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And Thomas Hardy invented the love rectangle

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. 1874 French title: Loin de la foule déchainée.

OK, I don’t know if Thomas Hardy invented the love rectangle and a more literate reader may prove me by A+B = QED that it was someone else, but it’s a nice title for my billet.

When the book opens, Gabriel Oak is a young shepherd who has just leased a farm and Bathsheba Everdene moves in the neighbouring farm with her aunt Mrs Hurst. She’s a proud beauty and Gabriel assesses her as such when he meets her for the first time but he falls in love with her anyway. They befriend, she even saves his life once but when he proposes she refuses him. She doesn’t love him and doesn’t want to get married.

“Well, what I mean is that 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.”

Shortly after this, Bathsheba moves out of the village and Gabriel thinks he’ll never see her again. Then Gabriel loses his farm after his inexperienced sheep dog pushes his sheep over a cliff. He’s ruined and his search for employment brings him in Weatherbury. He helps putting out a fire on a farm and discovers that it’s Bathsheba’s property. She has inherited an estate from her uncle and is now a rich woman. Despite their shared history, she hires Gabriel as her shepherd.

William Boldwood is the other wealthy farmer in Weatherbury. He’s about forty, a confirmed bachelor and happy to be so. He never expressed admiration to Bathsheba’s beauty and she’s a little piqued by the lack of attention. On a whim, she sends him a secret Valentine card. He discovers where the card comes from, starts looking at her and falls head-over-heels in love with her. She has now another admirer in the village.

Arrives Sergeant Troy. He had a relationship with Fanny, a maid who eloped shortly after Bathsheba arrived in Weatherbury. She never knew why Fanny disappeared while Gabriel and Boldwood do. Troy is handsome, courteous and flirty. As a hopeless womaniser, he soon starts to court Bathseba who falls for him. The other two don’t stand a chance against the charming Sergeant.

Now, you see the love rectangle between Gabriel, Boldwood, Troy and Bathsheba. Who will get the girl? How will Fanny’s relationship with Troy influence the game?

Monet_meulesSummed up like this, the plot is simplistic. However, there’s a lot more to Far From the Madding Crowd than the love relationships. There’s the usual description of the country life in fictional Wessex and Hardy’s descriptions of the landscape are picturesque. Natural disasters are plausible and become handy plot devices; that comes with the genre. I enjoyed reading about the farming customs and he doesn’t repeat himself. Far From the Madding Crowd tells about sheep breeding and tending to fields. These topics weren’t in The Mayor of Casterbridge. The novels complete each other and are a part of the jigsaw picturing rural Sussex.

The four characters have more depth than my summary of the plot lets on. There’s an Austenian feeling to these characters. Bathsheba is a mix between Marianne and Emma. Boldwood reminded me of Colonel Brandon. Troy resembles Willoughby and Wickam. And Gabriel is more like Mr Knightley.

Bathsheba is a fascinating character. She’s independent, intelligent and stubborn. She’s also young, inexperienced and passionate like Marianne. She’s proud and level-headed like Emma.

Bathsheba, though she had too much understanding to be entirely governed by her womanliness, had too much womanliness to use her understanding to the best advantage.

Marrying Gabriel the farmer was a reasonable decision to make when he proposed. He was on his way to be a respectable and solvent farmer and she didn’t have a higher prospect. Yet she refuses him. When she inherits her uncle’s estate, she decides against hiring a bailiff and runs the estate herself. That’s against traditions and her workmen don’t know how to accept their mistress in such a role. Gabriel is there to smooth things out, always in the background. Because she’s aware of his regard for her, she accepts his help reluctantly. She’s alone on the farm and she enjoys their conversations. She needs someone to turn to. They remain friends and Gabriel doesn’t hesitate to tell her what he thinks of her behaviour when she goes overboard.

Gabriel Oak is also an interesting character, the most likeable of the novel. His name says it all: he’s as good as an angel and as solid as an oak. He’s intelligent and responds to Bathsheba’s intelligence. They are good partners at managing the farm and they both keep their heads in case of emergency. He loves her for herself, flaws and all. He’s the most mature character of the novel. His solid knowledge of farming, his simplicity and his interactions with Bathsheba reminded me of Mr Knightley.

Troy is the proverbial bad boy, thoughtless, lazy and self-centred:

Idiosyncrasy and vicissitude had combined to stamp Sergeant Troy as an exceptional being. He was a man to whom memories were an incumbrance, and anticipations a superfluity. Simply feeling, considering, and caring for what was before his eyes, he was vulnerable only in the present. His outlook upon time was as a transient flash of the eye now and then: that projection of consciousness into days gone by and to come, which makes the past a synonym for the pathetic and the future a word for circumspection, was foreign to Troy. With him the past was yesterday; the future, to-morrow; never, the day after.

Not exactly a man you want to build a future with. In addition to that lightness of character, he’s mercenary and Bathsheba’s money attracts him even if it’s not his first motive to pursue her. However, when you consider his relationship with Fanny, he’s a lot more complex than he seems to be.

