A reader's guide to Far From The Madding Crowd

Updated Wednesday, 1st September 2004
The novel that started a long assocation with Wessex for Thomas Hardy has tragedy, heroism - and some swordplay...

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In 1874 Thomas Hardy’s first Wessex novel brought him great success, both here and in America. The title is from Gray’s ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’:

‘Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool, sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.’

Hardy’s original plan was to focus on a woman farmer, a shepherd and a cavalry sergeant. Bathsheba Everdene is said to be based on Mrs Catherine Hawkins of Waddon, a widow who ran a farm of 525 acres. The author’s impulsive aunt Martha is also thought to have contributed to the heroine’s portrayal. John Brereton Sharpe, Hardy’s favourite uncle, may have been the model for Sergeant Frank Troy. Mrs Hawkins had been assisted by a capable shepherd; in the novel the reliable Gabriel Oak comes to Bathsheba’s aid.

Dorchester Corn Exchange
Dorchester Corn Exchange, featured in the novel as the place where Bathsheba Everdene sells her produce.

After establishing the main characters, Hardy developed the tragic figure of William Boldwood. He may have done so because he was devastated by the suicide of his friend Horace Moule. Boldwood’s psychological make-up is conveyed, with penetrating analysis of his behaviour and personality.

Hardy was very keen that his novel should be illustrated appropriately. It came out in the ‘Cornhill’ magazine, and he purchased a copy at Plymouth station. Delighted with the pictures, he was astonished to learn that the artist was female.

There are some stunning and memorable scenes, including the suffering of the sheep, the dramatic thunderstorm, and the erotic episode where Troy demonstrates his swordplay…

 

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