How Far From The Madding Crowd?

This weekend, as my friends and I enjoyed the delights of a West Country agricultural show, the question naturally came up: if you were a Hardy character who would you be? As I strode past fine specimens of Dexter cattle and ribbon-festooned heavy horses I pondered the question. The key thing, of course, is to avoid drowning in a millpond or being executed for murder. I have always wished I could be a Bathsheba type: haughty, independent, and devastatingly beautiful. Yet while I sometimes look unfortunately haughty (usually the effect of stomach ache) devastatingly beautiful I am not: not one single strapping farmer at the agricultural fayre declared his or her undying love for me, and the sheep shearing demonstrators were totally undistracted by my alluring presence! No: I have long since reconciled with the fact that I am – naturally - a Thomasin (The Return of the Native). Who wants to devastate people anyway! As a Thomasin, I mean in name rather than in spirit, with a love of the West Country landscape, I have always been a Hardy fan, and so, as soon as the film hit the cinemas, I rushed to the cinema to see Thomas Vinterberg’s Far From the Madding Crowd. Knowing that the film would contain scenes of sheep death, my friend and I stocked up on pick’n’mix (including jelly snakes in honour of Mrs Yeobright) in case comfort eating was called for, and settled down on the front row. Carey Mulligan was delightful and witty as Bathseba Everdene and she had me captivated from beginning to end. Unfortunately, Sergeant Troy did nothing for me - he was no Terence Stamp – although Tom Sturridge is a formidable actor, but the books were balanced by Matthias Schoenaerts’ Gabriel Oak, who was just far too ruggedly good-looking by half. The moment when a bare-chested Oak took Bathsheba in his arms to show her how to sharpen sheep-shears made me choke on a jelly snake. Oh, OK, he wasn’t bare-chested; that was just my imagination. Oops.

How far from Hardy's novel was this film? While a film can never capture all that a novel has to offer, this adaptation caught many of the impressions the book had given me as a reader: the beauty of the countryside; the details of the rural way of life; the sexiness of various episodes (such as Troy’s sword demonstration: even a prudish tween with no awareness of phallic imagery, as I was when I first read FFtMC, can spot that Bathsheba imagining she has been impaled by Troy’s whirling sword is something to do with S.E.X.), and lastly an overall awareness that you will never meet a man as good as Gabriel Oak. Although the film will always miss out someone’s best-loved moment, a film also has the opportunity to tweak the unpleasant parts of a book. Mulligan’s Bathsheba was beautiful and impetuous, but she was also capable and clever. There was no doubt that, despite the hindrance of an impossibly small waist, Bathsheba was running that damn farm! In the book however, it is clear that although Bathsheba refuses to employ Oak as baily, he is running the farm nonetheless, and she is a delusional WOMAN. I enjoyed this shift the film had made from the original, as it made Bathsheba easier to identify with. Bathsheba’s emotional journeys were illustrated, for the purposes of the film, by physical journeys. Instead of writing a note begging Oak not to “desert” her, she rides after him looking beautiful on a horse to say so herself, breathlessly, and in person. After all his waiting and shielding, flighty Bathsheba finally meets Gabriel halfway and the cinema let out a collective sigh. It was a lovely film.

Later that night, from a fitful, pick’n’mix sugar-induced slumber I awoke with a start. With a clarity only possible through excessive consumption of fizzy cola bottles, I realised that Far From The Madding Crowd is just a very long and rural version of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, with added attention to traditional agricultural methods and traditions. However charming or exciting the idea of the proud woman is, she must be taught the proper order of things by the end of the play (or in Hardy’s case, the novel). Even Much Ado’s Beatrice eventually resolves that “taming [her] wild heart to [Benedict’s] loving hand” is the only way forward. Katherine, in The Taming of the Shrew is taught the absurdity of her shrewish actions by Petruchio’s forcing her to agree that night is day. As an audience, we learn that the idea that night is day is no more absurd than a daughter or wife to choose to be disobedient to her husband or father, or for a woman to reject her natural role as subordinate to men. The play asserts that it is the natural order of things for the woman to wish to be married, and when she is so, to obey her husband. Petruchio merely teaches Katherine the appropriate way to behave; as a man, he is “born to tame [her]”.The hero of this play decides, without reference to Katherine, that he is going to marry her (“will you, nill you, I will marry you”), many readers and playgoers find this outrageous, as they see him persist in his mission despite the fact that the project in no way appeals to her. Isn’t this is exactly what the heartthrob farmer Oak does too? Almost as soon as he has met her he turns up at her house with a lamb and expects her to marry him – the cheek of it! And the rest of book is proof that she was foolish, proud, and headstrong to turn him down.

While the story of the steadfastly loving Gabriel Oak may bring a sigh to the lips of readers, and now cinema goers, I’m not wholly sure I can allow one to escape from mine. Bathsheba, on declining Gabriel’s offer of marriage claims that if you should marry, it would have to be someone who could tame her, something she believes Gabriel could never do. Yet (as if she were a flighty horse), through patience, he does tame her. Not only does he patiently wait, showing kindness and loyalty, he also takes every opportunity to teach this shrew how she should behave. When Bathsheba’s sheep are dying of bloat, she sends for Gabriel (the only man in the county who can save them). He sends the messenger back informing her that he will only come if she asks nicely. In the film this lesson in manners is accentuated by Gabriel’s demand that she must come and ask her himself, so she jumps onto horse and off she goes (there is a lot of passionate horse riding in this film). In fact, Bathsheba must become bendable to Oak’s will before they can end up together. Luckily, through a series of extreme emotional traumas, such as Troy’s double death, the discovery of Fanny Robin’s child, and Mr Boldwood’s sudden, stalkerish lunacy, Bathsheba’s spirit is broken and she begs Oak to stay and to marry her. While Oak’s taming and teaching techniques may seem much milder than Petruchio’s, Hardy’s plot provides plenty of cruelty.

So, in conclusion, if I were a Hardy character, who would I be? Well, none of the women, that’s for sure. Most of the men end up pretty badly too. Even the sheep have a pretty bad time of it. Perhaps I would be the snake that bit Mrs Yeobright. To be honest, it’s the only way forward.


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