Far From the Austen Crowd

Far From the Austen Crowd

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!

15 Responses to Far From the Austen Crowd

  1. I really enjoyed the movie and knowing now it’s pretty close to the book makes me want to read it. Another one for the TBR.

  2. I have been tempted to read this before and changed my mind but maybe I will give it a go! It seems like an interesting read.

  3. I enjoyed this, Georgina, thank you. What do you make of Tess? I remember being enthralled with her, eons ago.

    I mostly read contemporary, or Jane. When I move into centuries past, I can’t seem to find satisfaction such as found with/from our dear If-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it Jane. Any advice?

    • Honestly, Tess depressed me horribly, but it has been a super long time since I’ve read it so maybe I would feel differently now. But if you enjoyed Tess I think you’d really like Madding Crowd because it’s lighter (not light, but lighter). Also, if you love our dearest Jane, I would take on George Eliot. Start with something a bit lighter like Adam Bede, or even Silas Marner. Middlemarch is a wonderful book, but long, and Daniel Deronda (these are all by Eliot) is one of my favorite books of all time, but it’s denser than the first two I mentioned. Mill on the Floss is super sad though. And then their are the Brontes. Jane Eyre is perfect. If you haven’t read it, you will love it. I don’t enjoy Wuthering Heights – personally I find it depressing, but all other Bronte works – all of them – I love. These are all women of course. I mentioned Dickens in the post, whom i adore, but he’s not for everyone. That said, you might try Wilkie Collins who was Dicken’s contemporary. I loved Woman in White and the Moonstone. These are mysteries. Actually the first detective mysteries – pre Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I think they’re fun and beautifully written.

      • Thanks, Georgina! (Of course, I think of Miss Darcy whenever I see your name. Am sure you get that a lot.)

        I loved Middlemarch and Woman in White, at the time that I read them. I feel the same way you do about Wuthering Heights. And Mill. Wasn’t so taken with Madding Crowd as you. Wonder how Tess would affect me today; I had a much higher tolerance for DARK when I was younger. Sylvia Plath dark. Yikes!! Molly What’s her name…

        I will add the others to my endless tbr, thanks. Daniel D, in particular, from your assessment, and it’s long been on my radar. And Moonstone, such a lovely evocative compound word. (I have a thing for both the moon and stones.)

        Currently, I plan to revisit Northanger, as I’ve not ever developed an appreciation for it, and I have been recently encouraged in that regard. My book group is reading Stegner; I recently reread Persuasion and loved it, again, tho found the first two thirds denser than I had remembered; and I just started Jane on the Brain, which looks fascinating.

        In addition to Persuasion, my two favorite reads, of late, are The Cellist of Sarajevo and Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass.

        Weird memory… as a very young child, I owned Silas Marner, the COMIC BOOK. YIKES!

        Thank you for your thoughts,

        Karylee
        (like Carolee)

        • Hi Karylee,
          You know, so many people disregard Northanger Abbey and I can never understand why. It cracks me up every time I read it. I actually think it’s the funniest book Austen wrote. Yes, it’s not as deep as the others, but I have a great fondness for it. Persuasion is my favorite of Austen’s with P&P ever so slightly in second place. Not that I love dark books, I never really went through that phase, but I just think Persuasion is the most thoughtful. I will take your two latest favs as recommendations, as I haven’t read either. Maybe I’ll suggest them to my book group! Thanks for your wonderful comment!

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