Far From the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy
Hardy’s novel of romantic entanglements and farming rural life, set in fictional nineteenth-century county Wessex, is the perfect book for a winter read. This tale of Bathsheba Everdene and Gabriel Oak, first published in 1874, takes its time, and let’s the reader settle into time and place. That said, Bathsheba Everdene is in fact a woman out of her time, who even before she finds herself in a station of authority and wealth, is prone to saying things like, “Well, what I mean is that I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding, if I could be one without having a husband.”
Gabriel Oak is a somber and sincere foil to Bathsheba. A wandering salt-of-the-earth young man. He meets Bathsheba when his prospects appear good, but like in so many of Hardy’s novels, bad luck as much as bad timing separates those meant for each other, and soon, a series of tests is the means for coming together, or not.
Personal, financial and moral ruin tends to divide Hardy’s characters, and so it goes with Gabriel and Bathsheba. When a flock of sheep Gabriel is tending is accidentally driven over a cliff, he is instantly ruined. When next they meet, he is the wandering hero who appears suddenly to help put out a farm fire. Wen the veiled landowner comes to thank him, who is of course Bathsheba, Hardy skillfully calibrates the coming events to portray the differences between what we might call authentic love and the varieties of infatuation and obligatory feeling that can get in the way.
Sergeant Francis Troy is but one distraction Bathsheba encounters, a means for Hardy to expound on the kind of relationship that is, well, interesting in the moment, but clearly not meant for the long term:
Bathsheba loved Troy in the way that only self-reliant women love when they abandon their self-reliance. When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength she is worse than a weak woman who has never any strength to throw away. One source of her inadequacy is the novelty of the occasion. She has never had practice in making the best of such a condition. Weakness is doubly weak by being new.
As much as the novel is about the meeting and parting and meeting again of its principles, Far From the Madding Crowd is about love, and what constitutes attraction, the push and pull of desire and the traits that attract or repel:
We learn that it is not the rays which bodies absorb, but those which they reject, that give them the colours they are known by; and in the same way people are specialized by their dislikes and antagonisms, whilst their goodwill is looked upon as no attribute at all.
Entanglements, missed signals, misinterpretations, and tragic separations are classic Hardy themes, and are as much a part of this portrayal as the marking of the seasons, the near-spirituality of the natural world, and the pre-Industrialism world of mowing hay and shepherding and harvest. A nineteenth century novel of rural life might not be on your list of winter reads, but this one will serve as a classic escape.