31 July 2012
These chapters are really only the beginning, as Hardy sets up the scenario for the rest of the novel. He does this notably through a very Hardyesque reversal of fortunes, which he achieves through a series of mishaps and coincidences. Once, and once only – I’ve checked – he prepares the reader for one of these: ‘By one of those whimsical coincidences in which Nature, like a busy mother, seems to spare a moment from her unremitting labours to turn and make her children smile, the girl now dropped the cloak…’ and Gabriel Oak recognises the proud, vain young woman he will soon know as Bathsheba Everdene and fall in love with. This is early on, in Chapter 2. After this Hardy lets each of the chance encounters and accidents simply happen, and we have to take it or leave it. We take it, because we’re interested.
The things that make it interesting, for me at any rate, are the playing out of archetypal 19th Century rom-com elements – I’ll come back to them in a minute – in a rural setting that is depicted as roundly and carefully as the characters. Hardy’s characters are always figures in a landscape – there’s a book of essays on Hardy with a title based on that very phrase – and if we don’t understand the landscape we don’t understand the characters. Hardy was 22 when he left Dorset to live in London, and his nostalgia – which, somehow, isn’t a strong enough word – chimes with the growing feeling amongst the Victorian urban middle classes that there are aspects of England which are lost if we are entirely focused on the city. This is one of Hardy’s early novels, published in 1874, but it was written when the countryside was already coming to be seen both as a retreat from the city and the wellspring of true Englishness. E M Forster made this a major theme in Howards End decades later, in 1910. And, lest we forget, so did Danny Boyle in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games: move from your rural idyll and you find yourself in Pandemonium.
Hardy doesn’t highlight a contrast between urban and rural. The nearest he comes to it is in his description in Chapter 1 of how Gabriel Oak dresses. On Sunday, when he is away from the land, he looks and feels distinctly uncomfortable. In his weekday clothes, on his farm or on his way there, he seems ‘always to have been dressed in that way’. Gabriel Oak – and his surname gives it away – is straight out of the land. His sheep farm, we discover in Chapter 1, is on Norcombe Hill, ‘a shape approaching the indestructible as nearly as any to be found on earth… which may remain undisturbed on some great day of confusion, when far grander heights and dizzy granite precipices topple down.’ This isn’t just mise-en-scene. It’s as clear a description of Oak himself as anything more direct that Hardy has attempted earlier in the chapter.
When the action begins, he is in a shepherd’s hut on the hill, tending the lambing ewes he won’t trust to anyone less experienced than he is. He has a watch, but Hardy lets us know, now and often throughout these first chapters, that he really tells the time by the sun and stars. Details of the positions of Orion, Cassiopeia and the rest are as familiar to Oak as landmarks in the city that you or I might use to guide us. This man isn’t just rural England. He’s the earth.
The hill, his domain, is where the rom-com begins. Bathsheba – neither we nor Oak discover her name until three chapters later – is introduced by way of the ‘ornamental spring waggon, painted yellow and gaily marked’ that she rides in. This is less than half a page after Hardy has told us, for the first time, that Oak is ‘28, and a bachelor’ – and despite this only being Chapter 1, and there being 56 chapters to go before the end, we know where it will have to go. (Don’t we?) She is apparently aloof, despite not having money – he pays a disputed twopence – and he is unimpressed by a failing which, as he speaks it to himself, becomes the final word of the chapter: ‘Vanity.’
We aren’t surprised that by Chapter 4 he’s proposing to her – and that she refuses. He is too clownishly stolid – his wooing is comically inept – and she is frank in admitting that she doesn’t love him. Besides, she says, she is too ‘independent’ – her aunt has described her as wild – and she tells him he isn’t the man to tame her. My goodness.
But it has taken as much effort on Hardy’s part as Oak’s to reach this crisis. After the unpromising first meeting Oak sees an unfamiliar light on the hill. It comes from a shed in which two women, an older and a younger, nurse a sick cow. We aren’t surprised that the younger one, through that ‘whimsical’ coincidence, is revealed to be the woman with the vain habits. A day or two later he sees her again, and sees the ‘independence’ that is confirmed later as she stretches out, lying back on her pony to negotiate some low branches. He has started to look out for her as she has to return to the shed each day….
A mismatch of personality-type isn’t the only complication. Oak is making his way as a farmer having borrowed enough to buy his own flock. He will soon be well off – whereas she, despite her far wider education and accomplishments, has no money. (There is more of the comedy of embarrassment when he answers her question frankly about what kind of woman he had been looking for – one with enough money to allow him to expand the business.) It can be no accident – Hardy doesn’t do accidental – that their first encounter involved money, however trifling the amount. Of course, she is just using the difference in their prospects as an excuse – Oak knows her uncle is a ‘a large farmer’ in Weatherbury, the village many miles away where she lives – but Hardy has alerted us to one of the perennial obstacles to happiness in novels.
And he hasn’t finished yet. Bathsheba leaves the district, having only been visiting her aunt, and moves back to Weatherbury. (Hardy has mentioned the name twice to make sure we remember it.) And, for some weeks, Oak gets on with his life. The end – except this is a Hardy novel, and Hardy likes nothing more than having the cruel hand of fate move the action on. We’ve met Oak’s two dogs, one of which is enthusiastic but inexperienced. What harm could there be in leaving the animal out on the field finishing off some meat? Cue the disaster: the dog rounds up all the sheep but the few behind Oak’s hurdle fence, panics them into breaking a poorly maintained hedge, and drives them over a cliff. (I’m not making this up.) Oak has no insurance – and paying back what he owes cleans him out. All he has now are the clothes he stands in.
What we need are some more outlandish coincidences. Oak, having found no work as a bailiff, spends his last few coins on a shepherd’s smock and crook. This is in Casterbridge, some miles away, where he hears of possible work beyond the village of – guess. On the way he sees a strange light – a loosely-made rick of straw is on fire. He is forthright and capable in ensuring that the fire doesn’t spread to the ricks of wheat that must represent the farm’s whole crop. Can you guess who owns it all? Of course you can, because there’s already been a big clue in the conversation between the men driving the wagon that Oak has accidentally stowed away on: ‘Yes—she’s very vain. ‘Tis said that every night at going to bed she looks in the glass to put on her night-cap properly.’ It was seeing her looking into a mirror that first convinced Oak of Bathsheba’s vanity, so it isn’t surprising to discover that, following the untimely death of her uncle, she is the mistress of the farm.
The meeting between them, at which she tells him she’ll hire him as a shepherd, is mortifying for him. For her it’s very different. For the first time, Hardy lets us inside her consciousness rather than simply showing her character through what she says and does. It isn’t pretty. Hardy’s only motive for presenting the insight like this must be to demonstrate how far she has to go before being a fit partner for any man – before being a fit human being by any definition: ‘there was room for a little pity, also for a very little exultation: the former at his position, the latter at her own. Embarrassed she was not.’ She’s a bucolic version of Jane Austen’s Emma, who had 56 chapters to get it right. Bathsheba has 57.
There’s plenty I’ve missed. Bathsheba saving Oak’s life as he implausibly falls asleep before opening the smoke-vents in his hut. Hardy’s extraordinary way of incorporating intimate, tactile details into the action. The physicality and practicality of every aspect of Oak’s working life. And, after having spoken to Bathsheba about being hired as a shepherd… the girl Oak meets with the ‘bundle’ at her feet as he makes his way to a lodging-house, the one who wants to keep her departure from the village a secret. Who she? What’s the bundle? Is she pregnant? Where…? Etc.
Does it settle down at all? A bit. But Hardy has the two other main characters to introduce – I know they are, because I read the novel, some decades ago – and the coincidences just keep on coming.
The girl Oak has met at the end of Chapter 7 turns out to be a servant of Bathsheba’s, one Fanny Robin, and there’s a general search for her. She’s gone after a soldier, soon to depart from the area – and we find out more later. Meanwhile, Oak is making his mark in the village. He is already highly regarded after his exploits at the rick fire, and there’s more: he plays the flute, his reputation for elegant sign-writing and telling the time by the stars has gone before him – and, of course, he proves to be the archetypal good shepherd. Is he the most idealised character in fiction? Whether he is or not, he isn’t to be bailiff. The old one, briefly met and a nasty piece of work, is caught stealing within hours of Oak’s arrival – there’s more to be said about the breakneck pace of events in this novel, maybe later – and Bathsheba is going to manage her affairs without one. (In a later chapter Oak threatens with violence any man who dares to make negative predictions about her ability to do so.)
Time for a new character, a man whose Christian name is never given. Boldwood is briefly glimpsed – Bathsheba is in a mess after sorting through things in the farmhouse, a big old former manor-house that is now her home, and can’t see him – as he comes asking after Fanny. She was once his protégée: her role, among other things, seems to be to make links between the important characters. It’s through her that we first meet the fourth and last: we witness, almost as secret observers, the unsatisfactory conversation between her and Sergeant Troy. She has followed him to his barracks so that they can be married, as he’d promised. He is astonished, for reasons the reader understands but, typically, Fanny doesn’t. She reminds him: ‘You said I was to come.’ His reply is lame. ‘Well – I said that you might.’ Later still she sends a letter to Oak returning the shilling she lent him and telling him not to be surprised when she returns to Weatherbury to marry. Hah.
