Nota bene: I find it impossible to talk about classics and avoid all spoilers, so a word of warning in advance.
Written in 1874 and set in the 1840s (before the end of the 19th century brought irrevocable change to agriculture in England), Far From the Madding Crowd is the novel that launched Hardy into prominence in England, and it is also the first of his Wessex novels. Hardy pulled an ancient regional name, Wessex, into his novels to represent the partly real, partly imagined region in southwest England.
The novel is firmly set in the English pastoral tradition, coming down through Shakespeare. The story revolves around the cyclical life in the farm community of Weatherbury. The title is taken from Thomas Gray’s poem, “Elegy written 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.
Within that pastoral tradition, the shepherd is crucial, of course, and the character here that binds the community together is Gabriel Oak. At the beginning of the novel, he is starting out as a farmer and is heavily in debt for his livestock. He meets Bathsheba Everdene and immediately falls for her and proposes marriage. But he recognizes that she is vain, and her youth, inexperience, and vanity leave her cold to Gabriel’s proposal, believing that she can do better.
Bathsheba inherits a family farm in Weatherbury at about the same time Gabriel has a catastrophe and loses his entire flock. He has to sell all his property to repay his debts and is forced to offer his services as a shepherd or a bailiff, any work will do.
Partly by chance, partly by unconscious desire to be near Bathsheba, Gabriel ends up in Weatherbury and is hired by Bathsheba as shepherd for her newly inherited farm after he chances across a fire on her property and through quick thinking and action, saves most of her grain.
Bathsheba calls attention to herself by accident when she plays a foolish joke, sending a Valentine’s letter to her neighbor, William Boldwood. A middle-aged farmer and a confirmed bachelor, Boldwood hasn’t even noticed Bathsheba’s presence in the village and it tweaks her pride slightly. But after receiving the letter, Boldwood grows infatuated with Bathsheba and in short order is pressing her somewhat aggressively to marry him.
She is all but resigned to accept his proposal when she meets, by accident, Sergeant Francis Troy. His bright energy, military bearing, and flattery turn Bathsheba’s head, and she forgets all about Boldwood. (She’s already forgotten Gabriel Oak as anything other than a very good servant.)
You can guess where it’s going, I imagine. When anyone in the pastoral tradition is drawn away from the cares and concerns of the farm, tragedy ensues. And I’ll leave you to read the glorious complications for yourself.
It’s easy to see Hardy’s later novels, like Tess, in this earlier book. The themes of the struggles of women for independence, the betrayal of trust, the bucolic nature of the agricultural world, fate vs. free will vs. chance, are all at play here as in his later books. But in this one, at least, the vision isn’t completely bleak. This is still ultimately a comedy after all of the tragedy, with the easy to predict and hoped-for resolution in the end. His later books don’t give us the innocence of this one. Bleakness begets more bleakness in Hardy’s more mature novels.
If you’re just starting with Hardy, this might be the one to begin with, and it will take you a little time to grow comfortable with his dense prose, the luscious descriptions of Wessex, and the rural characters’ dialect. It’s worth it and it will get you ready for his later works without crushing your soul right from the outset. But do work your way to his other masterpieces, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Jude the Obscure. They’re dark, to be sure, and it’s a glorious darkness.