Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy book cover
Far From the Madding Crowd (1874) was Thomas Hardy’s first major literary success. Centring on Bathsheba Everdene, a young woman who inherits a small farm, it follows the fortunes of three of her suitors – small-scale farmer Gabriel Oak, the more firmly-established farmer William Boldwood, and soldier Sergeant Troy. A typical pastoral tale, the plot twists and turns as coincidence, disaster, and the hearts of the characters create an ever-moving story. As the seasons pass, loves blossom and wane, and the drama builds to a crescendo that leaves all the characters’ lives changed permanently.

As Bathsheba and her suitors stumble through a plot that ambles along, pushed forward by coincidence and the small wants of its characters, it quickly becomes clear that love – from solipsistic to generous – is frequently to be unrequited. Clearly, all three suitors cannot secure Bathsheba’s hand in marriage, and the soap opera-like playing out of the various conjugations keeps the reader intrigued. Not only this, but the use of catastrophic, unexpected events within the plot – another soap opera-like technique – helps to shock and engross the reader. Indeed, as a serialised novel, Far From the Madding Crowd lent itself to this style, and Hardy found that he had hit upon a form that engaged his Victorian readership – a style that he would go on to develop from simple romantic plots as here to include deeper, more profound issues.

Hardy does work in smaller themes, here, however. His representation of rural society is the thing that characterises his pastoral novels and here the idea of social hierarchy is perhaps the most evident matter of interest. There is certainly social mobility for men in rural societies, and Gabriel’s changing fortunes within the novel, and how this changes other characters’ position to him, is a very clear indication of how a class-conscious society works, even in a contained rural setting. In Bathsheba, too, we have a common theme of Victorian literature, that of a woman who seeks independence from men but finds herself at the mercy of the marriage laws. With some land and money to her name, she is forced to pick her mate carefully given that they will assume financial control of all her assets. While Gabriel may have the opportunity to move about the social hierarchy based on his own merit, Bathsheba, despite proving herself extremely capable, cannot maintain control of her own destiny and marry.

Clearly, Bathsheba is a forebear of some of Hardy’s more complete female characters, Eustacia Vye and Tess Durbeyfield in particular. A victim of her own heart and of men and society, she is somehow a little flatter and less engaging than later Hardy women but she shares with these heroines a very clear humanity as she struggles against both internal and external forces. As with the plot itself, here Hardy hits upon a formula that works for the reading public and which he would later develop to better effect with other female characters. As for the male characters, they are largely archetypes but work well enough for the purposes of the plot here. Indeed, they are played off one another well, and the varying dynamics that Bathsheba shares with each of her suitors is well done and makes for interesting reading.

Hardy is often accused of purple prose, and he is as equally culpable of this charge here as anywhere else in his fiction. With the meandering plot, slew of coincidences and unexpected turns, and rural setting that brushes only briefly with town life, Far From the Madding Crowd is almost the archetypal Hardy novel in embryonic form, or at least what is commonly thought of as a Hardy novel. The timeless space which the characters inhabit, driven by the seasons and nature’s demands, is certainly far from the madding crowd, and perfectly rendered by Hardy. In such a setting it is the characters who are able to attune themselves most closely to nature’s demands that succeed.

When Far From the Madding Crowd first appeared in the Cornhill Magazine, early instalments were thought by some to be the work of George Eliot writing under a pseudonym. For an emerging novelist, this was a favourable comparison, even if it was a faulty assertion. Even if a misperception on the part of some critics, it is clear to see how Hardy’s pastoral themes were mistaken for the work of Eliot, and it is likely that Hardy had Eliot’s, or similar pastoral writers’, work in mind when composing Far From the Madding Crowd. He had until that point experimented with different forms for his novels (finding his poems hard to sell), and so by adopting a popular genre in Victorian fiction, he found for himself a niche that certainly married up many of his interests and strengths as a writer.

The novel is not as tightly structured as many of Hardy’s later novels, nor does it contain the same defeated pessimism about a rural way of life being eroded by modern cities, or the human existential struggle. Instead, there is a lightness here, despite the theme of unrequited love, and this makes Far From the Madding Crowd a smaller and less gloomy pastoral read than some other Hardy novels. Clearly, it lacks something as a consequence, and isn’t comparable to Hardy’s weightier efforts as a work of literature. It is, instead, a more plot-driven piece, which carries many Hardyian tropes – a comfortable read, and an important part of Hardy’s canon as, in many ways, a turning point in his career.

As I mentioned, this is quite a typical Hardy novel, but perhaps a little lighter than some efforts. Bathsheba sits well alongside some if his best heroines, even if she is not Tess or Eustacia, and this is a good if not great novel.

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Author Guide: Thomas Hardy
[Hardy]'s not a transcendental writer, he's not a Yeats, he's not an Eliot; his subjects are men, the life of men, time and the passing of time, love and the fading of love. Thomas Hardy (2nd June 1840 – 11th January 1928) was one of the best known ... [Read More]