One of the great joys of my life has been to have had the privilege to spend a solid three years of my life engaging with the classics of English literature (University of London, 1990). I have a particular passion for nineteenth and early twentieth century literature and one of my favourites is Thomas Hardy. I read all of his major (and many of his minor) works. I was very young when I read them though and had had nothing like the life experience I have now – of falling in and out of love, getting married, having children, dealing with deaths, dark times, joyful times and the like. Hardy is therefore a particularly interesting author to come back to later in life, when you have been through all those ups and downs of life.
I was delighted when my book club decided we’d read Far From the Madding Crowd. Although it is not my “favourite” Hardy novel, it definitely makes my top five. My favourite is Jude the Obscure, or at least it used to, but perhaps my feelings would be different now, closely followed by Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which I studied at school (a ‘first love’ if you like). I adore the Roman Polanski film adaptation from 1980, starring Nastassja Kinski which is so loyal to the book.
Bathsheba Everdene is one of English literature’s iconic female characters. Young, spirited, independent and ambitious, Hardy puts her in a position of power (running a business, a thriving farm) which would have been rare for women at the time. Hardy also allows his female characters to feel lust, passion and to follow through on their desires. They are even allowed to have sex! Poor, unfortunate Fanny Robin, pregnant out of wedlock by Sergeant Troy, dies penniless in childbirth. Hardy might even be considered an early feminist writer.
I experienced Far From the Madding Crowd on audio this time, a 2020 release narrated by Olivia Vinall, which was brilliant. It takes a particular skill to get the voices of the opposite sex right and the narrator achieves this extremely well, conveying very successfully the variations in character between Bathsheba’s suitors, Gabriel Oak, Farmer Boldwood and Sergeant Troy. I also loved her narration of the rural scenes with the farmworkers which could have been patronising, but were not.
This book is pure joy and so many of Hardy’s passages are simply breathtaking. I frequently found myself bookmarking chapters on the audio so that when I got home I could look up the printed version and immerse myself all over again.
In my book club we also watched the most recent film version, from 2015 starring Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts and Michael Sheen. It was beautifully shot, wonderful to look at (because of Hardy, Dorset is my favourite English county); Wessex is well and truly captured. For me, however, it had a couple of fundamental flaws; firstly, it is simply too short! At a little under two hours it cannot deal effectively with all the themes explored in the book and so it is distilled down mainly to the slow-burning love story of Bathsheba and Gabriel. Neither is there sufficient time to truly justify the transition of its main protagonists. Secondly, Carey Mulligan, much as I love her as an actor, is, for me, just too old for the role. By my reckoning she would have been about ten years older than Bathsheba and I think she just comes across as too ‘experienced’, particularly at the beginning.
I have found a great blog from 2017 comparing the different film and television adaptations by Jennifer Rose Writes which seems to favour the original 1967 version starring Julie Christie. At three hours in length it might address at least one of my complaints about the 2015 film. It goes to show how audiences’ tastes and tolerances have changed. So, I am off to watch that.
The classics are classics for a reason – they bear multiple re-readings and it has been such a pleasure to come back to Hardy after so many years. I am resolved to make this a more regular pursuit. Next up, Crime and Punishment, I think.