We keep getting only glimpses of Boldwood. He’s an emotionally bottled-up, puritanical farmer of about 40, striking-looking but, apparently, entirely self-contained. Liddy, Bathsheba’s maid, has told her that however many women have set their caps at him they have got nowhere: ‘he cost Farmer Ives’s daughter nights of tears and twenty pounds’ worth of new clothes.’ At the corn exchange, where Bathsheba causes a stir by being the first woman ever to trade there, he is the only one to ignore her. As his carriage passes hers on the way home… nothing. She is piqued… and we get one of those character/plot manoeuvres Hardy goes in for to bring on the next crisis. It happens through a combination of Bathsheba’s emotional shallowness, Boldwood’s equal and opposite seriousness and, inevitably, some unhappy coincidences.
It’s close to Valentine’s Day, and Bathsheba has bought a kind of greetings letter to send to a little boy she knows. Liddy, rather a forward girl for a maid, asks her who she would really like to send it to, slips the name of Boldwood into the conversation – and one thing leads to another. Not only does Bathsheba address the anonymous letter to Boldwood, she closes it – not quite intentionally, this being a Hardy novel – with a seal inscribed ‘Marry Me’. For her it’s no more than a tease. For Boldwood it’s a cataclysm. A typical short paragraph introduces this near the beginning of Chapter 14:
‘Since the receipt of the missive in the morning, Boldwood had felt the symmetry of his existence to be slowly getting distorted in the direction of an ideal passion. The disturbance was as the first floating weed to Columbus—the contemptibly little suggesting possibilities of the infinitely great.’
He doesn’t try to guess who sent it, but discovers, through a happy chance that brings him to where Oak is talking to the other men, that the writing is Bathsheba’s. Oh dear.
(The modern British novelist who uses this kind of manoeuvre in highly similar ways is Ian McEwan. Both of them spend many paragraphs persuading us that what is happening could happen, it could. The outcome of Robbie sending the wrong letter to Cecilia in Atonement – the one he hadn’t actually meant to send, and that is opened by the young Bryony – is equally cataclysmic.)
Other stuff. The locals, each with their USP like blushing, stammering, being old or miserable or both. Hardy’s often mischievous use of classical and biblical analogies, defying the reader not to admit that these small lives are as important as great ones to the participants. His attention to the turning of the year – only about seven or eight weeks can have passed since the opening of the novel on the shortest day – so that cold and snow mark out these events, especially for Oak and Fanny. His take on wealth and class: he might not be an overtly campaigning writer like Dickens, but whist he might seem to patronise the workers his hero is one of them. His descriptions of buildings: Bathsheba’s recycled manor house that was elegant once, Boldwood’s paean to puritanism, the hard face of Troy’s barracks. His often cinematic use of lighting and a neutral observer’s point of view, as when Fanny is first seen approaching the barracks: ‘a form moved by the brink of the river. By its outline upon the colourless background, a close observer might have seen that it was small. This was all that was positively discoverable, though it seemed human.’ And so on.
Chapter 16 to part-way through 26
And then there are the clothes, another of Hardy’s great signifiers. Oak’s fall from prosperity in Chapter 6 is marked by his move from farmer’s coat to shepherd’s smock – which, of course, he is perfectly prepared to wear. Bathsheba’s vanity is marked by her red jacket in Chapter 1, and her sense of her own attractiveness when she can afford it by her close-fitting riding-habit as she watches the shearing much later. Boldwood’s habitual black (and by habitual I might mean like a monk’s habit) is replaced, as his hopes grow of winning Bathsheba, by a white waistcoat and colourful clothes he has never dreamt of. And Bathsheba’s first meeting with Troy is made complicated by clothing: her dress, her most expensive and therefore one she doesn’t want to damage, is somehow encumbered in the dark. As he opens her own lantern for her ‘the man to whom she was hooked was brilliant in brass and scarlet. He was a soldier. His sudden appearance was to darkness what the sound of a trumpet is to silence.’ I’m sure essays have been written on the symbolism of the woman’s dress being caught on the man’s spur.
