Sunday, 8 April 2012

Far From the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy

I have never liked Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but seem unable to give up on classic authors because of one book. While this is a much earlier work, and therefore considered less mature, I found Far From The Madding Crowd a more enjoyable read. I think both the excellent title (madding means frenzied) and the main character’s excellent name (Bathsheba) helped, though I doubt Thomas Hardy is an author who will ever inspire passion in me as a reader.

The novel takes place in a village in the fictional county of Wessex, England. Wessex stands in for the counties of south and southwest England, in this case specifically Dorset - Hardy’s home county. Bathsheba is a newcomer to the village, having inherited a farm from her uncle. Against society’s expectations Bathsheba plans to run the farm herself, and fails even to appoint a bailiff to help her out, thus introducing her independent and wilful nature. She becomes romantically entangled to various degrees with three men: Gabriel Oak, a solid, dependable bloke, intelligent but far below her social standing; Farmer Boldwood, much older, but a respectable man; and the dashing young Sergeant Troy. It is clear from the start who the right choice for Bathsheba would be, but this wilful young woman sets about making all the wrong decisions. This eventually leads to the destruction of two men’s lives, and, almost, the ruin of Bathsheba.

The name Bathsheba comes from the biblical character, mother of King Solomon, but more generally known as the ‘seducer’ of King David. Like Tess of the D’Urbervilles the sexual purity of the main character is of paramount importance to the novel. And, like Tess of the D’Urbervilles, to our modern eyes the punishment inflicted on her for transgressions from the norm are excessive. While I understand that Hardy wants to draw attention to a social problem, it grates, perhaps because Hardy is just a bit heavy handed. Early in the novel, on a thoughtless whim, Bathsheba sends a valentine to Boldwood as a joke. This awakens an obsessive, frankly stalkerish, side in the previously respectable farmer. Throughout the rest of the novel Bathsheba is under pressure to agree to marry him, because she led him on to believe she had feelings for him. Despite repeatedly making it clear to him she does not love him, and that this takes place over years, not weeks or months, Bathsheba is unable to jilt Boldwood. Disturbingly she clearly thinks that it is her fault, and that she in someway owes it to Boldwood to submit to marriage to him. Instead she marries Troy, an unhappy choice for which Bathsheba suffers greatly. Troy is also in love with a poor young maid, whom he has already seduced and jilted, as he cannot marry her for lack of money. Punished for her lustful actions, Bathsheba ends up alone; but don’t worry, there is still the dependable Gabriel Oak lurking around the farm, and the possibility of a somewhat happy ending.

Far From the Madding Crowd is not a miserable novel as some of the above might suggest. The minor characters, especially the labourers, provide plenty of light relief without being patronising portrayals of the poor. The book brings to life this village, and a way of life very different to what we know now. Still, for all the pastoral realism, Hardy’s writing is, for me at least, the epitome of Victorian melodrama. The ending of this novel relies on events that would leave a soap opera writer happy. There is also something about the strictly formalised relations between the sexes at the time that seems to create unhealthy romantic entanglements. One wonders if half the problems in the novel could be solved if Bathsheba and Boldwood went out on a date one evening and were able to discover if they, you know, liked each other. Since this wasn’t the way of the world, Victorian literature seems full of ill-suited marriages. The passions invoked seem disproportionate to true appreciation of the others character. The relationship between Oak and Bathsheba is treated with a sincerity that implies Hardy recognises what a healthy relationship might look like. But the fact that Oak falls so steadfastly in love with a woman he cannot spend any meaningful time with is perhaps a bit pathetic, and a blight on an otherwise, comparatively, well rounded character.

Hardy’s novels may be a bit melodramatic at times for my taste, but he does lack the slightly purple prose that so often puts people off other Victorian writers. His evocation of time and place is strong, and the language of his books reflect this; notes are probably necessary as modern readers are unlikely to understand the rural terminology widely used in this novel. It is an enjoyable book, but at times silly enough that it was hard to really feel engrossed in the story. As for society’s need to punish women for lustful feelings? Thank god for feminism.

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