Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy [A Review]

Far from the Madding Crowd is perhaps destined to become one of my favourite novels. A fast-paced plot with well-fleshed characters, building to unforgettable scenes of great drama and emotion and leaving much food for thought. This edition uses the original text for the first time; showcasing Hardy’s satire of the social and religious values of his period.

Madding

Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer with a modest sized farm, lives a solitary existence consisting of long days of unending toil. The hard life out of doors has made Gabriel look older than his 28 years. His only companions are his two sheep dogs; the reliable but old George and George’s energetic but disobedient unnamed son. Not yet of independent means, his knowledge, fastidiousness and strong work ethic appears to ensure a prosperous future for him.

With the arrival of a young woman to his environs, Gabriel finds his thoughts affected, his heart provoked. Though his first impressions of Bathsheba Everdene is that she is a vain, possibly immodest, young woman who exceeds him in education if not in social class, he finds himself inescapably drawn to her.

His proposal of marriage, however, is rejected. Though she has no other suitors, she does not love him back and his vision of their life together does not appeal to her. Bathsheba sees herself as a wild and independent woman and does not want to have a husband constantly around her.

I hate to be thought men’s property in that way – though possibly I shall be to be had some day.

Though disheartened, Gabriel is not one to dwell on such matters. He soon learns that Bathsheba has left the locale and is unsure if she will ever return. Not long after, disaster strikes as George’s son drives his flock to their deaths and ten years of Gabriel’s striving towards independence is ruined.

Forced to start over, Gabriel takes to the road to try and find work as a bailiff or even just as a shepherd, but the story of his decline turns off prospective employers. An opportunity arrives when Gabriel is able to play a lead hand in saving a farm’s crop from ruin and establish favour with the farmer. To his surprise, the farmer is Bathsheba who has come into an inheritance and finds herself owning a moderately sized farm. Desperate for employment, Gabriel must bury his past feelings for Bathsheba and accept that, as their fortunes have changed, they are no longer social equals.

Bathsheba’s conduct as lady farmer soon attracts a lot of attention. She dismisses the existing bailiff and declares she needs no replacement as she will manage the farm herself. She insists on working as long a day as her employees, in overseeing every operation on the farm and is not above getting her hands dirty in farm work.

Neighbouring Bathsheba’s farm is that of William Boldwood. Though rumoured to have had his heart broken when he was young, Boldwood has never exhibited any romantic interest and is a confirmed, though eligible, bachelor. But a Valentine’s card, sent as a prank, from Bathsheba stirs Boldwood’s fancy. Though Bathsheba turns Boldwood down as well, again citing a lack of love on her part, she admittedly feels guilty for her prank and that she owes Boldwood a debt for rousing him so.

It troubled her much to see what a great flame a little wildfire was likely to kindle. Bathsheba was no schemer for marriage, nor was she deliberately a trifler with the affections of men, and a censor’s experience on seeing an actual flirt after observing her would have been a feeling of surprise that Bathsheba could be so different from such a one, and yet so like what a flirt is supposed to be.

Boldwood’s obsession for Bathsheba only grows and he remains hopelessly optimistic that her feelings for him will change.

The great aids to idealization in love were present here: occasional observation of her from a distance, and the absence of social intercourse with her – visual familiarity, oral strangeness.

Soon after, Bathsheba has a chance encounter with Francis Troy; a soldier, though native to the area. Cocky, forward and imprudent, Troy excites Bathsheba as a man as wild as she is. Unable or unwilling to see past his seduction, Bathsheba becomes vulnerable to his charms. Unknown to Bathsheba is the fact that Troy was recently due to wed another woman, Fanny Robin, a former servant of Bathsheba’s house, who disappeared after Troy abandoned her following a misunderstanding.

The navigation of this intelligent, ambitious woman, through the desires of three very different suitors, in the precarious world of 19th century English farming, not to mention the rigid social rules in play as well, is the heart of this novel of Thomas Hardy.

I must say I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and it will become one of my favourites. Whenever I start a ‘classic’ novel, I expect something slow, something that will force me to take my time with it. It is rarely true. The plots of so many classics actually move along quite swiftly and, if anything, it is more contemporary writers who dawdle along with overly lengthy pieces of descriptive writing. In Far from the Madding Crowd the pace of the plot is brisk and descriptive pieces are effective but short.

