"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 58
You know what would be a shoo-in for Locus Focus? Warren's Malthouse. It seems fitting that a place where working men can rest, socialise, and drink should have an air of timelessness about it. The practice seems like a natural sacrament, only half a day younger than the curse to earn one's bread by the sweat of one's brow. And in Far from the Madding Crowd, it is an essential ritual in rural community life.
"Come, shepherd, and drink. 'Tis gape and swaller with us--a drap of sommit, but not of much account," said the maltster, removing from the fire his eyes, which were vermilion-red and bleared by gazing into it for so many years. "Take up the God-forgive-me, Jacob . . ."
Jacob stooped to the God-forgive-me, which was a two-handled tall mug standing in the ashes, cracked and charred with heat: it was rather furred with extraneous matter about the outside, especially in the crevices of the handles, the innermost curves of which may not have seen daylight for several years by reason of this encrustation thereon--formed of ashes accidentally wetted with cider and baked hard; but to the mind of any sensible drinker the cup was no worse for that, being incontestably clean on the inside and about the rim. It may be observed that such a class of mug is called a God-forgive-me in Weatherbury and its vicinity for uncertain reasons; probably because its size makes any given toper feel ashamed of himself when he sees its bottom in drinking it empty.
For priest, a maltster so old that he isn't certain of his own age; for chalice, a "God-forgive-me" which has seen the fires of many such nights. And that sense of timelessness which seems to promise that the malthouse would always be there for the weary working men who need it the most. But is Thomas Hardy already writing, as he would in the more tragic Tess of the d'Urbervilles, about a lost past?
When Bathsheba's bailiff is dismissed for stealing, doesn't it seem like the perfect coincidence for giving Gabriel a better job? If that were the case, it would be an embarrassingly convenient set up, wouldn't it? But Hardy is a better plotter than that, and so Bathsheba's next move after catching her late uncle's bailiff red-handed is to take his role for herself. Well, why not? It's her farm now.
"Now mind, you have a mistress instead of a master. I don't yet know my powers or my talents in farming; but I shall do my best, and if you serve me well, so shall I serve you. Don't any unfair ones among you (if there are any such, but I hope not) suppose that because I'm a woman I don't understand the difference between bad goings-on and good."
You tell them, Bathsheba! Indeed, in these seven chapters of the readalong, we learn quite a bit about her to admire. She seems pretty capable of running Weatherby. Her first administrative meeting with the men is also where she encounters someone else with an unusual Biblical name: Cain Ball, called Cainey to spare everyone the shock.
I don't know what's more interesting: the information that he received that name because he had "heathen" parents and the suggestion that Bathsheba's parents might have been the same . . . or the odd set-up of someone named Cain working as a shepherd's assistant.
Yet not all we see of Bathsheba here is flattering--which seems ironic, given that her fatal flaw (as diagnosed by Gabriel, who may or may not be reliable) is vanity. Her public debut as a "buying and selling farmer" at the cornmarket is a professional triumph marred only by her sense that she has impressed and attracted everyone there but one. Shortly after, she is piqued again when her maid informs her that this man was the only one who didn't turn around and glance at her during the Sunday service. Some things simply cannot be borne!
It is hard for me not to see this new character as primarily a romantic foil to Gabriel Oak. Their very names suggest a contrast. Our new player is Mr. Boldwood, and unlike Bathsheba's unlucky former suitor, he is a prosperous gentleman farmer in his middle age. And he has likely never sipped from a shared "God-forgive-me" at a malthouse in his life--though I could be wrong.
Our lady "doth protest too much" when she decides to send her unmoved neighbour a Valentine, but there's no doubt that she is trying to get a reaction. And she succeeds.
Since the receipt of the missive in the morning Boldwood had felt the symmetry of his existence to be slowly getting distorted in the direction of an ideal passion. The disturbance was as the first floating weed to Columbus--the contemptibly little suggesting possibilities of the infinitely great.
The letter must have had an origin and a motive. That the latter was of the smallest magnitude compatible with its existence at all, Boldwood, of course, did not know. And such an explanation did not strike him as a possibility even. It is foreign to a mystified condition of mind to realize of the mystifier that the processes of approving a course suggested by circumstance, and of striking out a course from inner impulse, would look the same in the result . . .
The target has been hooked and won't be getting away soon. Whether or not Bathsheba will welcome the consequences of her thoughtless act, we will know in future chapters.
What do you think of Chapters 8 to 14?
1. What are your impressions of the confident, competent, yet vain Bathsheba? Is she a three-dimensional character or a stereotypical one?
2. For that matter, what about Mr. Boldwood? Is he too easily captivated by the little love letter?
3. Do you ever feel haunted by the lost past of your community?
Image Source: Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy