This was yet another case of “there’s a movie adaptation of this book coming out… I should read the book first.” There’s something about the prettiness of period pieces and film adaptations of classic novels that gives me that final push when it comes to picking up a book that’s been on my To Read list for ages. Reading Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd has put me in the, “I’ll be waiting for it to come out on DVD so I can rent it” category. While I enjoyed it more than Tess of the D’Urbervilles, I’m not particularly looking forward to reading more of his novels as I work my way through the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list.
Bathsheba Everdene enjoys her independence and an unexpected inheritance makes it easier for her to put off marrying and the restrictions of the institution. Even so, there are several young men in the neighborhood of her late uncle’s farm who find themselves falling for the non-traditional young woman. Gabriel Oak actually met Bathsheba before she inherited her uncle’s farm. When his own circumstances falter, she hires him as a shepherd on her farm, despite the initial awkwardness from her having rejected his suit. Mr. Boldwood wouldn’t have looked twice at Bathsheba if it weren’t for an ill-advised joke but having noticed her, he goes to extraordinary lengths to secure her for himself. Then there’s dashing Francis Troy, a sergeant who catches Bathsheba’s eye.
There’s something about Thomas Hardy’s prose that fails miserably at holding my attention. I wind up re-reading passages frequently. Every once in a while he’ll have a gem of a line that sticks with me but most of it I find toilsome. His plots show their age a bit but they’re not un-interesting. Similarly, his characters can be engaging. His ability to capture dialects is remarkable. It’s just his style that causes me to lose interest. I find it helps if I read something else while I read his work so that I can alternate chapter by chapter.
What bothers me about the story of Far From the Madding Crowd is that it is undeniably a male’s perspective on an independent and strong-spirited woman. This makes it progressive for its time even as it remains an incomplete and deeply flawed portrait, but even Hardy knew that was the case. The truest and most self-aware thing Hardy writes is one of Bathsheba’s observations to Mr. Boldwood: “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.” That bit of self-awareness and that line are what will always come to mind when I think of this novel in the future.
The novel can almost be viewed as a proto-feminist instruction manual for young men on how to treat women. Troy is the traditional womanizer who views women as something to be played with; Boldwood is very much a stalker in his interactions and pursuit of Bathsheba. But Gabriel respects her rejection of him and doesn’t try to force himself on her in any way. Though he has more experience with the technical aspects of running a farm, he defers to her authority, reasons with her when he thinks she’s wrong, and treats her very much as an equal. My only issue with this presentation of “how to treat women” is that it still focuses on the male side of things; Bathsheba is still a prize won by the man whose behavior is most appropriate, who most deserves to get the girl. If this book were written today, Bathsheba would be allowed to remain independent at the end of the novel instead of being tidily married off because her suitor was entitled to get his way for having treated her as a human being. Still, for the nineteenth century such a demonstration was incredibly progressive. It gives me hope for getting through more of Hardy’s prose in the future.