I go into Hardy books with more than a little trepidation. They tend to be beautiful and mesmerizing – and usually emotionally devastating. Tess is shattering, Jude is so heartbreaking that I couldn’t function after reading it, A Pair of Blue Eyes is frustratingly sad.
Far from the Madding Crowd is not. It’s still got the beautiful language (to the point of lilac prose), but the heartache isn’t nearly as extreme or inevitable as in his other books. I think there are at least two reasons for this. Firstly, the book has an ultimately happy ending. The two main protagonists are touched by the tragedy but not destroyed by it. It’s not really their tragedy. It does directly affect Bathsheba, of course, but the tragedy is Fanny’s, not hers.
And that’s the second reason that this book isn’t as devastating as even A Pair of Blue Eyes. There’s never an impossible decision. Tess, for example, has to choose between starvation and essential prostitution. Bathsheba doesn’t even come close to a similar dilemma. She makes two ultimately foolish decisions, but the consequences are not far-reaching and she accepts them as her due. Gabriel is similar: he doesn’t really make any foolish decisions, but he accepts the consequences of his actions and incorporates them into his life. He’s kind of the epitome of “hard work is its own reward” – even when misfortune befalls him, he is able to pick himself up and get back to life the way he understands it, ultimately getting back to an even higher position than he was in before.
The tragedy of this book is really Fanny Robin’s. If it had been her book, rather than Bathsheba’s, it would have almost been more Hardy-esque. She runs away to follow her sweetheart – who’s such a player that it’s sickening – mixes up the church at which they’re supposed to get married (at which point he walks away from her), and ultimately ends up dying with her illegitimate child in the workhouse.
I have to admit, I was a little bit lost in timeframe at some critical points in the book. I couldn’t tell how long Bathsheba and Troy had been married or then, by extension, the progress of Troy and Fanny’s relationship. The obfuscation around pregnancy also didn’t help – I am assuming that Fanny died in childbirth but to a modern reader that’s not at all clear. The main question in my mind is whether Fanny became pregnant before or after Bathsheba and Troy met. It doesn’t affect the story as a whole, but it does affect how much of a cad Troy is.
Because he is a cad, there’s no question about that. He plays on Fanny, apparently never expecting that she’d take him so seriously as to follow him to the regiment’s next posting, abandons her when she mixes up the church for their wedding, and then proceeds to work on Bathsheba – at one point even claiming that she was the one who trapped him into affection when he was the one who made all of the overtures. He’s very much the type of man who only wants what he can’t have, and once he has it doesn’t want it anymore. If he’d really loved Fanny the way he claimed to, he would never have abandoned her, pursued Bathsheba, or, more importantly, married Bathsheba.
But it’s not Troy’s story, Fanny’s story, or even Bathsheba’s story alone. It’s the story of Bathsheba and Gabriel – one of the few healthy relationships I’ve ever seen presented in Hardy. Gabriel never gives up in his love for Bathsheba, but he also doesn’t smother her with it or expect anything from her just because he loves her. He’s simply there, constantly working for her good without losing himself in the process. Bathsheba loses herself briefly in infatuation with Troy, but easily realises Gabriel’s worth, even before she develops deeper feelings for him – and even when she’s caught up with Troy, she’s enough herself to keep the farm running and to keep from alienating everyone she knows.
I almost wish I’d read this as my first Hardy, rather than Tess. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Tess (and am probably due for a reread sometime soon), but if I’d read this first I don’t think I would have been nearly so nervous about starting new (to me) Hardys. Until I’d hit Jude, of course.