Recently, I re-read Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy as it was my book group’s selection for January. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it to you. For those of us who love 19th century English literature beyond Jane Austen, Madding Crowd is one of the best of the Victorian period in my opinion. Yet, though you’ll find romance in the story, there is also heartbreak and hard lessons to be learned by our heroine, Bathsheba Everdeen.
Bathsheba is a beautiful, smart, and independent young woman, but young she is, and without strong guidance from family. She is vain, therefore, and often lets her vanity lead her into bad situations. With Valentine’s Day coming up next month, you might find this an appropriate read because the plot largely turns on her childish impulse to send a Valentine’s Day card as a joke to a gentleman farmer who lives nearby, thus ensnaring him in emotions he had never felt for her previously, nor that she intended him to have.
Since finishing the book for the second time, I found myself pondering this error in her judgement, and comparing her to some of Austen’s characters. In beauty and brains, she is most like Elizabeth Bennet. In impetuousness, she’s more like Louisa Musgrove. In terms of making really bad decisions, one can liken her to Lydia Bennet. But in her ability to learn from them, and, by her mid-twenties, grow into a woman who’s able to think for herself and repent of past errors, I find her like Anne Elliot. The point is, I love her, just as I love Elizabeth Bennet, Marianne Dashwood, Anne Elliot, Catherine Morland, Emma Woodhouse, and Fanny Price. Like them, she is flawed. Like many of them, she easily has her head turned (if not being actually deceived) by men who are not as they appear on the surface. And like them, in the end, she chooses the right one.
The one thing I found myself mulling over as I re-read Madding Crowd, is the fact that Thomas Hardy has a way of commenting on the things women do and say that somewhat stereotypes them. At first I thought I should be offended. After all, here is a man, assuming to know why women act the way they do, and practically man-splaining it to us. For instance, he observes that there is an “imitative instinct which animates women,” meaning that we are enlivened and energized by imitating others. That did not sit particularly well with me. And yet, we have to consider that, in the age in which Hardy was writing, there were so few published women authors that men felt it was their right and duty to explain to the world how women behaved and why. However, just as I was starting to become annoyed by this tendency of his, I came across this line from Bathsheba’s point of view: “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.” How true that must have felt for women back then. Nevertheless, Jane Austen certainly had no trouble, more than fifty years before Madding Crowd was published, writing characters who expressed and defined her own feelings in a well disguised way.
In the end, I do not expect every author to please me in the exact way Austen does, but I get extreme joy from delving into all kinds of other authors’ styles from the 1800s, British and American, male and female – From Dickens to Hardy, from Melville to Twain, from Eliot to Austen. And yes, I read modern authors too, of course! Far From the Madding Crowd is one that really stays with me, however, and if you haven’t read it, you might want to give it a go. By the way, the 2015 movie version does justice to it pretty well too!