This was the first major novel I read. I had no choice, it being one of the set texts for my Literature GCSE, a course that otherwise did its best to kill my love of books, and to instil in me a lifelong aversion to Dickens and the plays of Bernard Shaw. But Far From The Madding Crowd was different. Reading it that first time, throughout the hot Summer break of 1975, connected me with a deep longing that I understood viscerally, but could not articulate. It was a thing almost spiritual in its depth, and seemed rooted partly in the earth, but also in the collective soul of mankind.
On the surface it is a love story, by turns dramatic, romantic, comic and tragic. Through its telling Hardy demonstrates a sage-like understanding for the nuances of love and human relations, but also of landscape and the nature of place which can, with him, take on a mystical, personal quality of its own. It seemed I had found in Hardy a writer who understood me, who saw the world the same way – with one eye on the timeless beauty of nature, and another on the steamroller about to flatten it.
Of all the exams I have taken, that literature GCSE remains the only one I have failed, mainly the result of the mocks, following which the entire class was flunked and bawled out by a normally mild mannered teacher. There were clever girls that day in tears, their hopes apparently in tatters, girls who knew their Hardy, their Dickens and the plays of Shaw very well and who had thought they’d done okay. With hindsight, I realise, we’d probably all done okay, but our teacher, dear Mr H. had wanted to scare the pants off us and make us do better for the real thing, come June. His plan backfired with me though; I took the more pragmatic step of setting literature aside, so I might devote more time to swatting Maths, Physics, and Languages, at which I did moderately well and I became an engineer.
It was a formative experience, one that saw an early end to my formal cultural education, but there at least arose from the ashes an abiding love of the works of Thomas Hardy, and the desire to be a writer, just like him. Throughout my ensuing studies in the technical colleges of the industrial towns of the North, one of Hardy’s Wessex novels was my habitual lunch-time companion, a reminder there was another way of seeing the world besides through the eyes and equations of Mr Newton. But of all Hardy’s works, Far From the Madding Crowd remains my favourite.
The novel is set in a region of England Hardy called Wessex, roughly centred on the county of Dorset. Thanks to Hardy, so ingrained in our psyche now is the idea of Wessex that many visitors arrive in the area and are surprised to find it does not exist. Indeed Hardy’s world is very much a lost one. It was already lost when he wrote the first serialised edition of Far From the Madding Crowd in 1873.
The largely pre-industrial England portrayed in the novel saw its population established in the rural regions in ways we cannot now imagine. Our valleys, our broad plains, our mountain-sides, our moorlands were once home to thriving pastoral communities whose relationship with nature was far more intimate and instinctual than for the town bred generations we have now mostly become. Agriculture needed armies of men to sow, to harvest, and to tend the flocks, but in Hardy’s lifetime this system changed as the farms became mechanised and the resulting rural jobless began their migration to the cities, to the great manufactories of the Victorian industrial heyday.
Hardy saw that something vitally human and important was disappearing, and nowhere is it more poignantly observed than in this story. There is nothing left of Hardy’s Wessex now, nor its bucolic equivalents elsewhere in the remaining fragments of rural England, but that we pay homage to it is still important as a reminder of man’s oft overlooked relationship with the earth and that we still have much to lose. It may not be practically or even socially possible to return to Hardy’s pastoral ideal, return to the green of the land, but a desire does not need to be attainable for it still to be desirable.
But anyway, the story,…
Our hero, the stoic, naive young sheep-farmer, Gabriel Oak, falls in love and woos the flighty milkmaid Bathsheba Everdene, but comes a cropper, foundering on the rocks of her vanity and her immaturity. The tables are then turned when Oak falls upon hard times and is reduced to the status of itinerant shepherd, while Bathsheba inherits her rich uncle’s farm. She then finds herself mistress, and queen bee of the rural community where Oak, humbled and impoverished, and still very much in love with Bathsheba, finds work.
She dashes any renewed hopes he might have by saying he should forget any past association, that their roles in life are very different now. Instead Oak must look on helplessly while she foolishly inflames the passions of two men: Boldwood, an older, wealthy gentleman farmer, and the rakish ne-er-do-well, Captain Troy. Poor old Boldwood is driven mad by a smouldering, impotent, and largely voiceless ferment, while Troy’s incandescent but ultimately transient lusts threaten the immolation of, at the very least, Bathsheba’s reputation, possibly also her being.
