"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 60
Far from the Madding Crowd seems to be Hardy's "sheep novel," as Tess of the d'Urbervilles is his "cow novel." It would be downright adorable--in a dignified way, of course--if each of his novels featured a different aspect of English farming. This would suggest that the rural traditions came first and the stories came second: that is, that the farms are not merely for framing, but for fleshing.
Which brings us to our second Locus Focus worthy setting. (Remind me to do a theme challenge on barns in the future, okay?)
They sheared in the great barn, called for the nonce the Shearing barn, which on ground-plan resembled a church with transepts. It not only emulated the form of the neighbouring church of the parish, but vied with it in antiquity . . .
One could say about this barn, what could hardly be said of either the church or the castle, akin to it in age and style, that the purpose which had dictated its original erection was the same with that to which it was still applied. Unlike and superior to those two typical remnants of medievalism, the old barn embodied practices which had suffered no mutilation at the hands of time. Here at least the spirit of the ancient builders was at one with the spirit of the modern beholder . . . The fact that four centuries had neither proved it to be founded on a mistake, inspired any hatred of its purpose, nor given rise to any reaction that had battered it down, invested this simple grey effort of old minds with a repose, if not a grandeur, which a too curious reflection was apt to disturb in its ecclesiastic and military compeers. For once mediaevalism and modernism had a common standpoint . . .
I also like the chapter in which everyone gathers for the customary shearing supper. They provide their own music--both workers and employers taking a turn--and give the meal an air of a ceremonial dinner. But as the setting sun casts them half in shadow and half in evening light, there is a sense it is setting not just on a regular day's work but on a whole way of life.
The disconnect between tradition and modern life can be like death--and as long ago as the 1870s, Hardy was already in mourning. He also betrays an intense longing for what he considers forever lost, although he may no longer believe in the ancient faith nor put his trust in country's princes. I wonder what he would have said at what we have since put up in place of shearing barns.
It's easy to see how Hardy made the connection between shepherding and the story of David and Bathsheba. He was likely pondering the social difference between a big landowner with livestock numerous enough to require that he hire a workforce and a small homesteader with a flock he must manage himself, when the allegory of the man with a hundred sheep taking away the only lamb of another suddenly whacked him between the eyes.
But Far from the Madding Crowd transcends the roman a clef pattern in that Hardy's Bathsheba can be the lamb in one setting . . . and the wealthy farmer in another . . . and the poorer farmer in yet a third. (I wonder if she'll also play the role of Nathan the prophet at a later point in the story.) The other leads do similar doubling up.
(In short, yeah, it took me over seventy-two hours, but I finally understood what LTG was saying about Far from the Madding Crowd being a retelling of David's fall. LOL!!!!!)
Interestingly, the "one little ewe lamb" line is given to Sergeant Troy, who is not a farmer, although he is from the region and has retained enough skills to help out with the haymaking in one scene. Of course, he isn't doing it because it is good for someone who will benefit from the use of the hay to pitch in with the cutting and loading of it, but because it is another chance for him to talk to Bathsheba, whom he probably intended to catch with his spur (in a move as deft as it was practiced!) a few weeks before. And he does seem to play a prophetic role when he says . . .
". . . I may as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb . . . Why, Miss Everdene, it is in this manner that your good looks may do more harm than good in the world . . . Probably some one man on an average falls in love, with each ordinary woman. She can marry him: he is content, and leads a useful life. Such women as you a hundred men always covet--your eyes will bewitch scores on scores into an unavailing fancy for you--you can only marry one of that many. Out of these say twenty will endeavour to drown the bitterness of despised love in drink; twenty more will mope away their lives without a wish or attempt to make a mark in he world, because they have no ambition apart from their attachment to you; twenty more--the susceptible person myself possibly among them--will be always draggling after you, getting where they may just see you, doing desperate things. Men are such constant fools! The rest may try to get over their passion with more or less success. But all these men will be saddened. And not only those ninety-nine men, but the ninety-nine women they might have married are saddened with them. There's my tale. That's why I say that a woman so charming as yourself, Miss Everdene, is hardly a blessing to her race."
In short: "Thou art the woman"? Well, okay, but then what is an unusually beautiful female to do: walk around veiled for the sake of the ninety-nine men and ninety-nine women whose lives she might ruin? And perhaps, while they're at it, the unusually glib men can take vows of silence. Fair looks and silvery speech are not the real root of the harm others sometimes cause by them. Clever to shift the blame, Sergeant.
Soon we see that Sergeant Troy can wield "the wondrous power of flattery in passados at a woman" both figuratively and literally. He's quite the showman, isn't he? And in his ability to command attention and to prioritise what looks good over what is good, he seems to be Bathsheba's proper partner at this time. I can't feel very sorry for her at the end of the ill-advised meeting among the ferns.
Though nothing serious has passed between the two, she is clearly more affected by the stolen kiss than by the sincere proposals she has received in the past. And so, despite their respective histories, I find myself wondering what would happen if they did end up getting married. The image that comes to mind is that of a centuries-old barn converted into a weekend spa . . . or into a townie family's upscale country home. It's called "upcycling," did you know?
What are your thoughts on Chapters 22 to 28?
1. Does Hardy have something to say about the military profession or is non-commissioned officer just the most plausible job for a character who must hang around without being one of the farmers?
2. Should Bathsheba know better or is she totally naive at this point?
3. Would you say that modern marriage has gone (or is going) the same way Hardy says medieval castles and Catholic churches have?
Post Scriptum: It seems that everyone else has outstripped me in his or her reading, and I imagine that I'm getting these posts up too slowly for the rest of you. If anyone else wants to lead the discussion of the next seven or eight chapters, feel free to volunteer! You may submit a guest post for me to publish or do it on your own blog for me to link to. Just let me know within the next two days. Thanks!
Image Source: Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy