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Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Book Review: Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

This was my third foray into Hardy's fiction following Tess of the d'Urbervilles (read for A-Levels) and The Mayor of Casterbridge (review here). Far from the Madding Crowd tells the story of Gabriel Oak, a shepherd, and the young woman he admires, Bathsheba Everdene. While at the beginning of the novel Oak is fairly prosperous and Bathsheba forced to live with her aunt, in a reversal typical of Hardy, Oak soon finds himself reduced in status and ends up working for Bathsheba who has inherited her uncle's farm in Weatherby. He still carries a torch for her but recognises she's far above him and uninterested. They become friends and, meanwhile, another farmer, Boldwood, falls deeply in love with Bathsheba. As she's contemplating her answer to his proposal, she encounters a dashing soldier, Sergeant Troy, who she's immediately attracted to. Troy has previously been involved with one of Bathsheba's maids who fled the town but only Boldwood and Oak know this.

I have to say, Hardy's descriptions of nature (and man against nature) are almost unsurpassed. There are a few scenes of particular merit which linger in my mind. Firstly, the scene where Oak stops to help when he sees a fire in the distance and, ultimately, proves his merit to all around. Secondly, the thunderstorm where Oak and Bathsheba battle to save the crops is remarkably written. Evocative and subtle, developing the relationship between the two alongside the more urgent task. Finally, the moment where a grave is almost washed away is beautiful, although I won't say more about that in case I ruin the plot for anyone. However, while I enjoyed much of Hardy's descriptions of place and activity throughout the novel, I must admit that the random conversations between Bathsheba's farm hands became a little tedious. Probably designed for a little light relief, some of them provided it but some meandered off in odd directions and never quite make it back. The moment Oak gets irritated with them for their digressions mirrored how I'd been feeling throughout the book!

Although I read the first half of this one slowly, I whizzed through the second half. A combination of unexpected character developments pushed me onto the end. I will say, though, that once these developments take place, there is only one real possibility for the final pages. Still, knowing that didn't make me enjoy the book less.

Gabriel Oak is an excellent character. Whilst loyal, he also has pride and a stubborn streak to match Bathsheba's. His quiet devotion to her throughout the novel, alongside all the wonderful descriptions, is probably why I enjoyed this one as much as I did. 


Laura Daniels said...

As you're doing your PhD in Sensation Fiction you should read Hardy's 'Desperate Remedies' (1871). It's his first published novel and is his take on the Sensation novel. It combines the essential Sensation plot devices with the stylistic features that we now recognise as being typically Hardyean, such as the environment being an additional character and commentary on events being provided by rural workers otherwise external to the main plot action. As you can imagine, the two styles don't fully mesh together - as contemporary reviews indeed identified - but it's an interesting read for both tracing Hardy's development as a novelist and seeing how authors who have more established positions within the literary canon tackled the Sensation genre (to that end, you should also give 'The Eustace Diamonds' (1873) by Anthony Trollope a read, which also draws on Sensation Fiction).

CharmedLassie said...

I read it - quite a while ago now, back when I was still feeling about the sensation genre. It fascinated me that Hardy, who I'd known mainly for his poetry, had taken a crack at the genre.

I must admit to never reading any Trollope - is The Eustace Diamonds a good place to start?

What I'm finding with Yates is that he sidestepped into the more 'popular' types of fiction, growing more sensationalised as he went on. Collins, on the other hand, pulled back from sensation to focus on social issues. They make an interesting contrast.

Laura Daniels said...

'The Eustace Diamonds' was the first (and, shamefully, still is the only) Trollope novel that I've read, and I'm not sure that I'd recommend it as a starting point. Whilst the majority of the action focuses around Lizzie Eustace, who is not a central character in the Palliser series as a whole, there are enough recurring characters from that series popping up around her that a reader who is unfamiliar with them could be missing some essential details. This isn't to say that the novel doesn't function on its own, as it does, but to get the most out of it you're probably best to read it as part of a wider reading of the Palliser series.

Do you look at much Braddon in your thesis?

CharmedLassie said...

I started off intending to but the Collins/Yates contrasts and comparisons took over. I use her to back up some of my arguments about the genre generally, no denying she added as much to it as Collins. Also had a few links with Yates as well so she comes up, just not as much as I expected her to.

Glad I'm not the only one behind with Trollope! There are a decent number free on Kindle by the look of it so I'll start with either Barsetshire or Palliser when I get the chance (sometime in the next decade - hopefully).

bhandi said...

Oh!a wonderful book

Matthew Selwyn said...

I would have to agree that there are a fair few digressions in the novel that give it a rather meandering feel at times. Hardy's writing on nature is very beautiful and I think it's a fullsome here as anywhere. At times this tipped into the excessive for me too, but I am a fan of Hardy so enjoyed the book overall.

My review: Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy