We’re looking forward to our free screening and discussion of Far From the Madding Crowd tomorrow, and hope to see you there!
Hardy and Me. A Personal Account.
Like most people passing through the English state education system, my first encounter with Thomas Hardy was an obligatory study of a Hardy novel as part of the GCE (now GCSE) National Curriculum for English Literature. No explanation was given as to why Hardy was and still is deemed essential reading. He just appeared in the classroom one day. In my case that day happened to be in 1974, exactly 100 years after its first publication. The novel in question was Far from the Madding Crowd.
I had grown up in a very modern Britain. Supersonic travel with Concorde was in the offing, the Moon landings were already history, the swinging sixties had morphed into the androgynous age of Glam Rock, Trades Union unrest led the working masses to challenge the very seat of government; yet even then echoes of Hardy’s Wessex could still be seen and heard. I lived in a small rural village in South Cambridgeshire surrounded by agricultural land owned by two powerful family dynasties, a modern legacy from the Enclosure Acts of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which even for Hardy were long established in the Victorian countryside. Undoubtedly by 1974 intensive farming techniques, improved crop breeding and protection, and existential changes in mechanisation had dramatically shifted the balance between nature and food production in favour of the latter. There was far less demand for agricultural labour and the vast majority of the local population had no involvement or need for employment within the agricultural sector.
Nonetheless, I clearly remember talking with old retired farm hands who had been born in the village, left school aged fourteen or younger and worked their entire lives on one or other of these farms, rarely venturing beyond the village boundaries unless to travel into the local town of Cambridge which could just as easily have been the Casterbridge of 1874 to them. To me their distinct local vernacular sounded as if it could have been lifted straight from the pages of Far from the Madding Crowd as the voices of Joseph Poorgrass, Jan Coggan or Mark Clark for instance. A relic from the past surviving into the late twentieth century.
So, why is it then that Hardy’s literature inspired me far beyond a mere glimpse into the twilight of a bygone age? Certainly, his writing style, his carefully woven storylines and the unexpected interjections of fate into the narratives are trademark Hardy but there is something special in the way all these fit together that makes Hardy a giant in the canon of Victorian and indeed English literature. His characters are frequently victims to tragedy, often due to their perceived human weaknesses, but are they actually inherently tragic? For me this seems too simplistic and diminishes Hardy’s unique ability to describe through prose the complex nature of what it means to be human.
It would seem to make perfect sense for the young Bathsheba Everdene to marry Gabriel Oak. He is reliable, hard working and has very real prospects to become a successful farmer. But it is exactly these qualities that Hardy considers are no longer paramount to a modern woman like Bathsheba. For her, security is not reason enough to marry. “You shall have a piano in a year or two […] and a frame for cucumbers” might seem like a tempting offer but Bathsheba rejects his proposal simply “because I don’t love you”.
Hardy brilliantly captures the awkwardness of Gabriel Oak when confronted with his emotions. His practical prowess in matters of agricultural husbandry is profoundly contrasted by his ineptitude in courtship. It will be the dashing womaniser, Sergeant Frank Troy, who seduces Bathsheba with his natural charm and self confidence because he offers an excitement that Gabriel Oak could never hope to match. It might easily be interpreted that Hardy has simply created a female character ruled by fickle emotions rather than logical reasoning, but this is not the case. Hardy fully develops the character of Bathsheba as a strong and independently minded woman determined to succeed in an industry and environment dominated by a patriarchal monopoly. Bathsheba makes mistakes not because she is a woman but because she is human.
For me, reading and re-reading Far From the Madding Crowd reveals layer upon layer of detailed yet seemingly insignificant narrative frequently contrasting the human with the natural world. Hardy’s descriptive language vividly uses the backdrops of the Wessex landscape and nature to both enhance and disrupt human activity. Whereas the Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century saw nature as a moral compass for humanity, Hardy shows a nature at best indifferent and often obstructive to human endeavour.
When Gabriel Oak is distracted by his desire for Bathsheba, this usually expert shepherd neglects to secure his dog, Young George, with the resulting loss of his flock. Likewise Farmer Boldwood, similarly distracted by his emotions, forgets to tie down his straw ricks which are then destroyed during a thunder storm. These are but two of the many examples in the novel where Hardy mixes the innermost feelings of the individual with the all powerful forces of the universe. His ability to move seamlessly between the physical and emotional worlds of the characters using delicately crafted language and a scrupulous attention to detail make Hardy for me one of the greatest authors of all time.
As a writer of fiction Hardy exquisitely examines aspects of the natural world of nineteenth-century rural England together with an understanding of human emotions and desires interwoven in powerful narrative plots. With exceptional ease he leads his readers on a journey into the heart of his beloved Wessex to tell us stories that engage with our own imaginations where we can share in the hopes and fears of the characters he creates. Back in 1974 Hardy opened a door allowing me to peer into a world where I understood a little better what it is to be human. Since that time he has taken me on many similar journeys and opened many more doors. Hardy’s writing is far more than a reflection of an age locked in time. It is a master class in the art of storytelling.