I first read Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd about two years ago and loved it, so when I saw the title appear on Netflix I knew I would have to write about it! Bathsheba, Hardy’s protagonist has been one of my favourite feminist icons in literature, and with the Women’s March on Washington just last week now seems like the perfect time to spotlight Hardy’s marvellous portrayal of a young woman choosing for herself in the 1800s.
The story begins with a young Bathsheba gone to her aunt’s to assist on her farm, where her beauty and handiness catches the eye of their neighbour the good shepherd Mr. Gabriel Oak. He proposes to her and she refuses to marry him because she insists she is too independent and would prefer to live without a husband at all. He is disappointed but understanding and after a tragedy befalls his flock, and he is rendered destitute, he is even thankful that he would not be dragging her into a life of poverty. While his fortunes sink, hers rise as an uncle of hers passes away leaving his farm to her, and so Bathsheba becomes the independent mistress of a farm to the shock of her neighbours. Needless to say, she is now in a higher league than Gabriel but their paths cross and you continue to cheer for him as the hero she deserves despite other “more worthy” suitors. A classic romance — except where many romances have been accused of creating flat, Mary Sue like protagonists, and thrusting the heroine onto a good romantic hero like a prize, Bathsheba proves to be a very, very complex person.
Bathsheba knows herself. She refuses a good marriage to Gabriel because at the time she does not share his feelings and she isn’t ready. When fortune happens to smile on her with her uncle’s farm she steps into an entrepreneurial role with grace. She dedicates herself to the practice and refuses to be pushed out for being a woman. When she goes to market to sell her wares and the men bypass her table she calls them out, challenging a neighbour she knows who bought from her uncle and insisting he pay her equally, after all, it’s the same quality product. She hires Gabriel because he is one of the best shepherds she has ever seen and an expert at farming, then fires the bailiff who worked for her uncle for many years when he fails to show up to his job and a fire almost destroys the crops and barn. Truly she is an impressive and hardworking woman, toiling away in the fields with her farmhands and balancing the books in her off hours.
But what makes Bathsheba most interesting, and a great feminist character, is that she is also fallible. It is not as obvious in the movie as in the book, but she is vain, and so falls for the attentions of Sergeant Francis Troy, who calls her beautiful. She can also be careless and mean, sending a Valentine to the reclusive Mr. Boldwood, her Darcy-esque neighbour, and in doing so leads him on. When Gabriel calls her out on her mistakes she becomes upset and fires him in the name of her pride (then is forced to chase after him on horse back when she needs his help to save the farm again). And after all of her insistence at not wanting to be married and laughing at “silly girls” she herself falls into a pit of jealousy and rushes into a marriage with a man who is absolutely not good for her. At times, it is difficult to like her, and so Bathsheba becomes a real woman. A human being who has complex feelings, and whose motivations aren’t exactly known by others.
“It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs,” says Bathsheba. I’ve often wondered about Hardy’s intentions when writing this line. Is he pointing out that it is difficult to capture a woman’s emotions and despite the fantastic dimensions of Bathsheba he has likely failed? Is it a cover up for Bathsheba’s actions? Perhaps he is simply acknowledging that Bathsheba like many women at the time stand at a cross-roads of being property (something which Bathsheba vocally expresses in reference to marriage) and striving for romantic love in a world which is not built for them. Above all, her desire to define her own destiny is what makes Bathsheba one of my favourite heroines and an icon even today. She makes mistakes and there are consequences, she applies herself and is rewarded, she grapples with her feelings and learns more about herself through experience.
As far as movie adaptations of books go, Thomas Vinterberg’s take on Far from the Maddening Crowd is excellent. Many of the characters are made a little more likeable than in the original novel (including Bathsheba), but Carey Mulligan is captivating and does a wonderful job of playing the lead role. If you’re looking for something to add to your TBR or Netflix queue for 2017 Far from the Madding Crowd is an excellent choice! I can never recommend Bathsheba enough.
Do you have a favourite feminist character in literature?