*SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t read the book recently and/or haven’t seen the film, don’t read on or I may ruin all the wonderful surprises…*
Far From the Madding Crowd is a 428-page pastoral novel that we were forced to read for our GCSEs at secondary school (exams that we take at English schools when we’re 15-16). It didn’t feel particularly relevant at the time, as I dutifully took notes in the margins of the book, and it certainly wasn’t sexy. The trailer for the new film, though, was good enough to seduce me into going to see it, to wallow in nostalgia if nothing else. The only aspect of the book I remembered going into the cinema was Hardy’s choice of the name Gabriel Oak to stand for patience and goodness, durability and strength. As the film progressed, a few more recollections came to me: I recalled with dread what was going to happen to the sheep and I remembered the ominous foreboding of the storm as well as the incident with the Valentine’s Day card. It’s been a long time since I did any literary analysis; I’m not going to attempt it now and I can only apologise to all my English teachers for the random thoughts that follow…
Bathsheba is a strong female character recognised as being incredibly modern for a novel written in 1874, and she’s very appealing to me now as an adult. She’s vivacious and independent and sees no reason to get married for the conventional reasons of economic security, and she won’t settle for someone simply because they offer her a piano. “I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding,” she says, “if I could be one without having a husband.” – unsurprising, given the assessment that “All romances end at marriage.”
The film, unlike the book as I remember it, sets up Gabriel Oak as the right man for the job from the start. Matthias Schoenaerts smoulders from the very beginning (who knew that Belgians could be sexy! though, having since looked up photos of the actor online, I can confirm that he, much like Aragorn, looks much better rough and ready in the field than he does in modern-day form). Bathsheba’s rejection of him is more to do with the suddenness of it all – in the book, the proposal happens already in Chapter 4 – and the fact that she is too much for him to handle: “I want somebody to tame me; I am too independent; and you would never be able to, I know.” (She later gives a more snobbish reason: “He wasn’t quite good enough for me.”)
When Mr Boldwood appears on the scene, he also seems like a pretty good candidate, being both rich and handsome, and kind. This time, Bathsheba rejects him because she simply doesn’t love him; adding, as another excuse, “You are too dignified for me to suit you, sir.” (A classic case of “It’s not you, it’s me!”) It’s easy to sympathise with Mr Boldwood at the beginning, as someone who’s been alone for a long time and feels both uneasy and excited at the unexpected possibility of love. Although I remembered the Valentine, I had somehow forgotten his complete lack of humour, not to mention how obsessive and psychotic he becomes as a result. His love is not for a real person, rather for an image that he’s created in his mind. “The great aids to idealization in love were present here: occasional observation of her from a distance, and the absence of social intercourse with her – visual familiarity, oral strangeness.” It’s easy to build someone up in your mind when you don’t know them well enough to see both the good and the bad…
In contrast, at no point am I in any way attracted to Tom Sturridge’s Sergeant Troy, who easily seduces Bathsheba where all other suitors have failed. All it takes is telling her she’s beautiful – no man ever has – and swishing his sword around a bit. I’m pretty sure that even my teenage self would have seen through all that charm and identified him as the pantomime villain that he is. It’s disappointing to see this independent woman fall for such an unattractive good-for-nothing, and Bathsheba herself soon realises her mistake (though not soon enough):
“In those earlier days she had always nourished a secret contempt for girls who were the slaves of the first good-looking young fellow who should choose to salute them. […] she had felt herself sufficient to herself, and had in the independence of her girlish heart fancied there was a certain degradation in renouncing the simplicity of a maiden existence to become the humbler half of an indifferent matrimonial whole […] – facts now bitterly remembered.”
Interestingly, and with deeper thought than is represented in the film, Hardy suggests that it’s precisely her strength that makes her fall so hard: “Bathsheba loved Troy in the way that only self-reliant women love when they abandon their self-reliance. When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength she is worse than a weak woman who has never any strength to throw away.” A warning to us all?!
In the end, Bathsheba ends up with the man she should have gone for in the first place – hurrah! The rugged farmer who had loved her since the start, who knew her better than anyone, whose love was real and true, of the lamb-butt-stamping kind. Who would have thought that Mr Dreamboat would be the man who knows your flaws and loves you anyway? (Although the cynic in me doubts that such a man as Gabriel Oak exists in real life – I’m sure he would have married someone else by the time she had realised her mistake rather than putting up with her vanity and watching her flirt with other men for all those years.) Perhaps it’s unsurprising that I didn’t grasp the themes and the choices of Bathsheba in Far From the Madding Crowd at the age of 15 but I appreciate them all the more as I revisit them today. Beyond the long paragraphs on the rural landscape of Wessex and the detailed descriptions of each of the characters there are some quite astute observations and insights. Maybe it’s time to go back and re-read some of the other classics that made up my reluctant education…?
“Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality. This good-fellowship – camaraderie – usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death – that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.”