If you are looking forward to curling up with a heartwarming story this Christmas, you might not necessarily choose anything by Thomas Hardy – you’d be more likely to turn to the seasonal staples of Charles Dickens or Raymond Briggs. While Hardy is renowned for his tragic tales of Wessex life, his brief foray into the world of children’s Christmas fiction is largely unknown.
Published in the Christmas annual Father Christmas: Our little Ones’ Budget, Hardy’s story The Thieves Who Couldn’t Help Sneezing is a tale for children which also has much to delight adult enthusiasts of his work.
Hardy’s story made its appearance in the first edition of the annual in December 1877. By this time, he was working on The Return of the Native (1878), having already published five novels – including Far From The Madding Crowd (1874), which first appeared anonymously and established his career as a successful novelist.
Nonetheless, his contribution to the annual could easily be overlooked. In this extract from the Illustrated London News (December 8, 1877) Hardy’s name is sandwiched between lesser-known literary figures:
A new claimant, entitled “Father Christmas: Our Little Ones’ Budget”, is announced to appear shortly. It comes with weighty claims on the favour of the rising generation, being crowded with amusing tales, songs, riddles and acrostics, by its fair editor, Miss N. Danvers, Austin Dobson, Thomas Hardy, W.H.G. Kingston, Reginald Gatty, and other writers of note in this special field of literature.
The story has received scant critical attention, despite the wealth of Hardy scholarship that exists. Hardy himself does not mention it in his autobiography, although it is included in a list of works compiled by his wife Emma in 1880 (which is available at Dorset County Museum) and categorised as a “Child’s story”.
Unlike Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) where social commentary is cosily bound up within a supernatural fantasy world, Hardy does not spare the reader his trademark realism. The action takes place in the “Vale of Blackmore”, which was described as “a fertile and somewhat lonely district” later to become the famous backdrop for the tragic events of Tess of the D'Urbevilles.
‘Twas the night before Christmas
It is Christmas Eve and the 14-year-old protagonist, Hubert, courageous but “a little vain”, is making his way home on “his stout-legged cob Jerry and singing a Christmas carol”. There is barely time for the reader to reach for a mince pie before Hubert is attacked by robbers with “artificially blackened” faces, tied up and thrown into a ditch.
Disorientated and upset that his horse has been stolen, Hubert extricates his legs from their bonds and wanders on until he chances on “a large mansion with flanking wings, gables, and towers, the battlements and chimneys showing their shapes against the stars”.
He enters the house, hoping to find assistance there but – like a scene from a modern-day thriller – suddenly hears the familiar voices of his attackers. Hubert quickly dives under the dining room table and listens as the thieves discuss their plans. It seems they have created a “false alarm” to get the wealthy occupants briefly “out of the house”, giving them time to find a hiding place where they can wait until everyone is in bed before robbing the mansion.
Before long, the “ladies and gentlemen” return to continue their festive celebrations, unaware of the thieves biding their time in a disused closet. Hubert then makes his appearance and starts to tell his story. However, it is met with disbelief – and he is even accused of being a robber himself as there is “a curiously wild wicked look about him…” So the resourceful lad hatches a plan to expose the thieves by pretending to be a magician with the power to “conjure up a tempest in a cupboard”.
While lacking the seasonal sumptuousness of Dickens, Hardy’s tale serves up its own socially subversive Christmas punch. Hubert, a yeoman’s son, manages to singlehandedly outsmart the upper-class family he encounters residing in the mansion. Though the reader is told he feels shame at their mistrust of his story, he accepts their hospitality. Hardy evokes a child’s sense of triumph at being a part of a privileged adult world:
Hubert, in spite of his hurt feelings at their doubts of his honesty, could not help being warmed both in mind and in body by the good cheer, the scene, and the example of hilarity set by his neighbours. At last he laughed as heartily at their stories and repartees as the old Baronet, Sir Simon, himself.
Although the story’s main action concerns a none-too festive attack on a young boy, the tale deals with wider social issues. Born into a working-class family, Hardy did not attend university and felt himself to be an outsider to London’s literary elite. An acute awareness of the divisions between rich and poor colours his work and The Thieves is no exception.
Hubert, outsider to the wealthy party he encounters, not only exposes the thieves through filling their hiding place with sneeze-inducing snuff, he manages to persuade Sir Simon and his guests that he is a magician. Ultimately, it is a child’s successful navigation of an exclusive adult world that is at the heart of Hardy’s narrative.
The Thieves is not Hardy’s only children’s story. Our Exploits in West Poley: A Story For Boys (1883), serialised in The Household ( November 1892-April 1893) lay in obscurity until its discovery in 1952. While Hardy is certainly not known for his children’s fiction, it can provide valuable insights into his career, as writer and poet, which had a foot in both the 19th and 20th centuries.
Writing for children in 1877, Hardy gives us a message, as relevant now as it was in his own time: however young, poor or seemingly unimportant a person is, they are still capable of doing great things.