I have started a tradition I have kept up for two whole years of reading one Thomas Hardy novel a year. This year it was Far from the madding crowd, an early novel serialised then published in 1874.
Set in Hardy’s beloved Wessex, Bathsheba Everdene is pursued by three men. Gabriel Oak is a good hearted farmer who loses his farm and any chance of marrying her and becomes a shepherd on her farm. Farmer Boldwood is a boring bachelor in his forties whose heart is brought to life by a Valentine Bathsheba sends as a joke. From thereon, she feels an obligation to him and it is tragic to see the trouble wrought by one careless action. Sergeant Troy is a dashing soldier who flatters and controls Bathsheba and makes her fall in love for the first time in her life.
It was the savage tragedy of Tess of the D’Ubervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Jude the Obscure which drew me to Hardy. He writes tragedy better than anyone else I have read. Madding Crowd is a minor tragedy, diluted with pastoral comedy. The comic aspects are interesting mainly from a cultural perspective, the exchanges of the farm workers in the pub on religion and life giving a picture of everyday nineteenth century life through Hardy’s eyes. But the mix is an uneasy one and left me dissatisfied.
The depth of feeling of those favourite works of mine is not there. Hardy doesn’t seem to care or know these characters as well as those in his later works.
Yet it deserves its reputation as an important novel. Bathsheba is a fascinating, nuanced character, especially for a woman character in the nineteenth century. She is not typecast as either pure or evil, but instead as a complex human being with contradictory drives between desire and obligation.