Bathsheba’s acquaintance with Troy is only just beginning at the point I’ve reached, and I’ll come back to him. Up until now, the plot has entirely hinged on the other two men in her life. She’s at or near the centre of most of the action, and whenever we’re with Oak or Boldwood, she’s in their thoughts. All this is new for Boldwood, and Hardy spends what seems like pages painstakingly explaining to us how a man could reach the age of 40 apparently indifferent to what women might offer – a feature in plenty of other Victorian novels, and one I never, ever find believable – and now be subject to seismic upheavals he is unable to deal with. On other pages, and just as many of them as Boldwood gets, Hardy attempts to explain Bathsheba’s many contradictions. At one stage he resorts to a conceit like this one: ‘Bathsheba’s was an impulsive nature under a deliberative aspect. An Elizabeth in brain and a Mary Stuart in spirit, she often performed actions of the greatest temerity with a manner of extreme discretion.’ A lot of it is as wordy as this, and I’m constantly left wishing that he would simply let them get on with it.
After months of doubt – it’s late May by now – Boldwood proposes. She, having recognised her mistake with the valentine almost from the start but done nothing about it, is mortifyingly embarrassed. She refuses him, but the proposal is public enough for it to become common knowledge. It demonstrates her gross insensitivity that Oak is the one she asks to let it be known that she is not going to marry Boldwood. In their conversation – the rustic activity of the day is grinding shears – things move on far enough for Oak to be frank with her about her behaviour. Having asked his opinion, she doesn’t like it, and resorts to the difference in their stations in her response. First she reminds him that she is ‘Miss Everdene’ to him, not Bathsheba. Then, when he is even more frank, and pretends to have relinquished any hope he might ever have had of her loving him, she sacks him.
It’s a good job this is a Hardy novel. Less than 24 hours later – i.e. before he’s had chance to leave – 60-odd of her sheep break through another one of those pesky field enclosures and gorge themselves on clover. The gas-induced swelling will kill them if they aren’t operated on. But who…? Guess. Eventually, she eats humble pie and he’s back. Phew. He’s saved the day, again – and perhaps she’s learnt not to be so impulsive in future. As if. Next.
Next is the everyday humiliation of Oak as she makes no attempt to conceal Boldwood’s continuing courtship. It’s shearing-time – doesn’t Hardy just love to keep it real? – and, at first, Bathsheba admires Oak’s skill. But when Boldwood turns up she moves off with him – and Oak is distracted enough to cut the skin of the sheep he’s shearing. She, perfectly aware of why he is distracted – Hardy makes it clear Oak understands this – tells him off. Later, she asks him to sit at the head of the table for the shearers’ supper – but only until Boldwood arrives. Hardy loves these external manifestations not only of her fixation on status now that she is boss, but of her wanton lack of tact with a man who has recently saved a large part of her flock. Her end of the table is inside the house, and her invitation to Boldwood later to join her there is as clear a symbol of Oak’s exclusion as anybody could wish for. She refuses another proposal from Boldwood, but less forthrightly. He is going away for six weeks, and she’ll let him know then what she feels.
Time for Hardy to stir things up a bit. We’ve had a brief glimpse of Sergeant Troy in a short chapter consisting almost entirely of Hardyesque plot features. A church service is just ending, and a soldier enters. There’s to be a marriage, and the curious congregation stay on. What they witness is the man’s embarrassment as time, represented by the tortuous mechanism of the clock, moves on through two quarter hours culminating in – what else? – the tolling of 12 o’clock. The man, mortified, leaves. In the town square he meets Fanny, who – cue farcical Hardyesque detail – had gone to the wrong church. How feasible is this? Don’t ask. Perhaps we’re supposed to be pleasantly surprised that Troy made the first attempt at marriage. But he isn’t in any hurry to promise a second.
Much later comes the meeting in the night-time fir plantation during which, not knowing who Bathsheba is, he compliments her lavishly on her beauty. How does she take this? Mixed feelings: her dignity is compromised, but, well…. Later, at harvest, she could have told him off and that would have been that. Hah. Instead, after Hardy has given us one of those unnecessary chapters consisting of a description of what he is like – he’s clever, rather well educated and a charmer who only thinks for the moment – Troy opens a conversation with her that she is in no hurry to bring to a close. Hardy has already told us that she is feeling a lightening of spirit now that Boldwood is away for a while – and it’s hard to imagine more polar opposite personalities than his and Troy’s. Soon she is ‘in a restless state between distress at hearing him and a penchant to hear more,’ then she is being ‘further lured into a conversation that intention had rigorously forbidden’… and so on. She’s lost.
