Dreading the moment when the inexorable stoker, grimly lurking behind
the rococo-work, should decide that this set of riders had had their
pennyworth, and bring the whole concern of steam-engine, horses,
mirrors, trumpets, drums, cymbals, and such-like to pause and silence,
he waited for her every reappearance. ("On the Western Circuit" 246)
The grim stoker, who makes only this one brief appearance in Thomas Hardy's 1891 story, "On the Western Circuit," is the invisible producer of phantasmagoria, embodying all the evils that the steam roundabout's cheery whirl seems to belie. Harmless and beautiful as a ride on the roundabout may seem at first, the reader does not need to have been tutored by "The Fiddler of the Reels" or by the ecstatic dancing scenes in The Return of the Native to know that such a face-flushing holiday from reality will do neither its riders nor onlookers any good. "On the Western Circuit" traces meticulously the consequences of one ill-chosen ride: disaster for a housemaid, Anna; for the admiring onlooker who woos her, Charles Bradford Raye; and for her mistress Edith Harnham, who writes Anna's love letters to the peripatetic Charles and falls in love with him herself.
The love triangle may be old, but roundabout love is new. At the story's base is the arrival of a machine that brings urban worries--and urban illusions--into Hardy's rural Wessex. The presence of "steam circuses, as the roundabouts were called by their owners" (245) creates a phantasmagoric effect that engenders a thoroughly mistaken love at first sight, a sort of love impossible in anteindustrial Wessex. The steam circuses do not merely conceal some aspect of reality, but create, in a viewer's eye, an illusion that becomes preferable to reality. When Charles falls in love with what he thinks he sees of Anna on the roundabout, he sets into motion a chain of events designed to recreate or to perpetuate the phantasmatic desire.(1) Out of children, young men, old people, and three pretty girls spinning by on the roundabout, Charles Bradford Raye creates a girl he loves madly. And out of the revolving images and counterimages she sees while riding the roundabout, Anna deludes herself into believing she has chosen Charles.
Conceived in a whirl, this love has its existence strengthened and sustained by three subsequent evils, all linked causally, but also poetically, to the roundabout's motion: first, Charles's financial ability to pay for Anna to ride again; second, Charles's job moving with the judicial circuit, which keeps him away so that the enchantment does not wear off; third, a series of letters between Charles and Edith, who eventually pursues a full-blown epistolary romance (under Anna's name) with the absent Charles. A whirl of illusions, in other words, follows on the original visual mistake, allowing a queer emotion--that both is and is not love--to be created. But in the beginning was the image, born of the roundabout.
Hardy's distrust of the modern and of technological innovations is evidenced in every one of his works. His novels sometimes seem an almost Luddite rejection of the forces of urbanization and mechanization (not to mention transportation) that were in his day rapidly replacing "homogeneous piles of medieval architecture" (244) with more homogeneous piles of slag, and greenswards with suburbs.(2) He deploys a variety of techniques to convey that distrust. He is fond of curious juxtapositions, for example, as his repeated use of French exiles, and English or German soldiers quartered in Wessex makes clear. He also lets drop a great many references to the metaphysical "ache of modernism"; "vague latter-day glooms and popular melancholies" (246) often afflict his fashionable youths. And there are more than a few pilgrimages to London, as when Caroline Aspent and Ned Hipcroft travel up to see the Great Exhibition (in the 1893 "The Fiddler of the Reels"), or Sam Hobson passes through suburban streets at night with loads of vegetables from the country (in "The Son's Veto," also 1893). …