Victorian Challenge #2
When Bathsheba Everdene inherits her uncle’s farm, she decides to fire the untrustworthy bailiff and run the place herself. The other farmers in the district soon become accustomed to seeing her buying and selling alongside them, but a woman with a face and presence like Bathsheba’s can’t avoid trouble for long. A thoughtless prank, born of recklessness and vanity, earns her the notice of her neighbour Farmer Boldwood, whose interest swiftly turns into obsession. Guilt and a sense of duty compel her to accept his courtship, and leave her torn when she meets and falls for the dashing Sergeant Troy, who has reasons for pursuing her that have nothing to do with love. When circumstances bring about a renewal of Boldwood’s addresses the scene is set for a tragedy.
Through her vagaries of fortune Bathsheba has one true friend on whom to rely. Gabriel Oak was once, in a small way, a farmer himself, before ill luck reduced him to the position of shepherd on Bathsheba’s property. Dazzled by her at first sight, he hasn’t let her refusal of his clumsy proposal deflect him from his course of quiet devotion. Patience is a virtue, and his might just be rewarded not only with one of the local farms, but with Bathsheba herself.
It’s been six years since I first read this, and in that time I somehow managed to forget almost everything about it. How could I? I love this book. Don’t let the fact that it’s Hardy put you off. There is an element of tragedy, but it by no means dominates the book, which is for the most part a rural idyll and a thoroughly charming one at that. Weatherbury is a place where the pace and habits of urban life have not intruded, and the plot unfolds in a suitably leisurely manner. (In fact, Henry James criticised it for being slow and overpadded with words, which is a bit rich coming from him - he was far more long-winded than Hardy ever was.) It covers a span of some half a dozen years, but it feels like less; the fictional time slides by just as its real counterpart is prone to do. The impression is reinforced by the fact that the chronology is off - Bathsheba doesn’t age as she should.
Bathsheba Everdene has one of the best entrances in literature - perched atop her worldly goods on the back of a wagon, using the driver’s temporary absence as an opportunity to admire her reflection in a looking-glass. This unconventional spirit carries her through her establishment of herself as an independent woman conducting her own business; but it also brings her suitors who aren’t good for her, and only after time and tribulation quieten her does she land the one who is, which is perhaps a further tragedy. Bathsheba at the end of the book might be older and wiser, but she is also more subdued and less independent. (And in further answer to a recent Weekly Geeks - while her experience doesn’t completely match that of her biblical counterpart, the name is very apt.) She’s a memorable character and surely like nothing the denizens of Weatherbury had ever seen before - it’s no wonder she had her admirers so spellbound.
You can’t really blame her for the events regarding Boldwood. She acted without thinking, but the results were beyond what anyone could have foreseen. The life of ease and worship he offered her would never have suited her active temperament, but I still felt so very sorry for him; and though his obsession with Bathsheba paved the way for her own contentment I wished he could get over her and find someone else with whom he could be happy. Nor can you condemn her as an idiot for being swept off her feet by Troy, a dashing cad á là Wickham whose charm is embellished by a red coat and a handsome face. Unlike Wickham, however, Troy does have a heart - it just happens to be disposed elsewhere. And really, without these disasters would Gabriel ever have stood a chance?
He’s the least prepossessing of her suitors, with neither face nor fortune but only his character to recommend him. And it’s that character that makes this such a lovely book to read. He loves her in spite of her faults, looks after her as best he can, makes her see sense when possible, and lets her make her own mistakes when he must. Romantic devotion and pragmatic logic seems an odd combination of traits, but they suit Gabriel perfectly.
All the other villagers who feature are appealing - in fact Troy is the only person it’s hard to like. From the ancient and toothless maltster, to the self-effacing young man with a shrewish wife who’s forever known merely as ‘Susan Tall’s husband,’ to the boy named Cain because his mother got her Bible characters muddled up, they’ll leave you with a smile and the same warm feeling that induced me to sign up for the Classics Challenge after finishing.