Published in 1874, Far from the Madding Crowd is the story of the young, independent and beautiful Bathsheba Everdene (what a name!) and three very different men. Gabriel Oak is a thoughtful, competent young shepherd who meets her and quickly proposes marriage. Mr. Boldwood is an older, gentleman farmer who has no experience with women and falls in love with her too. Francis Troy is a semi-aristocratic soldier who has experience with women and is not to be trusted. It wouldn’t be much of a story if Bathsheba chose the right one right away.
The novel is set in the region of southern England that Hardy called “Wessex”. There are many fine descriptions of the countryside and country life. The downside is that there are a few too many discussions between the local rustics, who speak in dialect and serve as a rural Greek chorus.
The title is from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
The characters in Hardy’s first popular novel do live far from the crowds, but don’t always avoid madness. They might get under your skin a little bit (it’s remarkable how fictional people can affect us).
One of my favorite passages comes near the end of the novel:
Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality. This good-fellowship — camaraderie — usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death — that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.