Fiction — eBook. Amazon Kindle, 2012. Originally published 1874. 512 pgs. Free download.
Hardy’s novel focuses on the follies of the heart with the heroine, Bathsheba Everdene, falling for the superficial rather than the practical. At the beginning of the novel, young Bathsheba tells her first suitor, a promising sheep farmer named Gabriel Oak, that she should never want to marry him because she’s afraid he could never tame her the way a wife needs to be tamed in order for the marriage to work. She also believes their stations to be life to be unequal; Bathsheba is a poor orphan with a lady’s education while Gabriel is master of his own flock of sheep with a mortgaged piece of land.
“I hate to be thought men’s property in that way, though possibly I shall be had some day…I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding, if I could be one without having a husband. But since a woman can’t show off in that way by herself, I shan’t marry — at least yet.”
Following her rejection of Gabriel’s suite, Bathsheba’s fortune unexpectedly rises and she moves to Weatherbury to take up her position as farmer and owner of one of the largest estates in the area. Although Bathsheba establishes herself as a competent and capable farmer and mistress, she uncharacteristically and foolishly engages in the childish behavior of sending a Valentine to a man she does not love and is, much to her chagrin, thus pursued by Mr. William Boldwood, a gentleman who owns the estate next door.
His wealth and station combined with the fact that their two estates neighbor one another means Mr. Boldwood would make a fine match for Bathsheba, but the promise of wealth holds no attraction for Bathsheba in the face of Mr. Boldwood’s overbearing and unpleasant nature. He might have the personality to turn her into the submissive wife Bathsheba thought Gabriel would not be able to mold her into, but Bathsheba interest in becoming one has waned even further now that she has her own means of support.
She is, however, interested in becoming the wife of Sergeant Francis Troy, a officer with the “red coats” so often fawned over by females in other nineteenth-century novels. A smooth talker with a pleasing face, Troy utilizes his elaborate sword play (no, not a euphemism) to sweep the rather levelheaded Bathsheba off her feet, so to say. Bathsheba marries Troy and quickly learns that she cannot be the submissive wife she thought marriage would make her into when married to a philandering, drunkard still in love with the young girl he thought stood up him at the alter.
Troy’s antics and Bathsheba’s attempts to cover for him would drive the farm into ruins where it not for Gabriel, who came into Bathsheba’s employment after experiencing a great loss the costs him his farm and his flock. Bathsheba was hesitant to hire Gabriel given their history, but he insisted that he would be a good, obedient employee to her (and only here) and proves that over and over again.
“Thoroughly convinced of the impossibility of his own suit, a high resolve constrained him not to injure that of another. This is a lover’s most stoical virtue, as the lack of it is a lover’s most venial sin.”
Although this may sound like all the ingredients of a romance novel, Hardy’s writing and his insights in the complexity of how humans respond to the notion of live elevates this novel far above that other derisive label. Troy is, obviously, an example of how superficial love can be. Bathsheba marries him because she appreciates his good looks and his mannerisms. He is more attractive and more interesting than both Boldwood and Gabriel, and such appearances blind to her to the ugliness of his personality.
The poignant part of his inclusion in the tale, the aspect of his character that lifts him from villain to multifaceted character is the simple fact that he is in love with someone else. He acts the way he does, in part, because he’s known love and lost it. He’s had something beyond the superficial with someone else, and Bathsheba, who can only see his looks and appearances, will never be able to compete with or replace that.
“The rarest offerings of the purest loves are but a self-indulgence, and no generosity at all.”
Boldwood, for his part, is a warning sign that those appear best on paper might be actually be the worst of matches. He believes himself so in love with Bathsheba that he refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer, that he becomes utterly fixated on her. His infatuation becomes sinister and creepy, and it opens up the question of whether he “loves” Bathsheba simply because she is someone he cannot have. Would he grow tired of her if she married him, or would be become further obsessed with showing of his “prize”?
One of the ideas generating a lot of buzz both within the publishing and the entertainment industries is this idea of “strong women”. This idea that women should be kick-ass, superhero leads with female friendship that transcend discussing boys. In other words, more representative of woman in real life. And, of course, I agree with this idea and long to see more of characters like this. Yet what I love about Hardy’s work is that Bathsheba — strong, independent, and level-headed Bathsheba — is allowed to be multifaceted.
“Love is a possible strength in an actual weakness. Marriage transforms a distraction into a support, the power of which should be, and happily often is, in direct proportion to the degree of imbecility it supplants.”
She make a poor choice whilst simultaneously successfully running her farm; she has a strong relationship with her female employees that allows her to also be silly with them (see aforementioned Valentine). She also develops a deep bond with Gabriel that helps to explain why he was the better choice even without all the hindsight information of how life with Boldwood or Troy would work out. She evolves and she is human in a way not to often found with female characters of the twenty-first century.
With this novel, Hardy remains not only one of my favorite writers of the nineteenth-century but of all time. I adore his ability to capture the dialects of his rural settings, to paint such vivid and emotional pictures of where his characters live, and I continue to fall in love with the female characters he places at the forefront of his novels. And for those who have seen the movie, the pinnacle romantic moment between Bathsheba and Gabriel happens in the middle of the book rather than the end, which should be incentive enough to read the novel.
The Classics Club:
I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.