Far from the Madding Crowd is set in Thomas Hardy’s fictional Wessex and tells the story of Bathsheba Everdene and her relationships with three very different men. Near the beginning of the book, Bathsheba inherits her uncle’s farm and, being confident in her ability to make a success of the business, decides to run it herself. This is not a conventional thing for a woman to do in Victorian England and it’s not suprising that Bathsheba attracts a lot of attention.
Soon she has two men in love with her: the first is the shepherd, Gabriel Oak, who had already proposed to Bathsheba before she inherited the farm and had been turned down. Despite being rejected, Gabriel remains quietly devoted to Bathsheba and as time goes by she comes to rely on him more than she realises. Her second suitor, Mr Boldwood, is a well-respected neighbouring farmer. When Bathsheba sends him a valentine saying “Marry me”, Farmer Boldwood becomes determined to make her his wife, unaware that the valentine was intended as a joke. But neither Gabriel nor Boldwood can hope to compete with the handsome but untrustworthy Sergeant Troy who seems set to succeed where they have both failed.
I loved Far from the Madding Crowd. Thomas Hardy is one of my favourite Victorian authors and having read five of his books now, none of them have disappointed me. I read the beautiful Penguin English Library edition of this book which I won in a giveaway from Heavenali last year, and I would like to say how much I appreciated the fact that the ‘introduction’ is at the back of the book instead of the front! I wish all publishers would do that, as it would reduce the risk of an unsuspecting reader having the story spoiled for them (I have never understood why it’s apparently considered acceptable to give away the entire plot of a novel in the introduction or on the back cover just because the book is a classic).
Hardy is often criticised for being too depressing, but this one isn’t really a tragic, heartbreaking book like Tess of the d’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure – although it does still have its moments of sadness. Things do go wrong, bad things happen and not every character gets a happy ending. However, it also has some humour, which is maybe not something usually associated with Hardy. Most of this is provided by the wonderful collection of secondary characters – the eccentric villagers and rustic farm workers who gather at the Buck’s Head Inn in the evenings to discuss the day’s news. Their conversations are so funny and give some relief from the darker parts of the central storyline.
I found Bathsheba very frustrating, although it’s her flaws – her vanity and her impulsive nature – that make her such a fascinating character. There’s a lot to admire about her, such as her desire to run the farm and be successful at it, despite farm management still being very much a man’s world, but after seeming to be such a strong, independent person at the start of the book, she begins to make one mistake after another. Gabriel Oak, though, I loved. I loved him for his patience and devotion, for the way he coped with rejection, and the fact that he didn’t judge too harshly. Like the oak tree his name suggests, he is a constant, reassuring presence throughout the story and certainly my favourite character in any of the Hardy novels I’ve read so far.
Of all the Hardy novels that I’ve read, with the possible exception of Under the Greenwood Tree, this is the most pastoral, with lots of beautiful descriptions of the countryside and lots of information on farming and agriculture. I should now be able to shear sheep, hive bees, forecast the weather by watching the movements of slugs and toads, and deal with a fire in a hayrick! (Well, maybe not.)