That being said, there were a few instances where long, complex sentences with adjectives that have fallen out of use were employed. I admit I did not pause to consume them properly as I should have, and deserve a rap on the knuckles as a bad reader for passing them too quickly, eager as I was for the story to continue.

Elsewhere, those descriptive pieces are quite something and add considerable colour to the novel. An architect by training, Hardy displays his architectural knowledge in one scene in particular, but otherwise displays ample knowledge and ability in describing the rural setting, various farming practices and a knowledge of botany and art as well as the works of Keats and Milton. Hardy’s use of the pathetic fallacy is somewhat transparent, but I rather like it.

The writing contains a pleasant bit of humour as well.

A brisk young man – Mark Clarke by name, a genial and pleasant gentleman whom to meet was to know, to know was to drink with, and to drink with was to pay for.

Like a lot of novels of the time, Far from the Madding Crowd was published in periodical form and the writing reflects this. Dickens gets considerable acclaim for the way he manages the ebb and flow of the pace of his stories and the timing of plot twists and turns to suit a periodical audience, particularly for his influence on the writing of the modern equivalent – the TV show. Hardy, though writing after Dickens, displays similar skill and control.

Far from the Madding Crowd represents my first foray into ‘Victorian Realism’ and it was not what I expected, though, in hindsight, my expectations may have been lacking. For example, I thought realism would have meant a restraint on emotionality in scene and dialogue. This is certainly not the case for Far from the Madding Crowd which contains several emotionally charged scenes. Realism, I think, can refer to many things. In the case of Far from the Madding Crowd, it takes the form of an aversion to the sentimental or the ideal rather than an avoidance of emotionality or unexpected plot turns.

Far from the Madding Crowd can be interpreted as a somewhat progressive novel. Hardy was influenced by Enlightenment philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and he takes the opportunity in this novel to question various aspects of society in his time. The obvious example is that of Bathsheba assuming traditional male roles as head of her house and overseer of her farm.

On one hand, she is a symbol for progress in her assumption of traditionally male roles, her ‘unladylike’ ambition and her willingness to get her hands dirty. On the other hand, she is still portrayed as being subject to traditional female weaknesses for vanity and an inability to be as rational on matters of the heart as she is elsewhere.

Bathsheba’s was an impulsive nature under a deliberative aspect. An Elizabeth in flesh and a Mary Stuart in spirit,

In scenes where she is absent, Hardy shows how she is scrutinised in ways she would not be if she were man. As the story unfolds, the men around her are unsure what to make of the events; either Bathsheba is capable of being an equal to a man and she therefore deserves, or at least should take some responsibility for, her fate, or she is not equal and is therefore mostly innocent of any outcome. Bathsheba too is only too aware of the difficulties of being her own woman in a man’s world.

It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.

Carey Mulligan, who plays Bathsheba in the 2015 film adaptation said in an interview:

Thomas Hardy wrote this incredibly authentic woman. Don’t you think that it’s amazing that a man, so long ago in Victorian Britain, could do this? There are so many passages in the book where the narrator dives into her head. You can see her thought processes, and they are all spot on.

While these questions of women’s role in society is an aspect modern readers can relate to, and Bathsheba remains a character of enduring intrigue and complexity, other aspects of Hardy’s social progressiveness are less obvious to the modern reader but were deliberately created by Hardy to provoke and antagonise his Victorian readers. Religious hypocrisy, though not a strong focus in the novel, is nevertheless present when characters misinterpret or misapply Biblical passages, or when characters fail to love their neighbours or to judge not. Such moments, though are less obvious to the modern reader who is less indoctrinated in Biblical technicalities than their Victorian equivalent.

The same is true for social rules; the inequities and quandaries of which do have a large and deliberate role in the novel. I’ll only share one example here; the relationship between Bathsheba and Gabriel. When they first meet they are on similar social footing – Gabriel as a sheep farmer still a few years away from financial independence, Bathsheba as an orphaned young woman reliant on what little family she has. His offer of marriage is in complete accordance with the social rules of the time. But Gabriel’s subsequent misfortune and Bathsheba’s inheritance has the effect of blurring the social rules and it is clear that neither they, nor the reader, is entirely sure how they should now behave.

