My Favorite Novel!

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Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy, 1874

I was nervous the night before I started rereading Far from the Madding Crowd. I felt like a vessel unfit to receive Thomas Hardy’s glorious words. I knew I’d soon be sitting at my computer trying to explain why I love this book so much and I felt unworthy of the task. I’ll try anyway. This is my very favorite book; I must attempt to do it justice.

Hardy’s fourth novel has all the wit, wisdom and cynicism of his later great works, but with more drama and less heartrending tragedy. It’s as if you ordered your insightful literary martini with a dry sense of humor, spiked with a soap opera plot, hold the bitter tears, and add a side order of sweet romance.

The plot concerns a proud, independent young maiden who inherits her uncle’s farm and proceeds to wreak havoc in the neighborhood with her beautiful face. Dear Bathsheba Everdene—yes, her last name was lifted for Katniss Everdeen—doesn’t instigate the havoc. Men just see her face and proceed to destroy their own lives. Hardy loves not a love triangle, but a love square. Three men fall for her: humble shepherd Gabriel Oak, staid middle-aged Farmer Boldwood, and dashing young soldier Frank Troy.

I rate these four characters among the best in the canon. Let me tell you why. But first, just go read it and then come back and see if you agree with me. Discover all this wonder on your own.

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Bathsheba Everdene

I love a proud, independent woman. When she discovers her father’s bailiff stealing from her she dismisses him and instead of hiring another man to run the farm, she decides to do it herself. Shocking! She goes to market. She buys grain and sells sheep. She gets up on the ricks with Gabriel in the middle of the night with lightning flashing all around to protect her harvest from the coming rain.

Bathsheba may be vain, but she is not a flirt. I absolutely love this description of her “From the contours of her figure in its upper part she must have had a beautiful neck and shoulders; but since her infancy nobody had ever seen them. Had she been put into a low dress she would have run and thrust her head into a bush. Yet she was not a shy girl by any means; it was merely her instinct to draw the line dividing the seen from the unseen higher than they do it in the towns.” Early in the progress of the tale Gabriel sees her lay back on her horse with her feet on its neck to avoid a low hanging branch. His infatuation for her began there and so did mine. I dare you to read Hardy’s description of this moment and not fall in love with Bathsheba.

Frank Troy

               This handsome soldier is careless with women. Not a novel character, but one so well described by Hardy that he stands out. He has a changeable nature usually reserved for female characters. He fluctuates from rakish to repentant to rascally and back so easily that he’s quite fascinating.

Farmer Boldwood

               This fucking guy. His progress from steady, predictable bachelor to psychopath is gripping and horrifying. The next farm over is a new place to find a villain. This gentleman farmer slowly turns mad. You pity him and then you loathe him, which is the reverse of how we like to handle psychos these days. What’s most chilling about Boldwood is that you recognize him. He’s every man who feels so entitled to a woman that he’ll wheedle and bully her into being with him out of a sense of obligation. It’s repulsive and compelling to read.

Gabriel Oak

               My favorite. The best. I love him. He does none of the nonsense to Bathsheba that Boldwood does, even though he loves her just as well. His kind, gentle devotion to her is my relationship goal. If you’re drawn to The Office, you might be drawn to Gabriel Oak as a romantic figure. After all, long term love is about making each day easier and better for your partner, not about doing creepy dramatic shit like asking the gravedigger who just opened her grave to put her husband in it to walk away for a bit so you can lay down with her corpse. This is a friendly reminder that Heathcliff is a kidnapper and rapist, not a romantic hero. Gabriel Oak is a romantic hero. Because he takes care of his lady’s sheep. That’s useful and kind. I know, I’m old and practical about love, but whatever. Life happens day by day and so does love. I’d happily spend my days with Gabriel. He can tend my flocks anytime.

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The book is not perfect. The middle is not as strong as the beginning and end. Hardy strays a bit long amid his pleasant rural scenery and his pleasant rustics, but he has almost entirely shed the obnoxious condescension of Under the Greenwood Tree. I don’t mind spending some time on Bathsheba’s farm. Any writer who can make shepherding incidents as dramatic and moving as Hardy can deserves acclaim for his depiction of rural life.

There are so many wonderful quotes in this book. You should read the entire novel, but I will provide this longish quote for your enjoyment.

“At last the eighth day came. The cow had ceased to give milk for that year, and Bathsheba Everdene came up the hill no more. Gabriel had reached a pitch of existence he never could have anticipated a short time before. He liked saying “Bathsheba” as a private enjoyment instead of whistling; turned over his taste to black hair, though he had sworn by brown ever since he was a boy, isolated himself till the space he filled in the public eye was contemptibly small. Love is a possible strength in an actual weakness. Marriage transforms a distraction to a support, the power of which should be, and happily often is, in direct proportion to the imbecility it supplants.”

Hardy would later express a far less positive view of marriage.

You might like Far from the Madding Crowd if:

  • you like a rural story
  • you appreciate wit
  • you appreciate writing aesthetically, but are not opposed to a compelling plot

You might not like Far from the Madding Crowd if:

  • you need your romances a bit more torrid

Final Thoughts: It’s the best book. Go read it! It is fun and beautiful. My favorite.

Thomas Hardy is Here. Favorite Author. Happy Day!

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Desperate Remedies, Thomas Hardy, 1871

Tralala. Whoopee. Thomas Hardy!

Today is a good day. I get to introduce you to my favorite author, Thomas Hardy. Imagine me doing back handsprings. I can’t actually do back handsprings, so we will both have to use our imaginations. Also, we have entered a new decade. This is the first post about a book written in the 1870s. Progress. Hurrah!

