If you’ve visited Book to the Future before, chances are, you’ll know exactly what’s going on. But if you’re new to this site, this post might take a little explaining…
So. It’s like this: I’m moving forwards in time, reading and reviewing one novel every week to represent every year from 1900 until the present day. However, at the conclusion of every decade, I read a book published before 1900 – just to make things more interesting. Take a look at the Table of Contents tab at the top of this page for some of my past choices.
(And by the way – if you’re new here, welcome!)
Reading Thomas Hardy is just like an armchair, dragged from a stuffy room and into the afternoon sun.
For me, a Hardy novel is my own special kind of paradise. It’s comfortable, warm, and lovely. As I turn the pages, I can’t stop myself from smiling with joy. Given Hardy’s penchant for tragedy, this might seem somewhat perverse to the casual observer.
This is no mere literary crush, dear reader. This is love. I discovered Hardy when I was seventeen. Now, in my thirties, my feelings grow stronger with every Hardy novel I read. I consume Hardy’s novels slowly. I’m determined to space them out evenly over my life.
I know Thomas Hardy isn’t everyone’s idea of perfection. All those annoying classical allusions; those grand, sweeping descriptions of landscapes – I can understand why he’s a little too over the top for some readers.
But not for me. The very things that send others running away from Hardy with their arms flailing in the air are the same things that draw me towards him. When I read a Thomas Hardy novel, I know exactly what to expect. No one sets a scene like Thomas Hardy – no one. No one has that same flair for the dramatic; that same deeply ironic humour.
It should be blindingly obvious to everyone by that this week’s review is going to be anything but impartial. But let’s just pretend, okay?
Far From the Madding Crowd
by Thomas Hardy
Published in 1874
There. Right there. That’s the sentence that sent my already high opinion of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd soaring.
Those words, spoken by Madding Crowd‘s female protagonist, Bathsheba Everdene, sealed the whole novel for me. With this one clever little sentence, Hardy lets us know that he’s all too conscious that he’s an outsider – a man, writing about a woman. It’s a subtle, knowing glance to an invisible audience, as if to say Look, I’m doing the best I can, alright?
Madding Crowd might have been written in the language of men, but Hardy describes his female protagonist with a kindness that’s far ahead of his time. In Hardy’s caring hands, Bathsheba Everdene comes to life; an intelligent, passionate young woman.
When Bathsheba inherits her uncle’s farm, she decides to run the property by herself, much to the delight of local gossipmongers. Three potential suitors are drawn to Bathsheba’s side. The first is Gabriel Oak, the farm’s shepherd. Little does anyone else on the farm suspect that Gabriel and Bathsheba have met before, and aren’t the aloof strangers they appear.
The second of Bathsheba’s suitors is Farmer Boldwood, a quiet, middle-aged man who owns the farm neighbouring Bathsheba’s. Calm and professional, Boldwood has never considered marriage until he loses his heart to Bathsheba, falling in love with her with a violent, insistent passion.
Then, finally, Bathsheba becomes entwined with Sergeant Troy, a soldier in the army. He’s known for his less-than-favourable reputation. With his sparkling words and his flashy sword, he dazzles Bathsheba completely.
As tragedy looms, only one of Bathsheba’s suitors will stand by her side when her life begins to unravel at the edges.
What I love most about Madding Crowd is difficult to describe: I love the way the novel feels. Madding Crowd is the perfect combination of beauty and danger; its atmosphere teeters deliciously between extremes of levity and tension. And then, there’s the way Hardy weaves his setting into his novel. As with all of Hardy’s writing, Madding Crowd is set in Wessex; a half-imaginary county that Hardy evokes with dream-like eloquence. In Madding Crowd, the hills of Wessex become almost like another character. It’s this extraordinary sense of place that gives the novel its unique atmosphere.
But yet again, there’s a dangerous kind of beauty that lingers around the novel’s setting, like fog on the hills. At the opening of Madding Crowd, this seemingly idyllic landscape claims the lives of Gabriel Oak’s entire flock of sheep. The land simply swallows them up. While Hardy reveres his rural setting, he never idealises nature. Hardy’s landscapes are as unforgivably cruel as they are beautiful.
I could spend thousands of words enthusing about the quality of Hardy’s writing, or the way he creates characters who feel so real, you can hear their voices as they talk. I could ramble on for pages. But I won’t. These things will simply have to remain unsaid. I’ll spare you the paragraphs of glowing adoration.
What intrigued me about Madding Crowd was the way Hardy tells Bathsheba’s story from the outside, often using Gabriel Oak to frame the narrative rather than Bathsheba herself. Once again, the quotation I mentioned at the beginning of this review comes to mind: when writing about Bathsheba, Hardy seems all too conscious of his masculinity, and he refrains from getting in too near, only daring to let the narrative close around her towards the novel’s end.
Why the evasiveness? Right at its very heart, Madding Crowd concerns itself with a subject that simply couldn’t be discussed openly in 1874 – female desire. Madding Crowd is not a romance. It’s about lust, not love. There’s a spectacularly symbolic chapter in which Sergeant Troy demonstrates his skills with the sword in a private audience for Bathsheba’s eyes only. Though Hardy hastens to tell us that it’s not her only power, Bathsheba’s sexual power is undeniably intense – she holds three men totally in thrall to her, and refuses to let society or obligation decide which she should marry. Bathsheba not only chooses her man, but marches up to his door and tells him of her intentions.
Far From the Madding Crowd is a truly admirable novel. For the week or so it took me to read Madding Crowd, it became my whole life. In fact, I fear I’ve left a piece of myself trapped between the pages of this novel, pressed flat like a flower. I’ll find it again, perfectly preserved, when I revisit these pages. Hopefully, that’s soon.
Far From the Madding Crowd is intense. It’s atmospheric, daring and sparklingly intelligent. But from Thomas Hardy, I would expect nothing less.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
Yesyesyes. I’ve never read a Thomas Hardy novel I haven’t instantly adored. He was a genius. If you’ve never really warmed to him, maybe you should give him another chance?
In a word: