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Clues in the Classics

Welcome to a new guest column – Clues in the Classics – where Siobhan Machin explores classic works, always on the search for buried outdoor clues or signs.

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

The thing that most surprised me on rereading this classic novel for the first time since school days was the rapid pace of events. Perhaps the schoolgirl me had a more exciting life to compare it to than the lockdown me. I also probably didn’t know that when originally published in 1874, it was serialised in a magazine, which explains the dramatic plot turns occurring throughout. It is surprisingly readable.

It tells the story of a pretty and sharp farm girl, Bathsheba Everdene’s rise to fortune and the dramatic fates of her three suitors, Gabriel Oak, Mr Boldwood and the devilish Seargent Troy. Without swamping the plot, Hardy imbues the story with a heavy moral overtone.

Gabriel Oak, the simple shepherd, represents the honest and robust qualities of the outdoor life he embodies and we are routing throughout for his patient, likeable and selfless manner to triumph. We follow Bathsheba as she rises up in the world through the unexpected inheritance of a farm and bravely navigates the male roles demanded of her in the commercial world while using all her wiles to hold off a swathe of admirers.

Seargent Troy is the dashing young soldier who barges into Bathsheba’s life as a landowner and shows her an alluring new existence, which quickly and predictably leads into a heartbreaking downward spiral, as events in his past catch up with him. His flashy ways and scarlet uniform are a piercing alarm to the reader set against the wonderful pastoral existence that he disrupts.

Just as the characters are intricately drawn with skill and nuance, the landscape and the rhythm of the farming year are minutely recorded with great tenderness. Nature is constantly brought alive on the page: ‘it was the first day of June…every green was young, every pore was open, and every stalk was swollen with racing currents of juice.’ His detailed knowledge of rural life is worked into the story everywhere and we feel satisfyingly immersed in this pastoral existence. 

For all the languid sunsets, and bountiful harvests, there are brutal tragedies, one night Gabriel loses almost his entire flock, and livelihood during a storm and the toll of human effort in this pre-machine era is keenly felt. Wessex, the fictional county the novel is based in is probably based on Dorset, Hardy’s home county. Hardy’s wonderful description and engagement with the landscape, the seasons, the wildlife means that this memorable and engaging novel reads as two love stories in parallel.

CLUES & SIGNS:

  • Animal Weather Signs. Just before a biblical thunder storm, the tension builds as Gabriel heads home in the dark:

‘…his toe kicked something which felt and sounded soft, leathery, and distended, like a boxing glove. It was a large toad humbly travelling across the path…He knew what this direct message from the Great Mother meant. And soon came another.

When he struck a light indoors there appeared upon the table a thin glistening streak…where it led up to a huge brown garden-slug, which had come indoors tonight for reasons of its own. It was Nature’s second way of hinting to him that he was to prepare for foul weather.’

 When the common black spiders begin to drop from the thatched roof, a thoroughly perturbed Oak heads outside to watch the sheep and see what their behaviour tells him. Their tightly knit huddle with tails all pointing to the ‘half of the horizon from which the storm threatened’ convinces Oak. There was to be a thunderstorm, and afterwards a cold continuous rain.

  • The Star Clock. Gabriel Oak has fallen on hard times and is resting in a haywagon. On awakening he finds himself in motion. To ascertain where he is, he reads the stars and finds ‘Charles Wain [big dipper] was getting towards a right angle with the Pole star’ this tells him its nine O’clock and he’s been asleep two hours. (Hardy’s fondness for using the stars to tell the time features elsewhere in the book too.)
Hardy’s book has been reimagined in many forms, including this 2015 movie starring Carey Mulligan.

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