Other stuff. I’ve touched on the celebration of rural life, particularly the things that have to be done daily, or by the season, or yearly…. Hardy mischievously gives all this an air of worship by having a scene take place in ‘the Shearing-barn, which on ground-plan resembled a church with transepts’ – and he takes a paragraph to describe how superior to ‘nine-tenths… of our modern churches’ it is in its construction. The defiant allusions to the classics and high culture continue, so that one woman ‘had at present the mellow hue of an old sketch in oils—notably some of Nicholas Poussin’s.’ We’re in spring and early summer now, so there are descriptions of the power of growth through crops and foliage. And other things that add to what I can only call a deliberate richness of effect. But I used the word ‘farcical’ about one of the sad plot-twists Hardy uses, and that’s how I always feel about his plots. They are as outlandish as in farce without the compensating belly-laughs. Not a lot of laughs in Hardy, even among those silly old rustics.
Chapters 26 (end) to 38
I called Bathsheba lost even before the end of her second conversation with Troy. You should see her now – not that she appears to regret her hasty marriage. She thought she had decided to break off the engagement, but Hardy makes sure the reader knows better by having Oak and the others pursue her half-way to Bath in the middle of the night before catching up and realising her horse hasn’t been stolen after all. A single woman in the 19th Century doesn’t contemplate a journey like that in a spirit of renunciation, whatever she might think…. It’s part of the contract, as so often with Victorian novelists, that the reader constantly knows more about people’s motives than they know themselves. (The characters often end up looking very stupid. Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, which I read last month, springs to mind, although at least Jane Austen makes it comic.)
What do you need to know? Following their conversation, Troy happens upon Bathsheba as she attempts to hive the bees. There is the swapping of hats and gloves – clothes again, see? – and a growing closeness between them. If Bathsheba recognises what’s going on – and Hardy is at pains to remind us that in many ways she’s led a sheltered life – she ignores all the danger signs. This follows on from him giving her his watch so he can imagine it beating against her heart, a suggestion she did not know how to deal with at all. Now – wait for it – she agrees to a date. This turns into one of Hardy’s most blatant set-piece scenes of sublimated eroticism. I don’t know how Freud might have interpreted ‘the hollow amid the ferns’ and the highly intimate sword-play that goes on there, but it isn’t hard to guess. In an elaborate conceit, Hardy describes the swirl of Troy’s sword-blade around Bathsheba: ‘had it been possible for the edge of the sword to leave in the air a permanent substance wherever it flew past, the space left untouched would have been almost a mould of Bathsheba’s figure.’ In case we haven’t got it yet, Hardy allows even closer levels of intimacy. After having cut off a stray lock of her hair with a deft sweep of his blade, Troy sees a caterpillar which has ‘chosen the front of her bodice as his resting place. She saw the point glisten towards her bosom, and seemingly enter it.’ The sword only impales the caterpillar – but by now Hardy has moved on from symbolism to innuendo.
During the same scene Bathsheba is offered a clear warning about Troy: in order to have her remain absolutely still he has lied to her about the blade: the incident of the stray lock is her first intimation that it is as sharp as a razor. She also learns that he thinks nothing of being caught out in the lie. Ok. Later, when justifying her behaviour to Oak – she always wants him to think highly of her – she contradicts his claim that Troy doesn’t go to church: ‘he goes in privately by the old tower door, just when the service commences, and sits at the back of the gallery. He told me so.’ As if we need it, Hardy contradicts this shortly afterwards with a typically precise detail: ‘a sprig of ivy had grown from the wall across the door to a length of more than a foot…’. Who sees this? Who do you think?
After Bathsheba’s night-time drive to Bath, supposedly only for a day’s visit, she sends back word that ‘business’ there is keeping her for an extra week. Then another week – and nobody is surprised to hear that she has been seen walking with Troy there, arm-in-arm. And soon we get more evidence of what a git he is. Bathsheba is back, and so is Troy, presumably to pick up his stuff after his leave. Hah. When Boldwood confronts him, having been ground down into a state of pure misery by Bathsheba’s letter of rejection – didn’t I mention that? – Troy, ‘trickster’ that he is, toys with him and his blasted emotional state. Boldwood offers huge amounts of money, starting with a down-payment of £50, if Troy will leave and marry Fanny. But, when Troy makes it clear that for the sake of Bathsheba’s honour she is the one he should marry, Boldwood, bewildered, tells him to take the money and make an honest woman of her instead. In the end, Troy has over £70 of Boldwood’s money in his possession – maybe two years’ wages for a labouring man – as he promises to meet at Bathsheba’s house…. Which is where he shows Boldwood the marriage announcement in a Bath newspaper he’s brought with him. He throws the money into the road: he won’t need it any more.
