I have been writing this post since November, so please forgive me if it doesn’t flow as well as it could in places!!
Thomas Hardy. It’s a name which is synonymous with tedium in my house. My mum was forced to read his books when at school and if it would be an exaggeration to say she’s bitter about it, she’s not exactly his greatest fan. Further to this we have a game at home called Echelon in which you’re given two minutes to memorise a passage from a classic book and then answer questions on it. It’s a great game and is part of the reason I was keen to read Diary of a Nobody and The Picture of Dorian Gray but the Hardy passages are usually considered an unlucky draw.
So as you can imagine I wasn’t looking forward to the two Hardy entries on The List.
Anyway The Book Depository recently had a sale on their bargain bin books and I took advantage of this to get both Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the two Hardy novels that are apparently must reads. And I’ll be honest, the naff covers that arrived through my letterbox didn’t fill me with enthusiasm.
I’m reviewing them together because at high school I was taught the value of the “compare and contrast” essay and I don’t want to be accused of forgetting my schooling.
And how wrong she was; I loved it! I’ll admit the first chapter had me rolling my eyes at the vacuous female lolling in a carriage checking her makeup while issuing orders but that was the only appearance she really made and didn’t seem to bear any relation to the Bathsheba of the rest of the book.
There’s a tendency in Victorian literature to portray women as very one-dimensional characters who sit around drinking tea and sighing over men but this isn’t the case in FftMC. Instead Bathsheba inherits a farm from her uncle and rather than selling it or employing a man to run it for her, she takes the reins herself and gets involved straight away. Yes she does employ men to till the fields and tend the sheep but so did all the farmers at that time and the actual running of the farm and trading at market is done by her despite the opposition of everyone else concerned. Is that an excellent example of girl power coming from a male writer or what?
Now it is true that amid all this feminism Bathsheba commits one stupid, ‘girlish’ act which haunts her throughout the rest of the book and does a fair bit to undermine her credibility. This is unfortunate and as it was happening I felt that it didn’t quite ring true for her character but it happens amid coercion and peer pressure and doesn’t that happen to us all? I have to say that the book tailed off somewhat after that, form a powerful start I felt it struggled a bit in the middle with some havering from Bathsheba that I found a little trying but then it regained some of its former strength and built to a gripping conclusion that I definitely didn’t see coming.
So that was book 1. Book 2 was Tess of the D’Urbervilles which I knew slightly more about. There was a BBC adaptation a few years ago and I watched enough of it to know that Tess doesn’t have a happy life but without knowing all the details. There was a disclaimer in the front of my copy warning any “genteel reader” that they may be offended by what they are about to read which had me intrigued and it wasn’t long before I found out what he meant.
Tess, a young girl from a poor family, experiences almost all the misery anyone can expect from life. Once Hardy’s hit her the first time he just can’t seem to stop. It doesn’t matter how far she runs or how hard she works to put everything behind her, she just keeps getting knocked back down again and it seems rather excessive.
But Tess displays as much (actually more) strength as Bathsheba in that she just doesn’t give up. Despite experiencing all the worst things that could ever happen to a woman, she just picks herself up and moves on. It’s really refreshing when you consider how many books there are about people (frequently but not always women) moping about and working themselves into a frenzy over the slightest little thing.
The two books couldn’t be more different in tone – FftMC is quite lighthearted most of the time, there’s a fair amount of nights in the pub, parties and girlish giggling and it could hardly be described as hard-going. Tess on the other hand is a slog. It makes for very grim reading, even in the brief periods where everything is ok, Tess herself is so worn down by misery and the fear of discovery that the tone is never as light as in FftMC.
I personally enjoyed them both, I think it as a good thing that they were so different as I read them very close together and that can ruin an author but wasn’t the case here. As I’ve already said I was impressed with Hardy’s writing and the ballsiness of his heroines which is so unlike many of my other experiences of Victorian literature. Especially coming from a male writer, and one with a very impressive moustache at that!