Far From the Madding Crowd
Premise: In the Wessex countryside, young farmer Gabriel Oak has his life saved by the enchanting figure of Bathsheba Everdene, which prompts him to ask for her hand in marriage. When she refuses his proposal and disaster befalls his fledgling farmstead, he instead enters her employment and watches from the side-lines as neighbouring landowner, Mr Boldwood, and handsome soldier, Sergeant Troy, compete for the attentions of the woman that has captured his heart.
A friend of mine recently told me that he was making his way through “the Classics” – Dickens, Thackeray, Austin, the Brontës etc. I thought this seemed like a pretty laudable aim and then I immediately felt a bit inferior/guilty/ashamed that I hadn’t read more so-called Classic literature myself given the career choice I have recently embarked upon and the fact that I consider myself an avid reader. However, having reconsidered this from other angles, it strikes me that I read because I want to be transported to another world or to be swept up in a brilliant adventure or to be enchanted by an author’s lyrical prose. And “the Classics” don’t necessarily tick these boxes. They can be challenging in terms of the language they are written in. They can be quite weighty tomes (my copy of “Nicholas Nickleby” stands at 777 pages) usually printed in miniscule typeset and with numerous footnotes or references to contend with. They often contain quite long-winded descriptions of people and places (remember that 20th century society didn’t have the saturation of media images to feed their imaginations) and the plots can often be quite convoluted so that you really have to pay attention. All in all, then, forcing myself to plough through a lesser known Dickens or to wallow and wade through the more miserable sections of “Les Miserables” (all whilst attempting to understand the 19th century French) seems a little anathema to the sentiment of why I choose to pick up a novel and curl up on the sofa in the first place.
Having said all that, some of “the Classics” really are worth revisiting if the mood ever takes you. I read the “Mayor of Casterbridge” some years ago whilst on holiday in Dorset and, against expectations, really enjoyed it. And so, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to me that “Far From the Madding Crowd” was equally as entertaining. First off, Hardy’s style is pretty accessible. The language he uses is uncomplicated and mostly you aren’t needing to flick back to the Glossary to understand this word or that. His descriptions are beautifully evocative of the rural landscape without, on the most part, becoming long-winded. And the plot (apart from a couple of never-ending tavern scenes that I could probably have done without!) meanders along at a reasonable pace. Secondly, the story is easily relatable. It is, at its heart, about the complexity of relationships and how our personalities and our views of the world mature and evolve over time. The characters belong to their particular epoch but they are also in their ways quite modern – Bathsheba in wanting to run her uncle’s farm without the aid of male guidance, Oak in wanting to better himself from the humble position he starts off in, and Boldwood in accepting Oak almost as an equal despite the difference in their social class.
There are enough twists and turns, disasters, arguments, secret weddings, deaths, debts and other shenanigans to make this almost (but not quite) as dramatic as the average episode of Emmerdale (*DISCLAIMER: I have never watched Emmerdale to ascertain its dramatic and/or other qualities…) and through it all, the characters slowly develop so that the rather hapless Farmer Oak turns into a sensible, dependable man who others rely on for advice and the slightly whimsical Bathsheba Everdene matures into a more sensitive, thoughtful version of her former self. And against it all, the landscape is ever unchanging, which is perhaps reason enough to read this or any of Hardy’s books – to understand the world that has been lost as our frenetic, fast-paced modern lifestyle flitters along around us.
Other accessible 19th century “Classics” that I recommend: “Silas Marner” (George Eliot), “The Woman in White” (Wilkie Collins), “Pride and Prejudice” (Jane Austin), “The Time Machine” (HG Wells), “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (Lewis Carroll)
Other novels by Thomas Hardy: “The Mayor of Casterbridge”, “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”