Sunday 23 April 2023

Far from the Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy (1874)


Rating: Excellent

What does a Victorian era classic novel have in common with the fantasy genre? Not much really you'd think, however it occurred to me half way through Far from the Madding Crowd that trying to adapt to Hardy's Victorian era prose style, with its particular turn of phrase and anachronistic words; is like trying to adapt to all the esoteric character and place names used in fantasy novels. Hardy even sets the novel in a semi-fictional literary landscape called Wessex (which once did exist during medieval times), with lush rolling hills, sun dappled forests and dramatic coastal cliffs, which all sounds very Tolkienesque. It is an exotic novel when viewed from this point in history, as Hardy's beautiful and complex prose style was already out of fashion before his death in 1929, thanks the the generation of Modernist writers that emerged during the immediate post Victorian era. Yet once you get used to Hardy's style the novel becomes a total pleasure to read. Although some (Goodreads) reader descriptions of the novel focus on sheep, sheep, some more sheep, and some romance, there is much more on offer for the dedicated reader; the plot itself is absorbing and although the novel can be heavy-going at times, there's always something that comes along that piques your interest and keeps you reading.

Essentially, Far from the Madding Crowd is a romance involving the independent and feisty Bathsheba Everdene, the young and irrepressible (and irresponsible) Sergeant Troy, the middle-aged stick-in-the mud William Boldwood and finally the stoic and quite shepherd, Gabriel Oak. The interplay between these four characters plays out across the novel, which was originally serialised, as a slow-burn of romantic desire both actualised and repressed, but mostly the latter, this being Victorian literature. Things do get rather intense towards the end, involving a macabre scene with a coffin, some Gothic overtones, farce at a travelling circus, manslaughter and more romance, once again, both repressed and actualised. In the Victorian era this was seen as sensationalist literature, designed to both outrage and to spur the reader on; whilst there's no outrage to be had for the modern reader, there is certainly a great deal of spurring on. My library book club really loved this novel, winning the approval of about thirty people, so despite the best efforts of the Modernists, the varying literary experiments and trends of the twentieth century and beyond, Hardy can still pack a literary punch. Recommended as a gateway to classic nineteenth century literature, easier than the Russians, less prosaic than George Eliot and less gothically florid than the Brontes.

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