I read this week Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. It’s the second book by Hardy on the list after Tess of the d’Ubervilles and somehow it’s a lot more positive. It’s also surprising that a man should write such compelling female stories.
In both books the main character is a woman.
Far from the Madding Crowd follows the life and relationships of Bathsheba Everdene, a young woman of temper, notably with farmer William Boldwood, shepherd Gabriel Oak and Sergeant Francis Troy. While Tess of the d’Ubervilles is a sad tale, this one is almost a succession of romances between the lead female and her numerous suitors.
While the first one was interesting for all its drama and unfairness, I found this one more difficult to like. Bathsheba is vain; she’s beautiful, she knows it and she plays with it. One might argue that she uses what wiles she has in a world where no woman would be accepted as a farmer in her own right. Still… she’s fickle, mean and she holds grudges.
She first refuses Gabriel’s proposal because he’s richer than she is at the time of their meeting, yet, once she comes into money – and he unfortunately loses what fortune he has – she treats him badly. She sends a valentine saying “Marry me” to Farmer Boldwood because he’s the only man in town who seems unimpressed by her beauty and by doing so releases passion in him that even he ignored existed. She lets him court her even though she doesn’t love him and did this on a whim. But then turns him down because the dashing yet unreliable Sergeant Troy tells her she’s beautiful, something she knows yet needs to hear.
I’m not entirely sure whether the purpose of the book was to show that beautiful women, though not always deserving, still end up getting their happy end. But she does. And she’s really not deserving. To the end she acts as if she were too good for anyone to have. I also didn’t get the book title… Is it about the fact that women and men are always actors in front of a crowd that tends to make them act in ways they might not naturally? I don’t know.
In short, I found Bathsheba annoying, the men… well Troy bored me with his beautiful words and faking, Oak is just too perfect and Boldwood seems a victim.
What I enjoyed the most though were the rich descriptions about the work on farms at the time; how it changes with the seasons, which seemed to have personality of their own. Everything from the birth of lamb, to hiving bees… it was richly described and it gave a character to the context, which seemed layered with complexities. Maybe it’s because I’m a city girl but it was fascinating to me. Wessex, while an imaginary place out of Hardy’s head, came to be real to me in some way.
I don’t know if that book should be on a must read list; it’s agreeable but not as compelling as I might have expected. Or again after the Bronte, Jane Austen and all these romances I’m looking for something else. I own that.