Sometimes they share an understanding of their past familiarity and at others they remember they are now master and employee. Sometimes Gabriel is valued for his knowledge and encouraged to share his thoughts, at others he is punished for the impropriety of his opinion. To the Victorian reader, any outcome that sees Gabriel and Bathsheba together would not be a happy ending in the romantic sense. Again, this may not be immediately apparent to the modern reader for whom such rules have lapsed, but the social confusion the events of the plot create is certainly intentional from Hardy.

The conflict between these social rules and the requirements for a good matrimonial match is another theme of the novel, in fact, the question of what makes a good match could be considered the main theme of the novel.

It appears that men take wives because possession is not possible without marriage, and that women accept husbands because marriage is not possible without men.

This edition of Far from the Madding Crowd is the second printing of the 2000 edition that used Hardy’s original manuscript for the first time. All other versions include changes made by censors, publishers and later, Hardy himself. It was Hardy’s questioning of social rules that drew the censor’s ink to his work. Rosemarie Morgan’s introduction to this edition focuses on this aspect of the novel and what Hardy was trying to say before his work was altered. She also discusses Hardy’s subtle and complex use of irony and satire in depth.

I could only think of one relatively minor flaw in this otherwise superb novel. For all of its ability to keep the pace of the story up through various turns of plot, there was one event where the realism broke down somewhat – the sudden disappearance of Troy. It occurred a little too suddenly, with too little expectation and a little too conveniently for the direction Hardy wanted the story to take. As I say, it is a minor grievance.

On a side note, I must say this is the first instance where I have been disappointed by the explanatory notes provided in a Penguin Classic. I have otherwise found explanatory notes to be enlightening but in this case they caused issues. Most of the notes concern revisions from the original manuscript. Some of these revisions and the reasons for them are worth noting; as mentioned the text has been amended repeatedly by censors, publishers and Hardy himself. These might have been put in a separate appendix for textual notes. Most of the rest explain Hardy’s frequent Biblical, historical and mythological references and his deliberate creation of issues of social etiquette. Again, these notes are worthwhile to explain what may not be obvious to modern readers.

But my main issue is with the fact that some notes were spoilers; pointing out Hardy’s foreshadowing of future plot events. I expect Introductions to contain spoilers and I therefore avoid reading them until I have finished the book and Penguin often give a spoiler warning at the beginning of their introductions. But I expect explanatory notes to avoid them and was disappointed to find spoilers without warning in the notes as I was reading. I’m also not a fan of the black-and-white photo cover and would have preferred the oil panting covers that predominate their books from this period.

The two main film adaptations – 1967’s with Julie Christie and 2015’s with Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba respectively – are fair. The Christie version contains more of the novel but this makes it quite long, over two and a half hours. Long period films work best when what we are seeing is a microcosm of larger events such as wars and revolutions – Lawrence of Arabia, Gone with the Wind, Doctor Zhivago. The scale of Far from the Madding Crowd is too small to suit an epic film. It has also not aged well; some of the filming techniques are noticeably amateurish by modern standards.

The Mulligan version is overall a much better film, but partly because it is shorter and omits much of the story. In particular, much of Troy’s story is left out, making him a much more sympathetic character than he is in the novel and the earlier film. The minor roles are also greatly diminished and with it the story loses the social commentary they provide.

Condensing the story into a film format means that the already well-paced drama proceeds even more rapidly without much pause for the characters to dwell on them or to build toward the next one. The story would be much better served by a TV miniseries adaptation along the lines of what the BBC achieved with their 1995 Pride and Prejudice adaptation. The novels of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens have enjoyed multiple TV miniseries adaptations. Those of Thomas Hardy perhaps deserve the same.

Far from the Madding Crowd is the first of six Hardy novels I plan to read over the next couple of years. Judging from this first outing, it is going to be a pleasant experience. From here, I expect Hardy to push his satire and exposure of social and religious hypocrisy further and test the tolerance of his contemporary censors and critics. That being said, my impression is that Far from the Madding Crowd is to Hardy’s oeuvre what Pride and Prejudice is to Austen’s. That is, not necessarily the favourite of critics and academics, but a clear and enduring favourite with the majority of readers.

Carey Mulligan quote reference:

Totara, Paola; The Carey Factor; The Age, 6/6/15.

See also, my reviews of other Hardy novels: The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge.

 

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