“It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in a language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs,” declares Bathsheba Everdene, the young heroine of Thomas Hardy’s novel Far From the Madding Crowd. For a Victorian writer, Hardy has always struck me as unusually modern—especially in his simple, exacting, observational prose—but Bathsheba’s statement is positively postmodern in its understanding of how words create their own value system. The gulf between men’s and women’s experience couldn’t be more obvious in Thomas Vinterberg’s solid, well-acted screen adaptation of the novel, the first in nearly half a century. British screenwriter David Nicholls (One Day), catering to the art-house market for prefeminist Victorian romance, makes a game attempt to Austen-ize Far From the Madding Crowd by emphasizing its story of an independent woman who challenges the sexism of her times. In the end, though, he and Vinterberg can’t obscure the strong patriarchal feeling Hardy brought to the book: in his view it was the tale of a woman being gently brought to heel.
Like so many other romances of the era, Far From the Madding Crowd turns on marriage as a matter of love and finance. Bathsheba is working on her uncle’s farm when she meets sturdy young Gabriel Oak, a neighboring shepherd; he immediately proposes marriage, but after a calamity costs him his entire flock and Bathsheba inherits the farm from her uncle, Oak winds up as her employee. A second suitor enters the picture after Bathsheba impishly sends a valentine to the middle-aged bachelor William Boldwood; he too proposes, offering her a more comfortable life, but she’s not attracted to him. Impulsively she allows herself to be wooed by the dashing rake Francis Troy, an army sergeant who reduces her to jelly by meeting her in the forest and executing a lightning-swift sword drill around her person. The lucky winner of her hand in marriage, Troy soon begins spending down her money on drink, gambling, and Fanny Robin, a young honey whom he got pregnant before meeting Bathsheba.
No one could miss the parallels to Hardy’s own life. Son of a stone mason, he was working as an architectural apprentice and trying to establish himself as a novelist in 1870 when he fell in love with Emma Gifford, daughter of a retired solicitor. Two years into their acquaintance Hardy approached Emma’s father to ask for her hand, but the elder Gifford turned him down—”rather indignantly,” according to Hardy biographer Ralph Pite—and Hardy, realizing he had to give a better account of himself financially, resolved to get ahead in his true calling as an author. Within months he had scored a handsome offer for a new novel to be serialized anonymously in Cornhill magazine; Far From the Madding Crowd began appearing in December 1873. It was a great success, and once Hardy was revealed as author of the book, his career took off. He and Emma were married in September 1874.
Hardy had already fictionalized his courtship of Emma in his previous novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes, but the rural setting of Far From the Madding Crowd (it’s the first of his novels to take place in his fictional Wessex) and the character of Gabriel Oak allowed him to approach the situation again from a greater remove. In the novel’s opening scene the young shepherd happens to be standing behind a hedge and in a good position to spy on Bathsheba when her wagon comes to a halt on the road. As the wagon driver disappears to attend to something, Oak watches Bathsheba unwrap a household mirror for no other reason than to admire herself. “She has her faults,” Oak tells a gatekeeper after Bathsheba and her wagon have rolled away. “And the greatest of them is—well, what it always is. . . . Vanity.” Oak is nearly her inverse, thinking least of himself. When his sheep, harassed by an ill-trained dog, plunge over a cliff to their deaths, Oak’s primary concern is Bathsheba: “Thank God I am not married: what would she have done in the poverty now coming upon me!”
Hardy’s courtship of Emma Gifford wasn’t the only aspect of his private life to creep into Far From the Madding Crowd; a few months into the book’s composition, Hardy was shocked to learn that his friend and literary mentor Horace Moule had killed himself at age 41. Moule, the son of an Anglican Evangelical minister, had been a promising scholar and orator when he and Hardy first met more than a decade earlier. “He was born into the educated upper-middle classes; he was cultured, ‘a fine Greek scholar’; he was everything Hardy wanted to be,” explains Pite. But Moule was also a closeted homosexual whose spiritual agony fueled a series of terrible depressions and alcoholic binges. His academic prospects ruined, he was making ends meet as a workhouse inspector when he and Hardy last met, in London in June 1873. Three months later Moule slit his throat.
Shortly after this awful news, Hardy introduced the character of William Boldwood into Far From the Madding Crowd, and as the story progresses, the shy, awkward farmer develops from a figure of fun into one of pity. The mischievous valentine he receives from Bathsheba, inscribed with the words “Marry Me,” awakens strange emotions in him, and after years of turning away marriage-minded young women, he’s crippled by a sudden and insatiable need for love. Boldwood, who owns a large farm adjoining Bathsheba’s, eventually hires Gabriel Oak to manage his property, and Oak, who still nurses his own infatuation with Bathsheba, becomes an unlikely confidante to the lovelorn man. “O, Gabriel, I am weak and foolish, and I don’t know what, and I can’t fend off my miserable grief!” Boldwood confesses after Bathsheba has married the flashy Sergeant Troy. “I had some faint belief in the mercy of God till I lost that woman.” Like Moule, Boldwood will be overwhelmed by despair.
Nearly all of these developments wind up onscreen, but that only goes to show how the most faithful adaptation, by emphasizing some things and deemphasizing others, can spin the story in a different direction. Nicholls has dropped Hardy’s unflattering scene of the heroine admiring herself in a mirror; instead he begins with Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan) saddling her horse for a morning ride as she explains in voice-over, “I’ve grown accustomed to being on my own. Too accustomed, some would say. Too independent.” Various plot twists and minor characters are excised, yet Nicholls dramatizes every incident demonstrating Bathsheba’s pluck and resolve: her forceful takeover of the farm’s management, her spirited haggling with male buyers at the local corn market. The fatuous workman Joseph Poorgrass, a frequent source of comic relief in the novel, barely registers onscreen, but Nicholls has dutifully preserved the moment when he provokes giggles among the hired help by clumsily addressing their new mistress as “sir.”
This celebration of Bathsheba’s independence might play well with contemporary women, but it doesn’t really square with much of the movie, in which Bathsheba’s inexperience as a farmer forces her to rely on Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) again and again. When he first arrives on the farm, a fire has broken out, and only his quick thinking prevents it from reaching the barn; when her sheep break through a fence, gorge themselves on clover, and suffer from bloat, only Oak knows the surgical procedure that will save them; and when Bathsheba’s wedding reception coincides with an approaching storm, only Oak rouses himself to cover up her wheat and barley harvest before it’s destroyed by the rains. Meanwhile Troy (Tom Sturridge), the man of her dreams, is passed out in the reception hall with her workmen, having gotten them all drunk on expensive brandy. In fact Far From the Madding Crowd can be viewed as an epic struggle between an independent woman and the world’s most dependable man.
A stand-in for Hardy, Oak not only rescues Bathsheba multiple times, he also calls her out for her bad behavior, and he demands to be treated with respect despite her superior station. “You are greatly to blame for playing pranks on a man like Mr. Boldwood,” he tells Bathsheba after learning about her flirtatious valentine. This so incenses her that she fires him, and he hits the road with his belongings, only to be summoned back to the farm when the sheep take ill. To his credit, he refuses to return until Bathsheba rides out personally to ask for his help, sending her the message “Beggars can’t be choosers.” Onscreen these episodes play like the sort of Tracy-and-Hepburn jousting that always ends in a rapturous draw, but Hardy didn’t necessarily feel that way. Observing Emma Gifford with another lover, he once noted, “In spite of her orders to him to fetch & carry, of his devotion & her rule, he is in essence master.” From his perspective, Far From the Madding Crowd ends on a happy note only because Bathsheba has learned her place. v