I have been meaning to read Thomas Hardy for ages so when Danielle proposed we read Far From the Madding Crowd together it was easy to say yes. I was expecting a very depressing book because that’s my impression of Hardy, but I apparently managed to read his least depressing story. In fact, as I mentioned when I began the book, it was actually full of humor. The humor fades out to occasional as the book progresses and the farmhands are always the ones who provide it, which ends up coming across as mocking the uneducated worker at times.
The story is about Bathsheba, a young, pretty and clever woman whom Gabriel Oak declares vain upon first meeting her. Bathsheba ends up inheriting her uncle’s farm and instead of hiring someone to take care of it for her, decides to do it herself. It is a brave move on her part since women aren’t supposed to have a head for farming or business, but she holds her own and even does better than many. Unfortunately it is subtly hinted that part of her success comes from the use of her feminine charms to disarm the men and confuse them into paying her more for her grain.
Bathsheba’s strength is also further undermined by the steady Gabriel Oak who, unbeknownst to Bathsheba, performs many of the duties the hired overseer would do if Bathsheba had decided to have one. Oak begins the book as his own farmer, just starting out with his own sheep, an undertaking he has scrimped and saved for and invested everything in. All is going well until he decides to get a new dog to help his ageing dog herd the sheep. Only the new dog takes too well to his sheep herding training and manages to herd the entire flock of sheep off a cliff! I know I am not supposed to find this funny but it makes me laugh every time I think about it. Gabriel is ruined and ends up working as the shepherd for Bathsheba on her farm. Oh, and Oak loves Bathsheba and when he was still a farmer had asked if he could court her and she turned him down with “You’re a nice man and all but I’m not interested in marrying so can we just be friends?”
Bathsheba’s farming neighbor is Mr. Boldwood who is, as his name suggests both wooden and bold. First we get the wood. A prosperous farmer, he is the most eligible bachelor around but in spite of all the ladies trying to catch him he is just not interested. His inability to be swayed by flirtation provokes Bathsheba to send him a Valentine card as a joke. But the joke backfires as the wooden man suddenly is swept away by love and becomes bold to the point of harassment. Bathsheba does not love him though and when finally pressed, tells him so, even says she suspects she would never love him. She apologizes repeatedly for her bad joke but Boldwood refuses to leave the woman alone so certain is he that she will eventually love him back.
When the dashing Sergeant Troy meets Bathsheba one evening as she is walking around her farm checking on things before retiring for the night, he is immediately charmed. Troy catches his spur in Bathsheba’s dress which forces many minutes of inappropriate closeness while Troy bumblingly (on purpose) disentangles himself. Troy is actually in love with another woman with plans to marry her, but is so taken up with the challenge of making Bathsheba love him that he abandons poor Fanny Robin to an ultimately sad end. Bathsheba falls hard for Troy just like boldwood fell for her. Troy’s flirtation is relentless and he is all things charming and irresistible given that her other prospects were Oak and Boldwood. The pair marry which causes Boldwood to slip into a depression so deep he begins neglecting his farm and losing money.
Bathsheba starts losing money too because it turns out Troy is not what he represented himself to be and takes distinct pleasure in neglecting his new duties as head of farm and instead going to the racetrack to lose Bathsheba’s money. If this isn’t soapy enough for you, the suds increase when Troy runs away, goes skinny dipping in the ocean, gets caught in a ripetide and rescued just in time by some men in a boat at which point he decides to ship out with them. But someone from the neighborhood saw Troy being pulled out to sea and missed the rescue. Of course no body is found. Nonetheless, Boldwood is back on harassment duty and forces Bathsheba into to agreeing to marry him after seven years when Troy can be legally declared dead.
The years fly by but as the seven year date approaches and Boldwood is readying to swoop in for the win, well, you will just have to read the book yourself to find out. It’s very Days of Our Lives. But the book can’t end without Bathsheba being married because a woman on her own is not allowable.
Throughout the book Hardy makes comments and observations about marriage and relations between men and women. His culminating statement comes down to this:
Far From the Madding Crowd was an early novel, published the same year Hardy married his first wife with whom he was passionately in love. The pair eventually became estranged and two years after her death in 1912, Hardy married his secretary who was 39 years his junior. So I’m not sure one would want to take any kind of relationship advice from him. I have to admit though, the man really knew how to rock a mustache.
This good-fellowship—camaraderie—usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death—that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.
Do pop over to A Work in Progress for Danielle’s thoughts about the book.