Far from the Madding Crowd tells the story of a four-cornered love affair; that is, three men falling in love with the same woman, the beautiful Bathsheba Everdine. In the beginning, she is not particularly interested in any of them. She has inherited her uncle’s prosperous farm raising her status from poor orphan to that of a financially independent woman. Before she comes into her inheritance she is awkwardly courted by a hardworking rustic farmer named Gabriel Oak. Bathsheba rejects Gabriel’s proposal because she does not love him and does not want to be tied down by a commitment to marriage. Her second suitor is the reserved and humourless bachelor, Mr. Boldwood, a wealthy farmer who is twenty years her senior. Bethsheba only becomes the object of this gentleman’s notice after she sends him a valentine card as a thoughtless joke. However on the strength of the sentiments expressed in the card he pursues her obsessively. Finally the third man in her life is the dashing Sargent Troy who possesses a natural charm and a sort of romantic eroticism suggested by his swagger and his swordsmanship.
Supporting these four main characters is a troupe of villagers and servants who speak in dialect and are always prepared to offer their frank, unedited opinion on anyone or thing. This chorus of articulate rustics commenting in the background together with the torrent of dramatic events that propel the story forward reveal that Hardy’s chosen title for this novel is ironic. A madding crowd is one that is frenzied and tumultuous such that you would expect to find in a revolting city mob or a bunch of upstarts in a political debate or even a gaggle of socialites vying for precedence in their social circle. The setting for this novel is deep in a remote and pastoral corner of England filled with green pastures and the scattered sleepy village. One could not imagine anything occurring that would be more exciting than a country dance or the occasional stampede of sheep. However Hardy proves that rural peace is a façade sheltering its own Madding crowd made up of every sort of humanity exhibiting behaviours that range from the angelic to the wicked and even those who are angelic have their share of sinfulness.
Bathsheba, still in her twenties does not choose a husband wisely and ends up supporting the gambling habits of the gallent Sargent Troy. She breaks the heart of Gabriel Oak and just about drives the obsessive Mr. Boldwood insane with jealousy (and that is but the beginning of the story).
I read Far from the Madding Crowd in the Oxford World Classic edition, which was a lucky choice. The introduction was interesting (although I always read introductions last) but the best part was the notes at the back of the book. I found the notes more than helpful because Hardy employed many biblical references which may have been commonly understood in the 1870s when this book was published but less so in our secular world of the 21st century. Also, some of the terms and expressions used are archaic; without understanding their meaning and context the reader would miss out on some of the humour that is part of the enjoyment in reading this novel.
I purchased this novel intending to read it before I saw the 2015 movie adaptation that stars Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdine. Things did not work out as planned and I ended up seeing the movie first. Nonetheless were it not for the movie I don’t think that I would have been inspired to pick up this novel in the first place as the only other book I had read by Thomas Hardy was Tess of the D’Urbervilles which I found to be both dour and cynical. This novel on the other hand is anything but gloomy thanks for the most part to the character of the bright and optimistic heroine, Bathsheba Everdine. The fact that the novel was serialised in a magazine (one edited by Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s father) moves the novel along at a very readable pace as it is divided into to short-ish chapters with just enough story to keep you on the edge and want to move on to the next chapter.
The characters in this novel would not be defined as well as they are were it not for Hardy’s clever use of dialogue. Writing dialogue, is an art and I think, is very difficult to do effectively. I have found in writing my own modest stories that if you are not well focused when employing dialogue all the characters tend to sound alike… worse their speech patterns will sound like that of the writer rather than define their uniqueness! The other feature that is sustained throughout the novel and is perhaps more subtle is the feeling of remoteness; that is of being in a rural setting surrounded by nature and attuned to the rhythms of the weather and the seasons
It must be obvious to anyone who has read this far that I loved this book and recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good story.