Thursday, April 14, 2016

Bathsheba Everdene

When we first meet Bathsheba Everdene, she is a spirited country girl, thrilled with the life around her and excited by her own independence. To the amusement of Gabriel Oak, a farmer with sheep and dogs, she takes a looking glass from her bag while waiting for the carter who is taking her to her aunt. The two meet several times and she saves him from suffocation one cold night. But when he asks her, she doesn’t see any reason to marry. She hardly knows him.

Carey Mulligan, Far From the Madding Crowd 2015
Thomas Hardy, in Far From the Madding Crowd, first serialized in Cornhill magazine in 1874, soon endows Bathsheba with an inheritance that sets her apart and makes her more of a personage in the eyes of her small society. She is only 22, but she dismisses her bailiff for thieving and tells her men, “I shall be up before you are awake; I shall be afield before you are up; and I shall have breakfasted before you are afield. In short, I shall astonish you all.” By this time, Gabriel Oak is among them, having lost his sheep. Their circumstances have changed entirely.

When Bathsheba goes to the corn exchange to sell her corn, the farmers are surprised by her. But one rich neighbor, Mr. Boldwood, ignores her. This piques Bathsheba’s interest. With one of her maids, she playfully sends him a valentine, which she soon regrets. Bathsheba is “a woman with some good sense in reasoning on subjects wherein her heart was not involved,” says Hardy. She values Gabriel Oak’s opinion most, and when she asks him what he thinks of this prank, he tells her honestly. She dismisses him, but when her sheep get into the clover and are about to die of bloat, she is told Gabriel is the only one who can save them. She begs him to come back and he does.

Gabriel no longer expects to marry Bathsheba. Hardy says, “Oak meditatively looked upon the horizon of circumstances without any special regard to his own standpoint in the midst.” When he supervises the shearing, Bathsheba watches. “That his bright lady and himself formed one group, exclusively their own, and containing no others in the world, was enough” for him. He allows himself to be displaced by Boldwood at the shearing supper. Both he and Boldwood are horrified however, when Bathsheba succumbs to the flattery of a young soldier, Frank Troy. Boldwood threatens Troy and Bathsheba goes to the town where his regiment is to break off with him, ending up marrying him instead.

Both Boldwood and Gabriel Oak are aware that Troy meant to marry a young woman named Fanny Robin, who was a maid on Bathsheba’s farm. As the husband of Bathsheba, Troy squanders her money on racing and gets the farmhands drunk at a harvest supper. It is a stormy night and Gabriel Oak is left to try to cover the ricks full of grain. Bathsheba comes out to help him. “Thank you for your devotion a thousand times, Gabriel! Good night – I know you are doing your very best for me.”

When Fanny Robin dies, her coffin is brought to Bathsheba’s farm. Wondering about the stories she has heard, Bathsheba opens it and sees inside the baby that died with her. Troy comes home and finds her, telling Bathsheba that this dead woman is more to him than she will ever be. Troy spends his last money on a large tombstone for Fanny and jumps into the sea. His clothes are found on the shore and everyone assumes he has drowned.

A year later, Boldwood hopes that Bathsheba will again look in his direction and begs her to promise that she will marry him in six years, when Troy is declared dead. But Troy is not dead. He returns the night that Boldwood gives a Christmas party, hoping for Bathsheba’s positive answer. Troy grabs for Bathsheba’s hand, she screams and Boldwood shoots him. Bathsheba buries Troy next to Fanny Robin. Boldwood goes straight to the police, but he is not to be hanged as his neighbors point out his insanity. He will serve a prison sentence “at the Queen’s pleasure.”

At last free of any constraint, Bathsheba notices that Gabriel Oak, who now possesses part of Boldwood’s farm, shuns her. In fact, he tells her he is planning to leave for California. When she asks why, he says it is to protect her good name, as people are beginning to talk about them. In the end they agree together. “Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality.” They marry in the “most private, secret, plainest” wedding.

I love Thomas Hardy. No other writer describes country life so masterfully. In spring he says, “the vegetable world begins to move and swell and the saps to rise, till in the completest silence of lone gardens and trackless plantations, where everything seems helpless and still after the bond and slavery of frost, there are bustlings, strainings, united thrusts, and pulls-all-together, in comparison with which the powerful tugs of cranes and pulleys in a noisy city are but pigmy efforts.” Amen to that! He also provides a thick panorama of country life and a Greek chorus of people to comment on the action.

Most Hardy heroines end up victims of fate or their own passions, or of cruel society. Bathsheba Everdene is a vain beauty, skittish, practical, and impulsive. She makes mistakes, but redeems herself by her steadfast trust in and friendship for Gabriel Oak, who loves her beyond all contrariness. In this story, Margaret Drabble says, Hardy found a way of displaying “the sense of tragic and cosmic grandeur that was to distinguish his mature work.” To my mind Bathsheba is delightfully embodied by Carey Mulligan in the Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s 2015 screen adaptation.