Book #75

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Independent and spirited Bathsheba Everdene has come to Weatherbury to take up her position as a farmer on the largest estate in the area. Her bold presence draws three very different suitors: the gentleman-farmer Boldwood, soldier-seducer Sergeant Troy and the devoted shepherd Gabriel Oak. Each, in contrasting ways, unsettles her decisions and complicates her life, and tragedy ensues, threatening the stability of the whole community. 

Hardy is an intricate man. You could be forgiven for giving up on this novel in the early stages; his depictions of rural and pastoral life and setting aren’t things which are overly relevant to us today. Rambling descriptions of nature, weather, and country living at the beginning of the novel seem endless, despite their beauty. His symbols, his biblical references, his absolute commitment to telling us about every stray leaf, are all maddening, and yet all profoundly important to the points he makes later on rural living.

If you stick it out, which I suggest you do, you’ll find a typically tragic Hardy story, filled with emotional chaos, a cast of flawed people, some gorgeous development of plot and personality, and some truly elegant prose.

Our protagonist, Bathsheba Everdene, is a wonderfully written and horrifically complex character. The last time I read and reviewed this, I called her an ‘irksome cow’, for which I’m sorry. I found nothing but relatability in her whims and ambitions this time. For a Victorian man writing a strong female lead (if we overlook the socio-cultural bias of the time), Hardy has done well here. She’s a gift - she rules, she weeps, she grows. I loved her deeply, particularly when she said - “Well, what I mean is that I shouldn't mind being a bride at a wedding, if I could be one without having a husband.”

There’s a lot to be said here on how one small decision - one comment, one movement, one action - can entirely derail lives. Hardy works on showing us this, and goes on to show us his characters either spending their time bemoaning their mistakes, or learning from them, usually both. He employs interesting devices which allow us an omnipresent view - we know things other characters don’t, and this allows us to believe we would have made better decisions. But what if, like Hardy’s poor people, we weren’t in possession of all the facts, such as we are? We’d act in similar, devastating ways, I’m sure.

I last read this one in 2010, and I wondered if a second read would place it further up in my Hardy favourites, but for me this is no Mayor of Casterbridge, and absolutely no Jude. And yet, I’m glad I’ve come back to this with an added eleven years of maturity; I’ve enjoyed it more, and noticed more. Hardy will forever remain one of the greats in my eyes.

“To persons standing alone on a hill during a clear midnight such as this, the roll of the world is almost a palpable movement. To enjoy the epic form of that gratification it is necessary to stand on a hill at a small hour of the night, and, having first expanded with a sense of difference from the mass of civilized mankind, who are disregardful of all such proceedings at this time, long and quietly watch your stately progress through the stars.”