Please be aware this review contains spoilers; read at your own risk.
After successfully reading, and thoroughly enjoying, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), I thought I should read some more of his work. This, consequently, leads me to the whole point of this blog post, to review and discuss his fourth novel, Far From the Madding Crowd (1874). It’s the tale of a proud working woman, Bathsheba Everdene, whose life is complicated by three courting men, who paradoxically only make her life more miserable and stressful than ever.
I must admit, I much prefer Tess compared to this. It had a much better flow to the narrative, never lacking or deviating from its focus. Far From the Madding Crowd was a longwinded novel in comparison. Hardy took his time on describing the settings, emotions and characters of the story, as well as depicting rural life and farming in great detail. But, interestingly, I never once got bored of this story, which I think illuminates how amazing of a writer Hardy is. To say that he can write a 15 page chapter on sheep and kept me engaged the whole way through is remarkable, especially considering I get bored pretty easily.
One aspect of Hardy’s writing that never fails to amaze me is his realistic approach to the world. He does not shy away from depicting certain emotions, actions or outcomes for the sake of his readers. Quite frankly, he doesn’t care if he upsets you. He doesn’t live in a fantasy world where everything works out perfectly for his characters. No, instead he details the harsh realities of the 19th century so vividly that his novels are often considered shocking, or even distressing, for some readers. This definitely shone through in Far From the Madding Crowd when it came to the consequences of Bathsheba’s choices. She fell into a pit of misery and isolation when she picked the wrong choice, which Hardy carries out for roughly 150 pages or so. Bathsheba doesn’t miraculously get her own way, but instead she has to deal with the effects and aftermath of her choices. It’s this type of writing that makes Hardy stand out for me. He disconnects from the traditional way of writing; he doesn’t shy away from the facts of life like Romantic writers do, nor does he sugar coat events to make them less gruesome (see Silas Marner by Eliot). Instead, Hardy shows them in all their glory because he wants to depict real life.
There are too many things I like about this novel to write them all in this blog post, so instead I’ll discuss very little but in great detail. One thing I loved about this novel was the simplicity and minimalistic style. It centred around four characters who all work in/around the agricultural industry, thus meaning the novel mainly took place on a farm in Weatherbury. This approach to writing made Far From the Madding Crowd an enjoyable read. It didn’t take you all over the place, thus allowing Hardy to really focus on farming and how this way of life was unstable for people (especially considering the industrial revolution was in full force at the turn of the century). Considering this book is around 450 pages, the minimalistic style really worked. It was impressive that Hardy could create so much from so little.
Not only this, but the story is set in Hardy’s fictional county of Wessex, located in the rural south west of England (this is roughly based on the areas Hardy himself lived in). After reading some of his work, you become accustomed to how Wessex plays out. You become familiar with it as if it’s your own county which shows how wonderful Hardy is at creating an imaginary world. It was pleasing to know his stories are intertwined with one another – down the road from where this story took place, the events of Tess also played out, and so on.
Another thing I loved were the characters, particularly Bathsheba Everdene and Gabriel Oak. I loved the former’s independence, and how she continually refused marriage proposals because she was her own person. She didn’t succumb to 19th century gender stereotypes, but impressively challenged and rejected them. She would not marry a man to please him, nor lose her independence for his sake. She also wouldn’t accept a man to help run her farm because she could do it herself. It’s so lovely to see authors radically destroying the patriarchal norms that were created to confine women.
Although, I hated how she ultimately lost this spark when Troy came into the picture. From reading many 19th century novesl, especially Victorian literature, it seems inevitable for women to lose their independence and fierceness (see Jane Eyre for example). Reading and experiencing Bathsheba’s spiral into sadness because of a man was distressing to read sometimes, especially considering how she was so passionate about her free-spiritedness beforehand. Nevertheless, I am pleased with how Hardy wrapped up the novel. After the distress Troy brought to her life, she deserved a happy ending and who better to spend her life with than good ol’ Gabriel Oak.
Just a quick note before I move on from Bathsheba: I wanted to mention how much I love Hardy for fighting against 19th century ideals of womanhood. He provided us with a remarkably strong female protagonist – a kind of protagonist who is rare for this period. She would allow no mistreatment from her male employees, she knew her own heart and mind, defied all expectations of womanhood, and although she fell short a few times, she eventually found herself again. She is what some call a “problematic fave” – a lot of the stuff that happened to her could have been easily been avoided if she thought beforehand, but you couldn’t you get mad at her for it. She casts a spell over you.
Now, moving on to the most charming character from Far from the Madding Crowd, I introduce you to Gabriel Oak. He was the most respectful gentlemen in the whole novel, and probably the most respectful man from all of 19th century literature. Comparing him to Boldwood, Oak understood that when Bathsheba said no she meant it. Boldwood was annoyingly persistent in his quest to court Bathsheba, so much so she was willing to accept him because she felt it was her duty. It even got to the point in his nagging where she broke down in tears due to the pressure he was applying to her about marriage. He was relentless. But Oak – you see – was respectful. Instead of bugging her, he carried on with his life at her side as nothing more than a friend. He could do no wrong for me. I’m really thrilled with the conclusion of this novel – out of everyone, Oak was the right choice. I must admit, he deserved more than Bathsheba, considering she played with two other men in front of him, but they were a sweet pair. He deserved happiness, and if Bathsheba was it for him, then I’m glad they found their way back to each other.
The one thing that struck me about this novel, and will always strike me about Hardy, is the way he describes his scenery. I mentioned this in my Tess review, but his pastoral settings always remind me of home when it’s summer. And what more could I want when I’m an hour and a half away from home and stuck in my disgusting university flat? I need my fix of Thomas Hardy describing the barren countryside in all its greenery and sunniness. So for that, I will always love Hardy for reminding me of home when I can’t be there.
I don’t want to dwell too much on what I hated about this novel because honestly there was nothing that I truly hated. I only had a passionate dislike for some characters – Troy and Boldwood to be exact – but that wasn’t because they were badly written. In fact, they were written incredibly, I just hated them because they were annoying, evil and vindictive. It’s nice to read something and not find anything you hate about it, and for that I would recommend this novel to everyone and anyone. What a lovely read, especially for this time of year. I can’t wait to pick up some more of Hardy’s stuff (I’ve already ordered two more of his novels).
4 out of 5 stars.
Thanks for reading, Lauren Xx
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