There are more nails in the coffin of any possible respect we might have for Sergeant Troy. He stands at the window of what is now his house, tells Oak how he will modernise the creaky old place – a sure sign of depravity in this universe – and announces a celebration dance. It becomes a set piece to demonstrate Troy’s worst side and Oak’s best: it’s the fable of the ant and the grasshopper all over again. Even though Oak has warned him that the weather is looking bad and the ricks need to be covered, Troy urges the farm labourers to drink brandy with him into the night. Oak decides – i.e. doesn’t decide at all, in reality – that he will leave well alone. But Nature calls to him, almost literally: a toad is out of its zone, a slug is in his lodging-house, a spider is out of the thatch and, to put the lid on it, the sheep are immovable in their pre-storm positions in the field: it’s going to be a lulu. Twice he returns to where the others have been drinking, and twice he is met by snores. So, single handed, and making mental calculations about the money he is saving the farm – it’s in the hundreds of pounds – he covers the first few ricks. Then he isn’t single-handed: Bathsheba helps him. But, amidst the lightning and the ‘dancing skeletons’ of St Elmo’s fire, Oak has saved her livelihood. That’s three times.
We’re over half-way through, and Bathsheba still has a terribly long way to go if ever she’s going to be worthy of Oak. Again she justifies her own behaviour, telling him she really had intended to call off the engagement. I keep wondering whether this is psychologically realistic, or merely Hardy’s way of persuading us, again, that we shouldn’t give up on her however appallingly she has behaved. He finds almost as many excuses for her as she does herself, particularly the unworldliness born of a problematic childhood. A bible-thumping parent, one whose religiosity is born out of a sense of his own guilt, is of no use to any growing girl. In their second conversation, just before Troy offers her his watch, Hardy shows how out of her depth she is with this man who doesn’t play by any rules she recognises: ‘“perhaps you did not mean to be rude to me by speaking out your mind: indeed, I believe you did not,” said the shrewd woman, in painfully innocent earnest.’ Hardy spends a lot of time telling us about this shrewd innocence. In fact, there’s an awful lot of telling among the showing of clear physical manifestations of behaviour – the beekeeper’s clothing, the lock of hair, the ivy growing across a door. A reader is bound to become a little suspicious when any author protests so much.
However…. There’s a kind of coda in Chapter 38 in which Hardy reminds us that the bad effects of Bathsheba’s behaviour spread beyond Oak and his stoical regrets. Boldwood is a different kind of character altogether, and Oak meets him, looking dreadful. His own harvest of crops, worth much more than Bathsheba’s, has been left open to the ravages of the storm, a thing that would have been impossible only a few weeks before. Not only does he seem indifferent to the implications of it for his future prosperity. He is also perfectly willing to let Oak know why he is reduced to such a shell. Sure, at the end of the encounter he resumes ‘his usual reserve’ and asks Oak to tell no one of what he has said. But we know this isn’t really a coda. These people are in a Hardy novel, and the outcomes of Bathsheba’s hastiness in marrying Troy have only just begun to show themselves.
Outcomes. We’ve just had our first death, and all six of these chapters focus either on the circumstances leading to it or the cataclysm in Bathsheba’s life that is its main consequence. It’s the death of poor Fanny, the woman who would have married Troy if only the silly thing hadn’t got the churches mixed up…. And there, in a sentence, is the big problem I’ve had with this novel almost from the start. Hardy is intent on demonstrating the way that his characters’ actions can lead to dire consequences. In a Hardy novel, if you do something unwise or hasty or selfish, it will come back to haunt you a hundred-fold. But in order to bring about these consequences he has to load his plots with so many unlucky tricks of fate – those ‘whimsical coincidences’ of his – that it ends up looking less like the justice of a moral universe than the cruel hand of a god-like author intent on messing about with his characters’ heads.
Fanny? Believed Troy’s promises – the ones he even believed himself at the time – and let him sleep with her. That’s why she has to die, not because of a silly mix-up. Bathsheba? Believes herself invulnerable to the charms of men – a lot of Chapter 41 is given over to one of Hardy’s long and detailed expositions concerning this – and consequently has nothing in her armoury to protect herself when a man from beyond her limited horizons comes along. Boldwood? Like Bathsheba, he thinks he’s safe because he doesn’t know any better. Troy? Ah, Troy. He lives for the moment, and we all know where that gets you. Are they all going to die? Or just some of them? Not Bathsheba, surely, when there’s the happiness of a good man at stake. But in order to reach these final outcomes Hardy can’t bring himself to rely on the inevitable workings of character and psychology. He’ll give us chance meetings, and coincidences, and mistakes by minor characters that lead to calamity for the major players – like Oak’s over-enthusiastic dog all those chapters ago.
