Written by Sarah Ledger

Arts

Why I ❤️ Far from the Madding Crowd

A complex, headstrong heroine with a glorious name and some erotic swordplay: count me in, says Sarah Ledger.

Julie Christie in John Schlesinger's 1967 film adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd.

Julie Christie in John Schlesinger’s 1967 film adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd.

Thomas Hardy tends towards the gloomy. Tess of the D’Urbervilles is unbearably tragic, coming a close second to Jude the Obscure as the most miserable book ever written. It’s true that Far from the Madding Crowd has its share of misery; there’s hardship, betrayal, murder and madness, but it also has one of the most tremendous heroines of the 19th century – Bathsheba Everdene.

Let’s start with her name. When it comes to lyrical nomenclature Hardy is up there with Shakespeare. Throughout both my labours, between contractions, I gasped out potential literary names, which my husband stoically knocked back. By the time I got to Bathsheba, he’d already dismissed Lysander, Sebastian, Hero and Gabriel: he’d even vetoed Olivia as ‘too fancy’, so I knew that Bathsheba was wildly overambitious. But, leaving aside the possibility of being bullied in the playground, it is a fabulous name.

Although Hardy’s often unnecessarily wordy, he can pack meaning into the smallest spaces. ‘Bathsheba Everdene’ is a tiny poem: six syllables in matched dactyls, echoing a hammering heart or galloping hooves. She shares her first name with the exotic biblical queen while her surname hints at constancy and the valleys and folds of rural Wessex.

Bathsheba’s entrance to the story is no less splendid than her name. She rolls in, perched precariously on a cartload of her possessions and both Gabriel Oak and the reader fall instantly in love with her. When Gabriel blunders in with a hideously mistimed proposal, Bathsheba rejects his offer of domestic security. Remember the episode of Friends where, after a couple of dates, Ross tells Rachel he plans to move to Scarsdale when they have kids because the schools are so great and then is astonished when Rachel looks horrified? It’s the same but without the canned laughter.

“Bathsheba’s dilemma is that she wants all that’s offered but not a husband. Her triumph is that she gets to have her cake and eat it.”

There have been independent heroines before, but Bathsheba is beautifully complex. She’s funny and selfish and thoughtless and wayward. She ignores advice and is sometimes utterly bloody stupid; she makes mistakes and suffers from them but ultimately prevails. I know the novel was published 140-odd years ago, but I learned my lesson about spoilers when I ruined the ending of Wolf Hall for some of my Facebook friends by thoughtlessly mentioning Anne Boleyn’s execution before the final episode was aired, so I’ll tread as lightly here. By the closing chapters of Far from the Madding Crowd Bathsheba’s had her wild ride and finishes up a wiser and better woman. In 19th-century fiction, male protagonists are allowed to behave as badly as they like and still get the girl. For a Victorian heroine to succumb to the charms of a rakish cad without ending up under the wheels of a train or on the end of a noose is unusual. For her to move on and live happily ever after is almost unheard of.

Mind you, Sergeant Troy is the most gloriously swaggering bad boy. Who can forget his dazzling erotic sword drill? Two hundred and ninety-five cuts from a glittering blade would be enough to win over any lass – let alone one who’s looking for an escape from bucolic boredom. Bathsheba’s suitors all offer something different: Troy offers sex; Boldwood riches; Gabriel a steady pair of hands. Bathsheba’s dilemma is that she wants all that’s offered but not a husband. Her triumph is that she gets to have her cake and eat it.

Penguin Classics edition of Far from the Madding CrowdI loved every bit of John Schlesinger’s film version apart from Julie Christie. This is not a discussion for now, but I simply cannot understand the appeal of Julie Christie. As far as I’m concerned she’s the Sienna Miller of the ‘60s. Beautiful yes, but too beautiful, too impassive for the impulsive Bathsheba. I’m looking forward to the new film. Carey Mulligan is the kind of actor who reveals the extraordinary within the ordinary and her interpretation of the role will at least be interesting. I’ve got my fingers crossed that Tom Sturridge will be as dashing as Terence Stamp and that Matthias Schoenaerts looks every bit as good as Alan Bates up to his waist in sheep dip.

And whatever the performances are like, there’s always the rolling countryside to admire; Hardy throws his characters into every imaginable turmoil with sympathetic weather to match – along with a sheep-shearing supper or two – so there’ll be no shortage of drama.

Far from the Madding Crowd is timeless. It’s about a woman working in a man’s world, balancing her freedom with her desire to be loved and her duty to work. She refuses to be tamed but learns self-control and creates her own destiny. That, on its own, is cause enough to celebrate.

Read Yosra Osman’s review of the latest adaption of Far from the Madding Crowd here.

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Written by Sarah Ledger

Champion soup maker; of a surprisingly nervous disposition. @sezl & sezl.wordpress.com