Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd takes its title from a stanza of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”:
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenour of their way.
Hardy’s novel is a scorching reply to the soothing conceit that rustic villagers lead cool, noiseless passionless lives.
Gabriel Oak is a rising young farmer of about 27. Bathsheba Everdene is a beautiful young woman not yet 20, the penniless niece of one of Oak’s neighbors. Bathsheba is intelligent and refined, but also heedless and even reckless. She saves Gabriel’s life from carbon monoxide poisoning, when he falls asleep before his cottage fire. Gabriel falls in love; Bathsheba refuses his proposal and moves away to the home of another relative.
An almost comical disaster abruptly ruins Gabriel’s fortunes: a poorly trained sheepdog chases his entire flock off a cliff. Bathsheba meanwhile has become rich, at least by village standards: Her relative dies and leaves her the management of his thriving farm.
Gabriel’s wanderings unknowingly lead him to Bathsheba’s new home. He arrives upon a scene of burning corn ricks. He heroically charges in and saves the crop – another of the heavily symbolic fires and floods on which the plot will turn. Bathsheba hires him as a hand. Gabriel quickly becomes indispensable to the success of the farm. Bathsheba shamelessly exploits Gabriel’s devotion to her, but she no way returns it. The social gap has opened too wide, and decent and capable as he is, he is also more than a little dull.
The only man duller than Gabriel is Bathsheba’s near neighbor, the wealthiest farmer in the vicinity, a worthy bachelor of 40. Out of boredom, Bathsheba sends him an anonymous flirtatious valentine. The neighbor quickly discerns the source, takes the valentine absolutely seriously, and falls into an obsessive passion. Bathsheva refuses him too.
Having rejected two good men, Bathsheba now encounters a third almost worthless one. The illegitimate son of a nobleman, educated for the law, young Francis Troy has thrown over all his prospects in life to enlist in the army. But he is handsome and charming. Sergeant Troy seduces Bathsheba with a display of expert swordsmanship, slicing the air an inch away from her skin, reducing her to a state of panting, fainting arousal described more graphically than anything I know in 19th century literature. (Those who like to skip ahead to the good parts, can click here.)
Troy has already seduced and made pregnant one of Bathsheba’s servant girls. He briefly considered doing the right thing by the girl, for whom he cares as much as he can care for anyone. But Bathsheba is richer and more beautiful and (it has to be said) the servant girl is annoyingly pathetic and witless. Troy wastes his new opportunities in the same destructive way he wrecked those offered by his father. He tempts all the farm hands into a drunken debauch on the day after the harvest is brought in – leaving it to Gabriel single-handedly to rescue the crop again, this time from a torrential rain.
But when the girl and her child die almost literally on the doorstep of Troy’s new home, he explodes at Bathsheba, tells her he never loved her, and spends desperately needed money entrusted to him to build a lavish marble headstone that links his name with the dead girl’s. Troy then vanishes, presumed drowned in the nearby waters of the English Channel.
Humiliated and heartbroken, Bathsheba allows her obsessed neighbor to bully her into a promise of marriage. On the day the engagement is to be announced, Troy shows up again. The infatuated farmer kills him, then tries to kill himself.
Through all these disasters, Gabriel has had to assume more and more responsibility, ultimately the management of both Basheva’s farm and her suitor’s. A rising man again, he nurses Bathsheba back to calm. He does not however renew his own suit – until Bathsheba, with one last show of initiative, prompts him. They marry, the first of the novel’s love affairs to be carried on in calmly and deliberately. Gray’s vision of happiness obtained by sheltering oneself against passion has after all been vindicated.
So that’s the story.
1) Hardy has a bad reputation among modern readers for his lengthy descriptions of rural life. This complaint is not always just: the Mayor of Casterbridge is a compact and perfect tragedy without a single unnecessary phrase. Far From the Madding Crowd does probably have more to say about sheep rearing and corn tending than most readers will want to read. I happen to find these passages very interesting, but here’s a possible consolation for those who do not:
Regular readers of NRO’s Corner have probably been exposed to the debates about group differences in IQ that fascinate our John Derbyshire. Hardy offers an illuminating sidewise perspective on this discussion. His intimate descriptions of the conversations of Bathsheba’s farm laborers take us into a cramped and stunted mental world. These laborers regard a city 12 miles away as practically another universe, its customs as hopelessly alien. They have no concept of time, and will waste hours on an important day in idle talk, getting morosely drunk. They waste money and invite injuries by omitting obvious elementary precautions. They have trouble expressing even the simplest ideas or relating even the most basic narrative of events. One shudders to think how they would score on any test. Their descendents today manage to run a highly successful advanced industrial democracy. Yet the transition required – what? – perhaps five or six generations of education, nutritional improvements, and other adaptations to the demands of modern life.
2) For no good reason, I happened to read Far From the Madding Crowd in very close proximity to Anthony Trollope’s Kept in the Dark. Although the one book is a great work of art and the other is anything but, and although Hardy is able to acknowledge the existence of female sexual desire and Trollope cannot, they do agree in at least one important way in their depiction of the relations between men and women 150 years ago: How little the sexes knew of one another!
Proposals of marriage after six weeks of chaperoned drawing room courtesies – mad passions formed on the basis of a glance and a note – it’s astounding that misery was not absolutely universal. Or maybe it was. Maybe this is why older folks in these old books always look with wry amusement on the younger folks hopes of love.
Only at the end of the novel does Hardy offer a better alternative, in the form of the ending he predicts for Gabriel and Bathsheba. It’s a new kind of marriage, one that rests on more knowledge beforehand – and more equality afterward.
They spoke very little of their mutual feeling; pretty phrases and warm expressions being probably unnecessary between such tried friends. Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality. This good-fellowship Ñ CAMARADERIE Ñ usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death Ñ that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.
On the other hand, one does meet quite a number of happy older married couples in old novels books. It all reminds me of an observation once offered in class by a teacher of mine, Conrad Russell. Russell was a specialist in British 17th century history. At that time, marriages between propertied families were nearly always arranged. Russell observed on the basis of his large reading of archived family letters that about one-third of these marriages were happy, about one-third unhappy, and about one-third somewhere in between. “As far as I can tell,” he wryly commented, “that’s about the same ratio that obtains today .”
Still, I wonder. The spectacular mutual ignorance of the two halves of humanity is the source of much of our comedy – and not a small portion of the human tragedy. If the way we live now has mitigated that mutual ignorance even a little, and I think it has, then perhaps after all we have made some progress over the past century and a half.