History: Published in 1874, it is Thomas Hardy's fourth novel and his first major literary success. It originally appeared, anonymously, as a monthly serial in Cornhill Magazine, where it gained a wide readership; critical notices, too, were plentiful and mostly positive.
Plot: Gabriel Oak is an up-and-coming shepherd in the prime of life at twenty-eight years of age. With the savings of a frugal life, he has leased and stocked a sheep-farm. He falls in love with a newcomer eight years his junior, Bathsheba Everdene, a proud and somewhat vain young beauty who arrives to live with her aunt, Mrs. Hurst. She comes to like him well enough, and even saves his life once, but when he makes her an unadorned offer of marriage, she refuses; she values her independence too much and him too little. Gabriel's blunt protestations only serve to drive her to haughtiness. After a few months, she moves to Weatherbury, a village some miles off.
When next they meet, their circumstances have changed drastically. An inexperienced new sheepdog drives Gabriel's flock over a cliff, ruining him. After selling off everything of value, he manages to settle all his debts, but emerges penniless. He seeks employment at a work fair in the town of Casterbridge (a fictionalised version of Dorchester). When he finds none, he heads to another fair in Shottsford, a town about ten miles from Weatherbury.
On the way, he happens upon a dangerous fire on a farm and leads the bystanders in putting it out. When the veiled owner comes to thank him, he asks if she needs a shepherd. She uncovers her face and reveals herself to be none other than Bathsheba Everdene. She has very recently inherited the considerable estate of her uncle and is now a wealthy woman. Though somewhat uncomfortable with the situation, she hires him.
Meanwhile, Bathsheba has a new admirer; the lonely and repressed William Boldwood. Boldwood is a prosperous farmer of about forty whose ardour Bathsheba unwittingly awakens when – her curiosity piqued because he has never bestowed on her the customary admiring glance – she playfully sends him a valentine sealed with red wax on which she has embossed the words "Marry me". Boldwood, not realizing the valentine was a jest, becomes obsessed with Bathsheba, and soon proposes marriage. Although she does not love him, she toys with the idea of accepting his offer; he is, after all, the most eligible bachelor in the district. However, she postpones giving him a definite answer. When Gabriel rebukes her for her thoughtlessness, she fires him.
Then her sheep begin dying from bloat. She discovers to her chagrin that Gabriel is the only man who knows how to cure them. Her pride delays the inevitable, but finally she is forced to beg him for help. Afterwards, she offers him back his job and their friendship is restored.
At this point, the dashing Sergeant Francis (Frank) Troy returns to his native Weatherbury and by chance encounters Bathsheba one night. Her initial dislike turns to infatuation after he excites her with a private display of expert swordsmanship. Gabriel observes Bathsheba's interest in the young soldier and tries to discourage it, telling her she would be better off marrying Boldwood. Totally smitten, however, she elopes to Bath with Troy. Upon their return, Boldwood offers his rival a large bribe to give up Bathsheba. Troy pretends to consider the offer, then scornfully announces that they are already married. Boldwood withdraws, humiliated and vowing revenge.
Bathsheba soon discovers that her new husband is an improvident gambler with little interest in farming. Worse, she begins to suspect that he does not love her. In fact, Troy's heart belongs to her former servant, Fanny Robin. Before meeting Bathsheba, Troy had promised to marry Fanny; on the wedding day, however, the luckless girl goes to the wrong church. She explains her mistake, but Troy, humiliated at being left waiting at the altar, angrily calls off the wedding. When they part, unbeknownst to Troy, Fanny is pregnant with his child.
Some months afterward, Troy and Bathsheba encounter Fanny on the road, destitute, as she painfully makes her way toward the Casterbridge workhouse. Troy sends his wife onward with the horse and gig before she can recognise the girl, then gives her all the money in his pocket, telling her he will give her more in a few days. Fanny uses up the last of her strength to reach her destination. A few hours later, she dies in childbirth, along with the baby. Mother and child are then placed in a coffin and sent home to Weatherbury for interment. Gabriel, who has long known of Troy's relationship with Fanny, tries to conceal the child's existence - but Bathsheba, guessing the truth, and wild with jealousy, arranges for the coffin to be left in her house overnight. When all the servants are in bed, she unscrews the lid and sees the two bodies inside – her husband's former lover and their child.
Troy then comes home from Casterbridge, where he had gone to keep his appointment with Fanny. Seeing the reason for her failure to meet him, he gently kisses the corpse and tells the anguished Bathsheba, "This woman is more to me, dead as she is, than ever you were, or are, or can be." The next day, he spends all his money on a white marble tombstone with the inscription "Erected by Francis Troy in beloved memory of Fanny Robin..." Then, loathing himself and unable to bear Bathsheba's company, he leaves. After a long walk to the coast, he bathes in the sea to refresh himself, leaving his clothes on the beach. A strong current carries him away.
A year later, with Troy presumed drowned, Boldwood renews his suit. Burdened with guilt over the pain she has caused him, Bathsheba reluctantly consents to marry him in six months time, as long as Troy has not returned.
Troy, however, is not dead. When he learns that Boldwood is again courting Bathsheba, he returns to Weatherbury on Christmas Eve to claim his wife. He goes to Boldwood's house, where a party is underway, and orders Bathsheba to come with him; when she shrinks back, he seizes her arm, and she screams. At this, Boldwood shoots Troy dead with an 870 shotgun and tries unsuccessfully to turn the shotgun on himself. Although he is condemned to hang for murder, his friends petition the Home Secretary for mercy, citing insanity. This is granted and Boldwood's sentence is changed to "confinement at Her Majesty's Pleasure". Bathsheba, profoundly chastened by guilt and grief, buries her husband in the same grave as Fanny Robin and their child, and adds a suitable inscription to the marker.
Throughout her tribulations, she comes to rely more and more on her oldest and (as she admits to herself) only real friend, Gabriel. When he gives notice that he is leaving her employ, she finally realises how important he has become to her well-being. One night, she goes alone to visit him in his house, to find out why he is (in her eyes) deserting her. Pressed, he reluctantly reveals that it is because people have been injuring her good name by gossiping that he wants to marry her. She exclaims that it is "...too absurd - too soon - to think of, by far!" He bitterly agrees that it is absurd, but when she corrects him, saying that it is only "too soon", he is emboldened to ask once again for her hand in marriage. She accepts, and the two are quietly wed.
Review: I delight in Hardy’s vivid descriptions. Forget the infamous "love triangle". In Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy introduces us to the precarious "love square". Bathsheba is the ultimate opposite of Gabriel. She is capricious, while he seems ploddingly methodical. She is wildly emotional and whimsical, whereas Gabriel is even-mannered and stable.
Hardy's pacing perfectly suits the temperament of Gabriel. Everything happens in its own due time and only for good reason, until a dramatic course of events finally results in the union of Gabriel and Bathsheba as equals.
Opening Line: When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.
Closing Line: “But since ’tis as ’tis, why, it might have been worse, and I feel my thanks accordingly.”
Quotes: “There is no regular path for getting out of love as there is for getting in. Some people look upon marriage as a short cut that way, but it has been known to fail.”
Rating: very good