A List for 2009 – Far From The Madding Crowd

Then there came a third flash. Manoeuvres of a
most extraordinary kind were going on in the vast
firmamental hollows overhead. The lightning now was
the colour of silver, and gleamed in the heavens like a
mailed army. Rumbles became rattles. Gabriel from
his elevated position could see over the landscape at
least half-a-dozen miles in front. Every hedge, bush,
and tree was distinct as in a line engraving. In a
paddock in the same direction was a herd of heifers,
and the forms of these were visible at this moment in
the act of galloping about in the wildest and maddest
confusion, flinging their heels and tails high into the air,
their heads to earth. A poplar in the immediate fore-
ground was like an ink stroke on burnished tin. Then
the picture vanished, leaving the darkness so intense
that Gabriel worked entirely by feeling with his hands.

2009 was the year in which I at last learned to like Thomas Hardy, and Far From The Madding Crowd (and specifically the passage above) was the thing that finally taught me how.  It’s taken me some time to get there, but let me explain why, and the reason I now think he’s so special.

I’m writing this at my parents’ house in Dorchester, where I grew up.  This is also the place where Thomas Hardy lived most of his life (it’s Casterbridge, if you’re looking for it in his novels), and Hardy’s stern, moustachioed countenance turns up everywhere.  I am sitting, for example, in a road named after a place from one of his novels, in an estate where every road is named after a place from one of his novels, next to another estate where every road is named after a character from one of his novels, and near the house he built (which is now a kind of museum dedicated to his living arrangements), which is beside a pub that is named after him.  And so on. 

When I was studying English Lit, I already had a sense of Hardy overkill, but during the course of my school and student days, and by a freak arrangement of syllabuses, I ended up having to study The Mayor of Casterbridge three different occasions.  That was enough Hardy for one lifetime, I thought, but when I ended up living in Oxford I thought it might be fun to read Jude The Obscure, since it’s about somebody moving there from the West Country.  I coped with it for a while, but when I reached the part where Jude’s children do what they do (I don’t want to spoil what happens for you, because it’s near the end, but if you’ve read it you’ll know the bit I mean) I was finding Hardy’s pessimism about human nature unbearable.  So I renewed my disinterest in his novels.

All year long, though, I’ve been reading about the weather, and some interesting things about humanity’s relationship with it down the centuries, and as such I’ve been drawn to writers who concentrate heavily on nature and its effect on people (hence Ted Hughes in the first post of this list).  Hardy’s name always crops up among nature writers, so I thought I might give  him another shot.  I chose Egdon Heath for this purpose, since by all accounts it contains some of Hardy’s best uses of nature.  Then when I got to the bookshop, Egdon Heath was out of stock.  Worried I’d lose my resolve, I chose another book: Far From The Madding Crowd.

I loved it.  When Hardy starts using the landscape as a character,  he really shifts up a gear.  I think the passage above shows that.  He becomes like Ted Hughes, a kind of shaman invoking the natural world and the weather and channelling a sense of these things through words.  I found those powers absent from Jude The Obscure, due I think to its urban setting, and I can’t really give a fair comment on The Mayor Of Casterbridge, but when nature starts pulling strings in Far From The Madding Crowd, the prose lights up so dramatically that it’s well worth the slog through some of the between times.