Because TH is my favorite author, I intend to review every last one of his novels. All seventeen of them. We will also cover much of his poetry and a few collections of short stories. Before we get started, I must mention one feature of his writing. He created an imaginary region in southwest England, called it Wessex, and set most of his novels there. The towns mentioned in his novels are real towns, given new fake names. For example, important events in Desperate Remedies take place in Budmouth, Wessex which is actually Weymouth, Dorset. I’m not exactly sure how this information would be useful to you, dear reader, but if you hear me mention Wessex, you will know that I am referring to Hardy’s fictional county, not to the ancient kingdom. His books are set in the Georgian and Victorian eras, not the Viking Age.

Ok, let’s dive into Desperate Remedies. . . with a spirit of generosity. This is Hardy’s juvenilia, after all. His great works are yet to come. It’s actually Hardy’s second novel, his first one was lost. After The Poor Man and the Lady was rejected by five publishers, he abandoned and later destroyed it. Apparently it was too politically controversial. If I remember correctly, Hardy yearned for commercial success, because he felt that earning money by his writing would win his wife’s respect. He had a rocky marriage. I usually don’t spend much time learning about the lives of authors, because why waste time reading a biography when you could read another novel? However, I intend to listen to an audiobook of a Hardy biography, because he’s my favorite and while I don’t believe that context is necessary to enjoy good art, I also don’t believe that it detracts from understanding or enjoyment.

Anyway, after the ill success of his first novel, Hardy attempted a sensational novel that he hoped would sell. It didn’t and it was not well received by critics either. It is my opinion that those critics were very silly and they almost ruined Thomas Hardy as a writer, which would have been a tragedy. I think Desperate Remedies is quite good. Sure, it doesn’t have the substance of his great later works. Sure, it’s plot driven, but the plot is fabulous. Also, Hardy has the best words. Furthermore, one can see the seeds of his characteristic social criticism. Little seeds that will sprout and grow into giant sequoias of artistic merit. Those seeds are scattered lightly throughout Desperate Remedies, but they are there. There they are. I love them.

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I was going to summarize the plot for those of you who do not have time for the lesser works of great authors, but I decided against it. That’s how much I believe in the merit of this book. It’s not the greatest, but it’s certainly good enough to be worth reading. Instead of the plot, I offer you this list of its merits:

  • Scandalous secrets.
    • so many, so scandalous. I’m talking children out of wedlock. That’s huge in the Victorian era and probably the reason the novel wasn’t received well.
  • A dramatic opening sequence in which the poor, darling heroine witnesses the sudden, accidental death of her father.
  • That heroine is named Cytherea Graye. Because Thomas Hardy is the best at naming characters. Absolute best. Prepare yourself for the character names that will come at you from his other novels.
  • Without their father’s income, Cytherea and her brother, Owen, are forced to make a living for themselves. What? A novel in which the lovely heroine must concern herself with such sordid mundanity as money? Yes. Thomas Hardy actually writes about a woman earning a living. Who else in the English canon thus far draws a wage? Jane Eyre, that’s who. Just Jane and Cytherea as of yet. Oops, and the other Bronte governesses. They wrote about three total governesses. Still a rarity to see a woman earning her way in the world.
  • Cytherea stands up for herself. . .until her brother’s life is on the line, which is the only inducement that makes her go against her own will. To be fair, she’s not a brilliant heroine. She’s quite likable and more self-driven than many others, but she won’t blow you away. This is meant to be a commercial, sensational novel. Such novels require sweet, innocent heroines to be tossed about by fate. Cytherea fits that bill better than I could wish, but I try not to hold it against her too much.
  • A sex worker is portrayed sympathetically in this novel. Yes! 1871. We struggle to do that in 2017. A character shows up who is clever and resourceful with a sordid past. Hardy does not pass judgment. Quite refreshing.
  • A sweet romance that is forestalled by circumstance and the cunning machinations of two opportunistic characters.
  • A mystery so complicated that at one point a man attempts to hide his crime and is followed by not one, not two, but three different people who intend to uncover that crime.
  • Smatterings of insightful prose. Not as dense as in his later novels, but not to be overlooked. For example: “Graye did a thing the blissfulness of which was only eclipsed by its hazardousness. He loved her at first sight.” or “There is in us an unquenchable expectation, which at the gloomiest time persists in inferring that because we are ourselves, there must be a special future in store for us, though our nature and antecedents to the remotest particular have been common to thousands.”
  • The book is meant to be a romance, but Hardy can’t help letting his cynicism about love sneak in. Such as when he eloquently suggests that Cytherea becomes infatuated with Edward Springrove because her life was relatively empty and she had little else to think about. Or when he expresses a lover’s longing thusly “He looked at her as a waiter looks at the change he brings back.”
  • Hardy has a talent for expressing the significance of small moments. That talent is evident in this as well as his later novels. This might be a sensational novel, but it is symbolically rich.
  • A hint of Hardy’s later criticism of gender roles “Of all the ingenious and cruel satires that from the beginning till now have been stuck like knives into womankind, surely there is not one so lacerating to them, and to us who love them, as the trite old fact, that the most wretched of men can, in the twinkling of an eye, find a wife ready to be more wretched for the sake of his company.” That being said, I must admit that Hardy was not as woke when he wrote Desperate Remedies as he was later in life. You will be frustrated when Cytherea demonstrates that she considers herself less important than the men in her life.

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You might like Desperate Remedies if:

  • you like a scandalous, thrilling plot, but you also like good writing

You might not like Desperate Remedies if:

  • your standards are very, very high

Final Thoughts: It’s not the best Thomas Hardy book, but it’s still very good. It contains a number of thrills for people who are thrilled by excellent prose and for those who are thrilled by intrigue and mystery. Let me stop equivocating. I love this book. If you can’t handle Thomas Hardy at his worst, you don’t deserve him at his best.