Hardy loved his women. His heroines are among the finest of any written characters, many of them now obscure, scattered throughout his lesser known Wessex novels, though I remember all of them as powerful and deeply interesting women. Alas I have yet to meet their like in real life – the one disservice Hardy has done me, setting my sights too much among the higher frequencies of the romantic spectrum.
Bathsheba, though she begins as vain and shallow and flighty is given room through her experiences to grow and to deepen from the first girlish bud to the full flowering of an impressive womanhood, and all under the aching gaze of the ever faithful Gabriel, for whom Bathsheba remains thoroughly unattainable.
One reason this book means so much to me is that at the time of reading it, I was suffering the ill winds of an unrequited affair myself, and like Oak, neither able to extricate myself, nor advance my cause. The image I carry in my head of Bathsheba Everdene is very much modelled on my memory of the object of my then desires. She was entirely oblivious to me, but this is not the case for Oak. Bathsheba knows of his abiding affections, but cannot return them, so engrossed is she in her own passions and misfortunes, while relying upon Oak to clean up and the carry the farm when things come crashing down around her ears.
His stoic nobility is one of the great character pieces of literature, far outshining in my opinion the wealthy glitter of Austen’s more well known Mr Darcy. And the centre of the universe here is not a stately pile, but a humble and ancient farmstead, a farm one might have difficulty pointing to on the map, lost in a fictional fold of hills that is both everywhere and yet nowhere in particular. It forms too the focus of the lives and loves of all who live and work there.
There is a tremendous longing in all of Hardy’s work, not just in the stories of the characters, but in the landscapes and the natural elements he describes. There is a scene where Oak secures the hayricks one night, as a storm approaches and all the men lay drunk asleep. It’s so vividly portrayed it’s burned in my memory as if I saw it on film. But I have watched the Schlezinger movie and the Granada TV serial adaptation in vain, realising now it was never actually filmed at all, only told through Hardy’s pellucid pen. Paradoxically then, you have to read it to see it. This is powerful storytelling.
The hayrick scene is rendered all the more poignant coming as it does on the night Oak has finally lost Bathsheba, the night of her wedding to the odious and dangerous Troy. Troy is a serial consumer and destroyer of womankind, a man who now lies drunk asleep with all the hands, incapable and indeed insensible to the approaching disaster. Other spurned men would have walked away in despair, but Oak stays, saves the farm, and shields Bathsheba from ruin even in her ultimate rejection of him. This is love like it isn’t told any more.
The John Schlesinger film (1967) makes a decent fist of the story, though I felt Julie Christie did not suit the role of Bathsheba, at least not to the satisfaction of my imagination. Terence Stamp as Troy and Peter Finch as Boldwood, however, I enjoyed very much and their faces still own these roles to my mind’s eye. Alan Bates as Oak, I liked, but I felt he lacked the quiet humility of Hardy’s vision. The story was adapted again by Granada TV in 1998. I thought this was a much better telling with the casting of Bathsheba by the largely (then) unknown actress Paloma Baeza. Its six hours of running time also allowed for a much greater faithfulness and leisurely telling, more in keeping with the pastoral mood of the novel.
Of course I shall be watching with interest the new adaptation, by Thomas Vinterberg, shortly to be released. I shall approach it with an open mind and look forward to seeing what this new, attractive cast will make of it. But we Hardy fans are a hard bunch to please and require more than compelling visuals. Alter one word of that original dialogue, skip a single treasured scene, and we will notice, feel it as an insult in our bones, and become highly voluble with our raspberries.
But the movie business is in the business of visual efficiency, and precis. It cannot tell the multi-layered story in all its subtlety and nuance as a written story can, something that has been poured in all its fresh, bleeding complexity from the heart of a man. If you want to experience Far from the Madding Crowd as it was intended, you will have to read it. I note my Penguin edition, purchased in the summer of 1974, cost 70p. You can download it for free now, yet it remains one of the most precious books I own, and is surely also one of the most treasured stories ever told. Do join me in going to see the new film adaptation, but read the book too.
Stranded on a desert island, even with nothing else for company, I would never tire of it.