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Out of favour, perhaps, but Hardy remains a master of midwinter

There are few novelists better suited to autumn reading than Thomas Hardy.

On holiday recently, I renewed a friendship that dates back to my teenage years but had lapsed, partly because I remembered too well the haunting misery that pervaded so many of his tales and could not bear to revisit his unhappy world.

Shame is not too strong a word for having neglected him for so long. Two novels into a rekindled fascination, and with the others laid out for devouring in the next few months, like breadcrumbs leading me through a forest of less satisfying books, I find myself button-holing anyone who's prepared to talk about him. The most sophisticated of these critics believe Hardy is an even better poet than a novelist, one of the finest of the 20th century. As a result, his collected poems are on my bedside pile. But for now it's the fiction I'm following.

It could hardly be more timely, for not only is he an astonishingly powerful observer of the dying year, but Christmas features frequently and luminously throughout his works. In The Return Of The Native, which I've just finished, one of the pivotal events is when romantic, impetuous Eustacia Vye bribes the Christmas mummers to let her join them, so that she can gain entry in disguise to the house of Clym Yeobright, whom she fancies as a husband. The result of her infatuation, and the effect her mysterious appearance has upon Clym, is later to prove devastating, but for the moment, Hardy merely evokes a bright, bucolic scene, and the ancient tensions between gentry and commoners it conceals.

In his stories, poems and novels, Hardy used Christmas to great atmospheric effect. In the small and remote rural communities he was writing about, it was one of the most notable days of the year, a time when the well-off could offer treats and the workers enjoy their bounty. For an author like him, though, this festival not only represents colour in the midst of winter gloom, but also is a chance to depict the veneer of good cheer, beneath which a turmoil of emotion can lie. And perhaps even more elementally, as a true countryman, Hardy may also have found it irresistible to convey the darkest, most chilling time of the year, when nature seems to come into its own as a stark and pitiless backdrop for dramatic human events. In his telling, it's almost as if the season itself sows the passions from which so much pain will later come.

I've become so engrossed by Hardy, so impressed by the subtlety and beauty of his writing and the modernness of his outlook, that it came as a surprise to learn from a secondhand bookseller that his novels don't sell any more. Equally worrying, a fellow devotee tells me that almost all his literary friends dismiss him without a thought, far preferring the other Victorian behemoths, such as Dickens and Eliot, Trollope and Gaskell, Thackeray and the Brontes. While I admire all of these, Hardy is in a league of his own, as worthy of undying regard as any, and every bit as timeless.

If, like me, you are tempted to renew your acquaintance with him, or to make a first attempt, you could do no better than start with one of his less sad novels, Under The Greenwood Tree. It opens on Christmas Eve, and includes one of his glorious set pieces, in which the novel's incidental characters – in this case the church choir – provide comic relief from the undercurrents swirling around his protagonists' feet.

Here, a carter takes a proper bath, it being Christmas Day. After this historic dousing, Hardy writes, the man "would appear round the edge of the door, smelling like a summer fog, and looking as if he had just narrowly escaped a watery grave with the loss of much of his clothes, having since been weeping bitterly till his eyes were red; a crystal drop of water hanging ornamentally at the bottom of each ear, one at the tip of his nose, and others in the form of spangles about his hair."

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