Boldwood reminded me of Colonel Brandon because he’s also much older than Bathsheba, he’s wealthy and brooding. His passion comes as a surprise; he wasn’t really interested in women before and was content with his bachelor life. Bathsheba kindled an unexpected fire and he has trouble dealing with his feelings.

Each male character represents a way of feeling passionate about someone. Gabriel’s fire for Bathsheba is a homely one, a steady chimney fire, anchored in daily life. Troy is more like fireworks, beautiful, amazing and short-lived. Boldwood’s passion is a fire hazard, simmering and potentially destructive. And Bathsheba? She’s confusing, burning for Troy and capable of a strong bond with Gabriel. Sometimes she irritated me but I liked her for her courage and her intelligence. Even if she’s conceited, she also admits her faults and flaws. Despite her apparent carelessness, she has a strong business head and is intelligent enough to acknowledge Gabriel’s worth. She appeared to me as mostly young and needing the guidance of a mother (as long as the mother is not Mrs Bennett). Gabriel and Bathsheba show how hard it is to step out of one’s condition: Bathsheba wants to manage the farm and it’s not a woman’s job in these times; Gabriel wants to be a farmer, or at least, a bailiff.

Far From the Madding Crowd is pure Hardy and I had a wonderful time reading it. It took me time to re-acquaint to Hardy’s style and vocabulary. Each writer has his ocean of words and it took me a while to feel confortable swimming there again. I wondered about the title and Wikipedia tells me it comes from a poem by Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751)

   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.


  1. Tony
    April 20, 2014 at 2:50 pm

    Hardy’s always wonderful, and this is one of his best (even if I couldn’t bring myself to try it as a fifteen-year-old in English class!).


    • April 20, 2014 at 9:04 pm

      He’s wonderful, indeed. It’s not a good book to inflict on a teenager, though. The language is difficult and you’re probably not mature enough to grasp the nuances of the book.


  2. Brian Joseph
    April 20, 2014 at 4:15 pm

    I really want to read Hardy sooner rather then later. This one sounds really good as I am of late really getting into these 18th century authors that focus so well on characters and relationships.

    Though I do not Know if he was the first, Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers, published in 1857 had a love rectangle as a key part of the plot.


    • April 20, 2014 at 9:05 pm

      I need to read Trollope.
      I recommend this Hardy. I started with Life’s Little Ironies and it was a nice way to enter into his universe.


  3. April 20, 2014 at 4:27 pm

    Nothing like Hardy is there? This is one of my favourites. There’s a timelessness to this story as while the male characters are well-defined they are still ‘types’ that we still see today. How many times do we see women fall for the slick charmer and pass by the more sensible solid choice?


    • April 20, 2014 at 9:09 pm

      My next Hardy will be The Hand of Ethelberta. Is it a good one?
      I agree with you, there’s a timelessness in the male types. It echoes The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, regarding chosing the slick charmer vs the sensible man. Both are guidebooks about how to choose a good husband. Bathsheba is a modern character too. I liked that she decided to run her estate herself.


      • April 21, 2014 at 6:44 am

        I liked it. Not his best, but then again, his best is extraordinary


  4. April 20, 2014 at 4:35 pm
    • April 20, 2014 at 9:25 pm

      Oh dear, this is over the top. As if the man needed help or could marry whoever he wanted.


    • April 20, 2014 at 9:29 pm

      Incredible. Who would want to marry that man anyway and be under the scrutiny of the English trash press all the time? They’re nuts.


  5. April 20, 2014 at 6:42 pm

    I like the idea of a Hardy book with an Austenian twist. Sounds like an ideal combination, in fact. I’ve only read Tess of the d’Urbervilles and The Woodlanders and I don’t think the characters or interactions there can be compared with Austen’s. Perhaps because there wasn’t this element of a fairly circumscribed society where everyone knows everyone else that moves in roughly the same social milieu? I’ll certainly read Far from the madding crowd, though I’ll wait a little: I don’t want to exhaust all his books too soon!


    • April 20, 2014 at 9:21 pm

      Ah, another Hardy fan.
      I know that Tess and Jude the Obscure are bleak but this one isn’t. Like The Woodlanders, they were written a later than Far From the Madding Crowd. I don’t know if it was the natural evolution of his writing or if he just could afford to write what he really wanted. After all, Far From the Madding Crowd was published in a newspaper as a feuilleton; he probably had to respect codes.

      Do you read him in English or in French?


      • April 21, 2014 at 2:16 pm

        Yes, I’m definitely a Hardy fan, even if that’s only based on the two books I’ve read (and a visit to the part of England he comes from, which is just beautiful). It would be interesting to read a bit about his life and see how his books fit in it. I’ve been meaning to read Claire Tomalin’s biography of the man but haven’t got round to it yet.
        I always read English writers in the original. You? I assumed you read it in English too.