I’ll try to be quick. Troy is turning out to be the kind of man that girls’ mothers warn them about. We remember Oak’s recent calculations of the hundreds of pounds he’s saved Bathsheba as she and Troy – he’s Frank now – discuss his loss of similar amounts through his gambling. He’s the sort of man to blame her for turning on the ‘waterworks’ when she is genuinely upset… and so on. They are travelling on this particular evening when they see a desperate woman making her way to the workhouse in Casterbridge. He realises it’s Fanny, distracts Bathsheba, and promises Fanny he’ll help her if she meets him at the workhouse next day. Ok. But Hardy makes it clear in the next chapter that she’s beyond help, measuring out her journey step by miserable step as her fate is semaphored for us by doom-laden references to death and her own determination to reach her ‘resting-place’. (She needs some hastily made crutches and the help of a huge and friendly dog to achieve this, and there isn’t a dry eye in the house.) The final sentence of the chapter describes how she disappears into the building, and we aren’t surprised to hear of her death next day. So it goes.
What Hardy needs now is the set-up for the chapter he calls ‘Fanny’s Revenge’. He’s already got some ingredients ready: Bathsheba has seen a lock of hair in Troy’s watch, ‘gold’, not black like hers, and from now on they bicker and swap jibes almost all the time; she hears about Fanny’s desperate final journey on the evening when she and Troy were on the same road…. And then there’s an unfortunate delay in getting Fanny’s coffin to the church. (In fact, there’s a chapter of tiresome comedy in which the often sanctimonious Joseph Poorgrass rests on the way at the local inn, and is soon too drunk to drive it the rest of the way.) Where to keep it overnight? Oak had been determined for this not to have to happen, and to keep a particular secret from Bathsheba: he has to wipe away the last two words of the chalked writing on the coffin-lid: ‘Fanny Robin and child’. But, as Bathsheba sits with it, who should come along bearing news of a terrible rumour about Fanny’s death? It’s Liddy, and no, she can’t believe it either.
So this is it. Bathsheba spends a dark night of the soul worrying about the rumour. Who can she ask for support? Oak? She gets as far as his cottage but balks at the last moment. She goes home, gets a screwdriver, lifts the coffin lid – and you don’t get any more real than that. This is where ‘Fanny’s revenge’ really kicks in, with the most harrowing row of all between Bathsheba and Troy. Fanny was the one he loved, and would have married if Bathsheba hadn’t snared him with her coquettish ways. He even kisses the dead woman’s lips, in full view of his wife.
What’s a girl to do? She leaves the house, spends the night outdoors, and is only finally reconciled to going home after she’s had the idea of hiding in an unused attic room after Fanny’s coffin is finally taken away for burial. Troy has gone off somewhere, and who knows when he’ll be back?
Chapters 45-57 – to the end
Almost from the start I’ve been suggesting that Hardy’s habitual use of chance and coincidence in this novel is something of an embarrassment. The implausible turns of the plot have to be passed over hurriedly because, as I wrote at the beginning, ‘the frequent accidents of fate… simply happen, and we have to take it or leave it. We take it, because we’re interested.’ Ok. But what if Hardy has a motive for using them that goes beyond the need to move the plot along to the next stage? What if the often cruel twists of fate are there to express a pessimistic view of his characters’ efforts to make their way in the world?
I mention this because, a) this isn’t the only Hardy novel I’ve read, and I know about the fatalistic turn that things often take – most notably acknowledged by him when he tells us that the ‘President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess’; and b) the episode with Fanny’s grave and the so-called ‘gurgoyle’ seems to have no function beyond demonstrating the helplessness of mankind at the hands of fate. Troy, in a paroxysm of guilty sentimentality – Hardy’s reference to it as his ‘romanticism’ is surely sarcastic – arranges for an expensive tombstone to be erected. Then he plants carefully selected flowers around the grave before almost collapsing in exhaustion. But he doesn’t know he’s in a Hardy novel, and that the author has his own plans. Time and ill luck have damaged a gargoyle so that if it should rain, a torrent of water will fall on the new grave. And guess what. It does rain. ‘For several years the stream had not spouted so far from the tower as it was doing on this night, and such a contingency had been over-looked…. The persistent torrent from the gurgoyle’s jaws directed all its vengeance into the grave.’ And so on. Soon, Troy’s newly planted flowers are writhing and dancing in their beds before being washed away: some bigger force is mocking his sentimental and belated efforts to do the right thing. You can’t fool fate.
As if to prove that this is no mere accident, it isn’t Troy but Bathsheba who is able to repair the damage and have the gargoyle fixed so that it won’t happen again. She, in contrast to Troy, is learning how to behave in a proper spirit of forgiveness, and her concern over the grave comes to symbolise her reconciliation to the fact that her husband genuinely loved Fanny. The whole episode seems to show how, despite a few cursory nods towards narrative plausibility, Hardy isn’t interested in having his readers believe such events might really happen. He knows that we know that these are characters in a fiction, that he has a scheme for them, and that incidents like this are there to act as signposts. (And I’ll come back to the grave later, because that’s what Hardy does.)
