Amble through this beautifully told tale of love, the differences that lie between men and women, patience, maturity and redemption, set in rural Victorian England, and well deserving of the title of Literature.
On maturing, one begins to appreciate the finer things in life — whether that’s enjoying a glass of Malbec and camembert so ripe that it’s about to walk off your plate, listening to the arresting musical mass that is Verdi’s Requiem, or in the discovering the great art form that is Literature. To quote the lyrics of British songwriter Fink;
Oh why do they teach us Shakespeare
When you’re only sixteen
And no idea
What it all means
I appreciate this sentiment more now than ever. Though I don’t think I ever read this particular story at school, I can remember life as a teenager trying to stay awake in an overly warm classroom listening to the drone of a middle-aged English teacher reading a ‘classic’, and wishing every minute of it away. That memory is over half my lifetime ago now, and I’ve decided this year to make a conscious effort to read those books that have stood the test of time and have been elevated to the status of literature.
For those new to reading literature, I’m using the term to denote artistic writings that are characterised by beauty of expression and form, with intellectual and emotional appeal. Certainly when measured to this standard, Thomas Hardy’s ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ is indeed literature.
Hardy crafts every sentence with deliberation: deftly painting beautifully vivid scenarios with just a few words, as a great artist can create a canvas of great depth with a matter of strokes of a brush. The expert writing is so present that it belays any wish to rush ahead for the sake of the story, instead allowing the reader to somewhat wallow in the prose. I can’t recall ever reading so slowly and deliberately, or enjoying the evident skill in the writing as much as with this story.
This book took me by surprise: with thoroughly shaped characters, elegantly described scenes and a plot that, whilst relatively straightforward and comfortable, nevertheless provided several twists and turns. I truly felt compelled to keep turning the pages; not in the manner of a thriller, but more as of someone wishing to hear news about someone they know well and care for.
Written in the nineteenth century, there are of course elements of the book that stand at odds with today’s post modernist society: some of these can be viewed with a romantic nostalgia, but others with a cry of outrage. In particular, there is a sensation of palpable frustration when the heroine, Bathsheba Everdene, is trapped by the ‘proper’ diktats of Victorian society due to her position as a woman and the injustice of her succeeding as a manager of an inherited farm, only to have this squandered by a man through marriage because she immediately becomes viewed as something only slightly above a servant. She is strong-willed and deemed wild by society, and her maturity throughout could also be seen by some as a steady increase into the submission of her dreams to those of the men around her.
Hardy also manages to weave in current (or possibly his own) thinking throughout the story, for example in the following line (just one example amongst many in each chapter!):
Love is a possible strength in an actual weakness. Marriage transforms a distraction into a support, the power of which should be, and happily often is, in direct proportion to the degree of imbecility it supplants.
The three love interests, Gabriel Oak, Farmer Boldwood, and Sergeant Troy, are well-developed, even if perhaps there is no one on earth quite like Gabriel alive today. In the modern world, where writers are encouraged to constantly write flaws into the key characters to make them interesting and realistic, Gabriel Oak is a refreshing character, and one looks forward to his appearance on every page. Not perfect in every sense, but a careful, quiet, conscientious character, honest to a fault, church-going, always ready to work hard and put in the extra hours with little thought for his own gain. In fact, it occurs that as the story unfolds and Oak matures he begins to act as a saviour both to the farm and to Bathsheba.
Juxtaposed against the proud, ill-tempered farmer Boldwood, and the brash, arrogant and immoral Sergeant Troy, Gabriel is an understated hero, and a joy to read about. However, though he is the introduction to the story, it is the interests, struggles, mistakes and redemption of Bathsheba that the tale revolves around, and one can only watch with frustration, sympathy, horror and then elation as her story unfolds.
As with even with the most enjoyable book, there remains a wish to reach the end — to find a conclusion and resolution for our favourite characters. As I closed this book for the last time, I felt an unusual heaviness, a grievance that my time being lost in the story had come to an end.
That’s the measure of a great novel.
10/10[row cols_nr=”2″ class=”narrow”] [col size=”4″]