        • April 21, 2014 at 5:47 pm

          I’ve been to Dorchester too, it’s beautiful (And the weather was splendid!)
          I’m not a great reader of biographies. Have you read Cakes & Ale by William Somerset Maugham? If you haven’t and are a Hardy fan, I highly recommend it.
          I try to read Anglophone writers in the original but if the book to long, I’d rather pick a French translation. Otherwise it takes too much time. I have trouble with crime fiction. I’m tempted to read in French because I read this to unwind and I want an easy read but for the second time in a row the translation I have is old fashioned and I’m going to turn to the original. So I’ll read Rage in Harlem and not its French counterpart La reine des pommes.


          • April 22, 2014 at 10:11 am

            I haven’t read much by Somerset Maugham except for Rain (actually it was an audio recording) and another short story. The name escapes me now. It’s just a question of time, not of wanting to read more by him. Thanks for the suggestion though, I’ll see whether they have it at the library.
            The biographies I’ve read can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand, but I know I’m more and more interested in non-fiction for leisure (instead of work as used to be the case) so the balance will probably change in favour of more biographies. It must be a sign of ageing.
            Re: reading in the original, I should probably mention I’m half-English, so that does make things a bit easier.


            • April 22, 2014 at 10:29 pm

              Maugham is a wonderful writer, well worth reading. Sharp, elegant, funny.
              I’m sure being half-English helps! I don’t have that chance so I do my best and sometimes I can read books that are supposedly difficult (What Maisie Knew) and struggle with children lit (my adventures with The Magic Pudding) Books in English are like a box of chocolates, I never know what kind of difficulties I’ll get. 🙂


  6. April 21, 2014 at 12:25 pm

    I read Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy several years ago and remember that I enjoyed it a lot back then… although in general I’m not really a fan of nineteenth-century literature which more often than not is too lenghty and too verbose for me who likes it concise and to the point. His The Return of the Native, on the other hand, was quite an ordeal for me… and Vantiy Fair by Thackery was even worse, just by the way. Still all those novels were worth the experience. I learnt a lot about the time… and my preferrences.

    However, I agree with most of what you said about Far from the Madding Crowd. The characters definitely are splendidly depicted in it and the relations between them are subtle. Not without reason the novel is considered one of Hardy’s masterpieces. Maybe I should give The Mayor of Casterbridge a chance and Jude the Obscure that must be somewhere in my shelves.

    It’s interesting to know at last that the title of Far from the Madding Crowd is borrowed from a poem. Thanks for telling us, Emma!


    • April 21, 2014 at 5:40 pm

      The Mayor of Casterbridge is excellent too. I haven’t encountered a Hardy I didn’t like, so far. I already know I won’t be able to read Tess & Jude in the original, they’re too long. It’ll take me ages; at least these ones are translated into French and available in paperbacks.
      I love 19thC literature although some novels are an ordeal. (Like Stendhal’s Sentimental Education sometimes)


  7. April 22, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    The choice of names is certainly not a coincidence. They are all well chosen, it seems.
    It’s far from the first love-triangle, but I guess you knew that anyway. I’d even call La Princesse de Clèves a love triangle. But I suppose it doesn’t get as much room as here or isn’t about choice like here.
    Anyway . . . I really wonder how I will like him. I certainly hope I’ll like him as much as you do.
    I agree about each author’s “ocean of words”. Nicely put.


    • April 22, 2014 at 10:36 pm

      I think there’s something about the names too. I researched Bathsheba, she’s king Solomon’s mother but I don’t know what to do with that information.
      I know about love triangles, I hoped Hardy had invented the love rectangle, but apparently not, as Brian points it out.


  8. April 22, 2014 at 5:52 pm

    The Mayor of Casterbridge is tremendous. I was blown away by it.

    I have this but haven’t read it yet, and likely won’t for a little while yet though it sounds fantastic.

    Poor Gabriel, put in the friend zone. So it goes though, we can’t choose who we love, or love someone just because we have so much in common and it makes sense to do so. It’s there or it’s not. Most of us have been on one side or the other of that at some point.


    • April 22, 2014 at 10:41 pm

      This one is excellent as well.
      “Friend zone” that’s an expression we don’t have in French, as far as I know. Gabriel is really the good guy here and that’s Hardy’s strength, you can relate to the characters. They are more real than others with grand passion. (I can’t relate to Mathilde de la Mole but I can relate to Gabriel)


  9. May 12, 2014 at 6:11 pm

    I suppose there are love rectangles in opera; Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte comes to mind. If you go back to Baroque opera – Handel’s Alcina, say – you can get love pentagons., love hexagons…

    I must confess always being in two minds about Hardy. There’s much that i love about his novels, but they frequently seem to me over-plotted,a nd with too much time spent merely explicating the mechanics of the plot. But that’s just me, though! The main characters in tis one are all very powerful, and FarmerBoldwood seems to me a genuinely tragic figure.


    • May 12, 2014 at 8:43 pm

      I’m afraid I know nothing about opera, so I totally trust you on that one.
      Poor Boldwood inspires more pity than anything else.
      I think that to read the first Hardys, you need to accept weird coincidences as part of the game. If you start rolling your eyes and think it’s not realistic, you won’t enjoy it.


  1. June 8, 2015 at 11:22 pm

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