Mistress and Men

A review of the novel 'Far From the Madding Crowd' by Kate Wilson

Carey Mulligan (Bathsheba Everdene) and Matthias Schoenaerts (Gabriel Oak) in Thomas Vinterberg's film of "Far From the Madding Crowd" with screenplay by David Nicholls based on Hardy's novel.

With a new film of Hardy’s resoundingly successful fourth book ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ coming out this week[1], it’s time to reassess what keeps people revisiting an author whose social themes are no longer of today and whose rural settings belonged to a life long past even in Hardy’s time.

 His relatively overlooked third novel A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) and his best-seller Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) appeared back to back as the first two novels he had enough confidence to publish under his own name. From one to the other, as he moved through his early thirties, his socially critical stance and his sexual politics sharpened. A slight young man from a poor Dorset hamlet, on the inside he was angry, full of class insecurities and testosterone (between the two books[2], he got married to Emma Gifford whom he thought was his ‘maddest dream’s desire’[3]). He was brim-full too with the sensuous beauty of the English countryside. And above all, he had a keen eye for human foibles.

 Little wonder, then, that once he had killed off the tragic Elfride in his third novel, Bathsheba Everdene should burst full bloodedly in a “scarlet glow” upon the world stage in the first of the Wessex novels.  Gabriel Oak, the 28 year-old bachelor farmer who is to become her suitor, is not the only person to experience a “long consciousness of pleasure” on first seeing her. Two other inamorati, the dashing wastrel Sergeant Troy and the persistent (but very rich) Mr.Boldwood, place her at the centre of an erotic triangle, where desire simmers deliciously whilst threatening constantly to break the peaceful idyll implied in the title. Hardy’s prose is lush with pastoral metaphor, rich and tactile enough to make you yearn for the warm sun and the sweet grass. Ironically, no-one in the novel seems to be leading much of the good life. Rivalries and passions abound, as do blows of fate; people make mistakes, murder happens, youth is no protection against death. For those who can read the signs, Nature stands as a grim warning if you are about to step into error. At the point where Bathsheba has learned that she has made a huge mistake in marrying Troy, she stops on her way back home to rest by the wayside. The plants she sees are not propitious:

“here and there (grew) a peculiar species of flag, the blades of which glistened in the emerging sun (…) the fungi (exhibited) their clammy tops, their oozing gills. Some were marked with great splotches, red as arterial blood (…)”

This is highly charged sexual imagery- the ‘bad sex’ version of the ferny hollow in which Troy first brandished his sword at Bathsheba like a ‘living thing’. But prudish Victorians did not swoon in horror at such brazen stuff. They read the book in their hundreds, on train journeys even, in full public view. Here was something everyone could recognize, even if only subliminally, as to what went on in the real world between men and women.

In all of Hardy’s novels, we have to understand these sexual dynamics, based as they are on the necessary complementarity between male and female, where men and women associate in their labours (and) their pleasures alike[4]. Again and again he shows us the evil consequences when this balance is not in place. Across the two early novels discussed here, we can see him gradually working towards the liberalization of sexual politics, which characterized his later novels and which increasingly cost him much public censure[5]. Contemporary readers may not have fully realized the intention behind the more subtly subversive messages in these two proto-feminist novels, but what puts Hardy in touch with the modern world now, is undeniably what made him popular then: his wise, even-handed, sometimes humorous probing into the dealings between the two sexes. Not only this, but Hardy is marked out by the unusual honesty with which he examines the weaknesses of his own gender. In these two novels about embattled young women, it is male psychology which Hardy brings into sharp focus, unflinchingly counting the losses that male pride, prerogative and occasionally violence, can inflict on both sides. The horrific emotional water-boarding that Knight performs on his fiancée, Elfride, when he suspects her, wrongly, of having had lovers before him, is paralleled to a lesser degree in the browbeating of Bathsheba by Boldwood in the name of some imagined contract he believes exists between them. More serious is the abject neglect into which Troy allows Fanny to fall. All the men are punished summarily in the novels for their wrong-headedness. Too late, Troy tries to restore a lost Eden by bringing spring flowers to Fanny’s grave; too late Knight pictures Elfride as she was when alive in some Elyssium of “fair summer scenes (…) waiting for him in green places”; too late, Boldwood’s infatuation lands him in prison with a life sentence, where he will languish banished forever from Bathsheba’s presence. Only Gabriel Oak, solid countryman, plain Christian and keeper of simple truths, wins through to find his own sensible version of heaven on earth.

If the far more complex psychology[6] of A Pair of Blue Eyes missed the mark for posterity,  Far from the Madding Crowd succeeded at last in hitting that sweet spot where life beats in hope and dreams are fulfilled. It was for Hardy a happy ending, well-earned.

Shepherd Oak's hut?
© Kate Wilson

[1]. Director  Thomas Vinterberg, starring Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba (1 May 2015).

[2] A Pair of Blue Eyes was published in three volumes by Tinsley Brothers, London, in 1873, having appeared in Tinsley Magazine in instalments between September 1872 and July 1873. Far From the Madding Crowd was published in two volumes on 23 November, 1874, by Smith, Elder & Co, London, having been previously serialized in Cornhill Magazine beginning in January, 1874.

[3]  From the poem Midnight in Beechen written around June 1873 on a hot midsummer’s night, before they got married on 17 September, 1874.

[4] Far From the Madding Crowd, Chapter LVI

[5] It is well-known that his later novels, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure were publicly criticized for their ‘immorality’. Jude was even nicknamed ‘Jude the Obscene’.

[6] See my review of A Pair of Blue Eyes