“On the Western Circuit” addresses many of the same questions of sexuality, propriety, and class structure that dominate much of Thomas Hardy’s longer fiction, but it does so from a fundamentally different perspective. Like such novels as Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd, the story is set in the author’s mythical Wessex. But whereas those texts focus on the rustic life of the countryside, “On the Western Circuit” is very much a tale of the city. It details the growth and eventual collapse of an unusual love triangle among Charles Bradford Raye, a London attorney; Mrs. Edith Harmon, the wife of a wine merchant in the town of Melcaster; and Anna, a pretty but poor and uneducated country girl whom Mrs. Harmon has brought to town to train as her domestic servant.
As the story opens, Raye is watching Anna ride a merry-go-round at a fair in the town square. He engages her in conversation, and she quickly becomes enamored of him. When Anna is late returning home, Mrs. Harmon goes to look for her, and she too finds herself drawn to Raye’s charms. The trio are pressed so tightly together by the crowd that Raye mistakenly grabs Mrs. Harmon’s hand instead of Anna’s, but because he is “so gentlemanly, so fascinating, had such beautiful eyes” (99–100), she does not object to the contact. After this initial encounter, Raye extends his stay in Melcaster to continue his dalliance with Anna. They meet repeatedly over several days. He views the affair as merely a “passing desire,” while she becomes his in “body and soul” (100). When Raye eventually leaves to go “on the Western Circuit” and try cases throughout Wessex, he leaves an address for Anna to write him in London. When no letter is comes, he sends a quick note imploring her to correspond with him. The response that arrives catches him completely off guard: “He had received letters from women who were fairly called ladies, but never so sensible, so human a letter as this” (104). The cause of Raye’s surprise is quickly revealed. Anna, who is illiterate, has had Mrs. Harmon help her craft the response. Raye is intrigued, and the correspondence between the lovers increases, though Anna plays an increasingly marginal role in composing the letters that supposedly come from her. Mrs. Harmon, overcome by her own attraction to Raye, uses the notes as an outlet for her own fantasies, and they come to represent her desires, not Anna’s. For her part, Anna works diligently to improve her penmanship and reading skills but makes little progress.
Problems arise when Anna becomes pregnant by Raye and Mr. Harmon turns her out of his house. Mrs. Harmon now writes to Raye without any consultation from her former charge. Raye, unaware of the deception, believes that Anna, despite being a poor rural girl, possesses dramatic “powers of development” and with “a little private training in the social forms of London” will make “as good a professional man’s wife as could be desired” (111). He determines to marry her, and a wedding in London is planned. The ceremony is attended by Mr. and Mrs. Harmon and a friend of Raye’s. Afterward, when Raye asks Anna to draft a note to his sister, her illiteracy can no longer be concealed. When Mrs. Harmon confesses the entire affair in private to Raye, he declares, “in soul and spirit I have married you” (117), and the two share a long, passionate kiss. Although she recognizes that he has been “ruined” socially, she asks for his forgiveness. He bestows it, noting, “It serves me right,” and they part (117). In the story’s conclusion, Raye peruses Mrs. Harmon’s letters with “dreary resignation” as he and Anna ride the train to their honeymoon.
Thus, as is typical in Hardy’s writing, “On the Western Circuit” closes on a note of despair. At the same time, a sense of poetic justice—something frequently missing from Hardy—pervades the scene as well. Although Raye has certainly been deceived by Mrs. Harmon and now must live with an “unlettered peasant chained to his side” (117), his situation ultimately stems from his willingness to exploit Anna’s naiveté for a romantic dalliance that is meaningless to him but threatens to destroy her social respectability. The conclusion saves Anna from the disgrace of having a child out of wedlock even as it punishes Raye for have trifled with her in the first place. To his credit, the young lawyer does feel despair but not bitterness. He forgives Mrs. Harmon and acknowledges that he has earned his fate
. From a textual perspective, “On the Western Circuit” presents a challenge for critics. It was first published serially in the English Illustrated Magazine and Harper’s Weekly in 1891 and then included in the volume Life’s Little Ironies in 1894. For the serial version, Hardy altered language to deemphasize Anna’s physical relationship with Rayes and her pregnancy and made several material changes to the structure of the story itself, such as transforming Mrs. Harmon into a widow. Unfortunately, the typescript Hardy used to make these revisions was sold at auction in 1988 and is no longer available for study.
Like much of Hardy’s short fiction, “On the Western Circuit” has received relatively little critical attention. Kristin Brady’s The Short Stories of Thomas Hardy, however, serves as a useful starting point for further analysis. Those Alan Manford’s editorial notes to Oxford’s 1996 edition of Life’s Little Ironies provides a convenient introduction to the story’s textual issues, while Martin Ray’s Thomas Hardy: A Textual Study of the Short Stories explores them in much greater depth.
Brady, Kristin. The Short Stories of Thomas Hardy. New York: St. Martin’s, 1982.
Hardy, Thomas. “On the Western Circuit.” In Life’s Little Ironies. 1894. Edited by Alan Manford. Oxford: University Press, 1996.
Plotz, John. “Motion Sickness: Spectacle and Circulation in Thomas Hardy’s ‘On the Western Circuit,’ ” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 3 (Summer 1996): 369–386.
Ray, Martin. Thomas Hardy: A Textual Study of the Short Stories. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 1997.