Far from the Madding Crowd appears, along with Tess of the D’Urbevilles as two ‘must-read’ Hardy novels on many book lists. Unlike Tess, however, I’d never really heard of it. I had no idea what it was about or why it seemed to be so popular but two friends of mine had very polarising opinions on it so I decided to read it to become the adjudicator on the matter.
Far from the Madding Crowd is Hardy’s first big success as a novel, and the fourth that he wrote. Originally published in 1875 it has been adapted for film and television several times including recently, starring Carey Mulligan, and in an Oscar nominated production in 1967. It is a love story with typically Hardy-style darkness overlaid on top, and I really enjoyed it.
For those who don’t know (which included me, until I Googled it), ‘far from the madding crowd’ is a line taken from an elegy by Thomas Grey called ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard‘ and ‘madding’ means frenzied. The line refers to the dead as they lie buried in the churchyard, at peace away from the bustle of the living. The title seems to really make sense by the end of the book.
Plot summary wise, it deals with the various love interests of a young woman named Bathsheba Everdene who rather unexpectedly inherits her uncle’s farm. Her affairs of the heart take her into the path of Gabriel Oak, a respected shepherd and hero of our tale, William Boldwood, the local landowner, wealthy and typically aloof, and Sgt. Francis Troy, charming and rakish soldier.
Against a backdrop of hay ricks, flocks of sheep, rolling fields and meadows, this love square (or, potentially, even love pentagon) unfolds. I use the word backdrop here but, to be perfectly honest, the countryside and the pastoral deeds of its dwellers are just as central to this novel as the love story. If you’re not a romantic but are a die hard farmer or sheep enthusiast, you will find a lot to love about this book. I can certainly say I feel a lot more qualified to speak on the intricacies of protecting hay ricks, ways to tell a storm is coming, dipping and branding sheep and the many, many ways that sheep can die, having finished this book. I realise that that sounds rather boring but after making it through Anna Karenina‘s peasant passages, this was a breeze.
The love story itself has a lot of that typical Hardy pessimism and tragedy both throughout and in its dramatic conclusion, which keeps things interesting. The characters are all interesting in their own way, and I liked all of them, which is quite rare for me! After getting over our heroine’s name, Bathsheba, which I really struggled with (what on earth kind of a name?!), and couldn’t equate to the spirited beauty who held it, I did generally like our heroine. I liked her guts, her refusal to be underestimated and her playful nature. She also had a healthy dose of flaws which made her more relatable – she has a temper, she is sometimes careless about others’ feelings and she can be impetuous. However, she is a really believable young woman navigating her freedom in a man’s world. When she falls for Troy, it is with the same blind lust and love that so many can relate to, won over by flashy athleticism, good looks, confidence and flattery. In her refusal of the others you can see her urge to stay independent, her desire to be swept off her feet and to feel like an equal in her emotions. All this together made me like her more than I ever thought I would on first encountering her (and her bizarre name).
Our hero, Farmer Oak, is charming and hearty. If I had to criticise I’d say we don’t really see quite enough negativity surrounding his personality. In other words he is quite unflawed compared to other characters, which is not very like Hardy – he usually seems to create more complex characters than this one. He is dependable and steadfast – the moral here certainly seems to be that the good man, the steady man and the one who is honest but not flashy is the best man to have.
The other men certainly embody elements from both sides of the morality spectrum and are thus more typically Hardy in their creation, and make it difficult for you to universally like or dislike them. Although, William Boldwood got very much on my bad side when he continually presses Bathsheba for positive answers to his proposal. I have issues with men not taking a hint. I realise this story is in the 1800s but personally I’ve always thought that if it’s not a yes then it’s a no, it’s just someone is too polite or nervous to say so. Anyway, my attempts to retrospectively critique this book from a feminist perspective aside, the characters are generally interesting and play out a story of intrigue and drama that makes you want to read on.
I was pleasantly surprised with this book and look forward to testing out my newfound skills at 19th century sheep farming in the countryside soon.
Since I always seem to add on a miniature film review or adaptation review of these novels if I’ve seen them, I will say that I enjoyed the Carey Mulligan version that’s recently come out but I would say I was disappointed with the interpretation of the story. I think they simplified it a bit too much to make Troy look like more of a rogue and Boldwood be less desirable. Also Farmer Oak is made far too good looking – no one would pass that up even if they were keen for some independence…!