Few male authors can come close to Thomas Hardy in creating such defining, enduring and well-loved female literary heroines. Though controversial discussions could rumble on for some time debating whether or not Hardy could be classified as a feminist champion of women in a deeply patriarchal time or if the misfortunes that often befall his leading ladies said otherwise, the fact that three of his most famous novels are sculpted around incredibly memorable, entrancing female characters surely speaks volumes. Of course, there is the eponymous and ubiquitous (in literary terms, at least) Tess and Sue Bridehead of Jude The Obscure, but completing the trilogy is the ‘beautiful, impulsive and spirited’ Bathsheba Everdene; the central character of Far From The Madding Crowd, Hardy’s fourth novel which was also his breakthrough into major mainstream literary success.
Bathsheba is most definitely a striking and captivating presence, not only in appearance but in character too – she appears the most outwardly strong and confident of all Hardy’s heroines, with her wilful and fiercely independent nature coupled with a certain degree of vanity making her a woman who could not be easily ignored. Indeed, Hardy’s description of her in the latter stages of the novel is quite revealing:
“She was of the stuff of which great men’s mothers are made. She was indispensable to high generation, hated at tea parties, feared in shops, and loved at crises.”
While there is much to admire about Bathsheba, she is far from flawless – there are a few instances in which her attitude and conduct appear questionable. Yet such complexity is precisely what makes Hardy’s characters so appealing and in the end it is hard not to be affected by Bathsheba’s journey from free-spirited farm-girl to farm-mistress, shouldering her various professional and personal burdens along the way and undergoing a quite remarkable transformation from strength to weakness, finally to a shadowy stability.
The cause of Bathsheba’s descent has much to do with her romantic entanglements – the main focus of the story. Hardy generates not a love triangle but a love rectangle, if you will, as Bathsheba attracts the attentions of three men; Gabriel Oak (through whose eyes we are first introduced to the enchanting Miss Everdene), Farmer William Boldwood and Sergeant Francis Troy. In Bathsheba’s relationships with each of her three potential suitors, I suspect that many readers would be able to find templates for identifiable romantic encounters in their own lives: the tempestuous whirlwind that is not realised to be wrong until too late; the passion that burns heavily for one lover but not the other; the dependable friendship which deepens. The novel has its fair share of melodramatic moments, certainly, but Hardy prevents things from going overboard using several techniques – the chaos surrounding the central characters is nicely tempered by the more down-to-earth goings-on of the farm workers, whose personalities are fleshed out just as much as the protagonists, and the descriptions of the landscape of Weatherbury are just wonderful. Hardy’s quite remarkable descriptive ability is always a highlight in any of his works, but is particularly noticeable and affecting in Far From The Madding Crowd; it is quite astounding how he can make the most ordinary of observations burst with energy and emotion, producing in a mere sentence an idea utterly profound, as in the following:
“She was in a state of mental gutta serena; her mind was for the minute totally deprived of light at the same time that no obscuration was apparent from without.”
Not to mention that deliciously ironical title; a fine example of a true master of language at work.