by Thomas Hardy
"This novel digs deep into the rhythms of rural existence. Hardy is unsurpassed when it comes to a sense of place and rich unsentimental evocations of landscape and local culture within which the characters find their fates."
I very recently came across the Charles Frazier quote on Goodreads when he listed his favourite novels “with rural settings”. Though I agree with Frazier wholeheartedly, the quote makes it seem like character is secondary to setting or theme in this novel, which is far from the case. Hardy’s character studies are just as solid as his “rich and unsentimental” evocation of landscape. It's the depth of characterization and the strong pull of narrative that keeps 19th-century literature alive today, according to Jeffrey Eugenides (very curious abou his new novel The Marriage Plot). The fact that Hardy's story is basically a love quadrangle amidst a pastoral setting does not give it credit either. Within this quadrangle (at one point, it even becomes a love pentangle!), Hardy explores every aspect of love in all its human drama: the rituals of courtship, societal versus individual expectations and desires, infatuation versus love, the pains of unrequited love, and so much more.
The person that undergoes all this drama and transformation is the protagonist Bathsheba Everdene: a handsome, independent young woman who has inherited a farm and is courted by three suitors in the course of the novel. (Interesting piece of trivia: Suzanne Collins named her Hunger Games heroine Katniss Everdeen in homage to Hardy’s Bathsheba). The first suitor to court our heroine is Gabriel Oak, a shepherd of solid character but little money to his name; then it's William Boldwood, a respectable yet introverted gentleman in the neighbouring farm whose passion is set alight when he receives an innocent valentine from Bathsheba; and finally there is the dashing Francis Troy, a sergeant who has a way with the ladies, if you know what my mean. Bathsheba ends up falling for the wrong guy, tragedy ensues, but after learning from her mistakes, she ends up marrying the right guy in the end (well, kind of by default since by then, one suitor ends up dead and the other imprisoned for life!).
Through it all, Hardy explores what makes a bad romantic relationship and what makes a solid and healthy long-term relationship (known as a marriage back in those days). I have not read many 19th century novels, but this was also the first time I’ve come across a study in obsessive love, or “pathetic evidences of a mind crazed with care and love”, that was not set in a contemporary period. A lot of stuff gets explored in this novel. Hardy des a wonderful job in letting you inhabit the characters and understand how their actions impact each other’s behaviour. Like this one particular passage about Bathsheba’s unwitting influence on Farmer Boldwood:
The phases of Boldwood's life were ordinary enough, but his was not an ordinary nature. That stillness, which struck casual observers more than anything else in his character and habit, and seemed so precisely like the rest of inanition, may have been the perfect balance of enormous antagonistic forces--positives and negatives in fine adjustment. His equilibrium disturbed, he was in extremity at once. If an emotion possessed him at all, it ruled him; a feeling not mastering him was entirely latent...
Bathsheba was far from dreaming that the dark and silent shape upon which she had so carelessly thrown a seed was a hotbed of tropic intensity. Had she known Boldwood's moods, her blame would have been fearful, and the stain upon her heart ineradicable. Moreover, had she known her present power for good or evil over this man, she would have trembled at her responsibility. Luckily for her present, unluckily for her future tranquillity, her understanding had not yet told her what Boldwood was. Nobody knew entirely; for though it was possible to form guesses concerning his wild capabilities from old floodmarks faintly visible, he had never been seen at the high tides which caused them.
I also really admired Hardy for creating such an interesting female character in Bathsheba Everdene. As described in the Wiki, FFTMC “might also be described as an early piece of feminist literature, since it features an independent woman with the courage to defy convention by running a farm herself. Although Bathsheba's passionate nature leads her into serious errors of judgment, Hardy endows her with sufficient resilience, intelligence, and good luck to overcome her youthful folly.”
Feminist or no, there are times, however, when Hardy goes a little overboard with Bathsheba’s very “female” attributes and flaws, but ultimately Bathsheba is a remarkable character who is “indispensable to high generation, hated at tea parties, feared in shops, and loved at crises”.
Lastly, it is Hardy’s evocation of landscape that is also memorable. If anyone has ever seen paintings by Romantic landscape artist JMW Turner or French Realist painter Jean-Francois Millet, one could see that Hardy’s pastoral prose is a happy combination of romanticism and realism:
To persons standing alone on a hill during a clear midnight such as this, the roll of the world eastward is almost a palpable movement. The sensation may be caused by the panoramic glide of the stars past earthly objects, which is perceptible in a few minutes of stillness, or by the better outlook upon space that a hill affords, or by the wind, or by the solitude; but whatever be its origin the impression of riding along is vivid and abiding. The poetry of motion is a phrase much in use, and to enjoy the epic form of that gratification it is necessary to stand on a hill at a small hours of the night, and, having first expanded with a sense of difference from the mass of civilized mankind, who are dreamwrapt and disregardful of all such proceedings at this time, long and quietly watch your stately progress through the stars. After such a nocturnal reconnoiter it is hard to get back to earth, and to believe that the consciousness of such majestic speeding is derived from a tiny human figure.
One significant blight on my reading experience was not in the narrative itself, but in how the used trade paperback I had was bound. I only realized upon reaching page 289 that the next page was 320, so it was missing thirty pages! Luckily Hardy’s work is available from the Gutenberg Library and I was able to read the missing pages on my iPad. But as soon as I got to the first sentence on p. 321, I switched back to paper.
And get this. When I reached p. 352, the next page was 321 and it kept going until it got to p. 352 and from there I was able to read the novel to the end. But how fucked up was that? I had missing AND repeating pages in a single book. Never experienced such a thing before. Sadly I could not find the cover for this sorry excuse of a paperback online, but it kind of looked like the one pictured here. So I’m thinking it’s probably best that I throw this book into the recycling bin.