreover, Baptista’s fate may be a warning to Hardy’s readers to avoid making quick, unreasoned decisions that ignore potentially negative consequences. Like many of Hardy’s other tales, “A Mere Interlude” engages the Woman Question, an interest in gender relations that emerged from Victorian England and that encouraged the exploration of women’s roles. Baptista’s limited choice—marriage or teaching—can be interpreted as Hardy’s sympathetic gesture toward women and the state of dependence in which they often found themselves. When Charles coerces Baptista into marriage and Mr. Heddegan conceals his true motives, Baptista slips easily into the role of victim. Her passivity embodies the submission expected of the traditional English housewife, but her fate may suggest the inadequacy of such an obedient role. Although she rouses herself to admirable activity to thwart the glazier’s blackmail plan, she lapses quickly into her usual passivity and must learn to live with her fate.
Hardy, Thomas. A Changed Man and Other Tales. 1913. Gloucester, England: Alan Sutton, 1984.
Larkin, Peter. “Irony and Fulfilment in Hardy’s ‘A Mere Interlude,’ ” Journal of the Eighteen Nineties Society 9 (1978): 16–22.
Rogerson, Ian. “The Illustrations in ‘A Mere Interlude,’ ” Thomas Hardy Journal 16, no. 3 (2000): 63–64.
Turner, Paul. The Life of Thomas Hardy: A Critical Biography. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998