Hardy has given us all this after backtracking to show how Troy had gone to meet Fanny outside the workhouse, left after becoming exasperated when she wasn’t there, felt bad about his own behaviour… and so on. Now things need to be moved on: there are only eleven chapters left for Hardy to bring about the necessary conclusion in which everyone gets what they deserve. There are more preposterous plot manoeuvres not only to get Troy out of the frame for a while, but to have it appear that he’s dead. He goes for a reviving swim – who wouldn’t, in a novel like this? – and gets swept away to his almost certain death. Luckily, against all the odds, he’s picked up just in time. He ends up… never mind, because this only comes out months later, after Boldwood has put huge pressure on Bathsheba to agree to marry him. There’s a convenient witness who mistakenly thinks he actually saw Troy drown, so nobody would blink if she were to re-marry at the end of a decent mourning period, but she insists that seven years should pass….
What Hardy is doing is contriving any plot twists he needs – like the unexpectedly strong current, like Troy’s visit to the area nearly a year later as a member of – wait for it – a troupe of actors, like the prominent seat in the audience, bought for her by the over-solicitous Boldwood, that allows Troy to see Bathsheba before she sees him – to create set piece encounters. But he also has to make his characters seem ready for the explosions that come: he spends pages, literally, persuading us that Boldwood’s infatuation really could become this dangerous obsession, that Bathsheba’s sense of guilt, combined with Boldwood’s looming presence, really could push her into a despairing promise, that Troy is feeling desperate enough to attempt almost anything to reassert his rights…. I’m guessing that Hardy would rather have his readers focus on the psychology than on the creaky plot devices he uses, although these often seem to me to be two aspects of the same technique. His set pieces need to be unexpected to the point of melodrama – hence the careful plot contrivances – and they have to come at moments when his characters’ emotions are heightened far beyond their normal range – hence the careful expositions of the psychology.
What you get, eventually, is Christmas Eve at Boldwood’s house. Some time in the autumn, at the time of the travelling theatre performance, Bathsheba promises Boldwood that by Christmas she will agree to a long-term engagement. By the end of December Boldwood is wound up even beyond his now usual pitch of feverishness, while she is feeling trapped. We find this out in Chapter 52, ‘Converging Courses’. Hardy offers, in seven short episodes, glimpses into the preparations they are making for Boldwood’s first ever Christmas party – and into the plans that Troy is making at the same time. Shortly after Boldwood has wrenched a reluctant undertaking from Bathsheba that she really will go through with her promise, Troy arrives to reclaim her. She shrinks back; Troy, irritated, seizes and pulls her arm; she screams; a shot is heard; Troy falls lifeless to the floor. What did Chekhov say about loaded guns? The ones above Boldwood’s fireplace, ‘as is usual in farmhouses’, were an accident waiting to happen. Or a melodramatically contrived bit of nonsense.
So that’s that. Troy is dead, and buried alongside Fanny. Boldwood’s death sentence is commuted to life imprisonment on grounds of presumed insanity. And… there’s only one loose end to be tied up. Hardy teases the reader with the ‘He’s lost interest in me’ routine – Oak tells Bathsheba he is leaving, and she hasn’t the sense to realise it’s because he can’t bear to be so close to the woman he’s been holding a torch for since the start of the novel. But they clear up the misunderstanding in a short conversation, and get married. The end, properly this time, with nothing left to be done beyond a cacophonous serenade to the newlyweds by the lovable locals.
Of the three flawed characters in this novel – I’m not counting Oak, because if he has any flaws I can’t think of any – Bathsheba survives because she is the one who learns. Throughout the first half of the novel and beyond, up to the time when she decides that marrying Troy would be a good idea, she continually gets it wrong. After that she begins to get it right: she allies herself with Oak over the covering of the ricks before the storm, she begins to see that there is something genuine about Troy’s feelings for Fanny, she feels more and more dreadful about her early treatment of Boldwood and wants to do the right thing when he puts a huge weight of unfair pressure on her. She’s like the Prodigal Daughter and achieves the forgiveness of whatever gods are running the show in this universe.
As for Troy and Boldwood…. Troy kind of wants to do the right thing but allows himself to be deflected all the time. Boldwood, once the emotional floodgates are opened, has no resources to cope with the torrent and drags Bathsheba along with him. But the gods are slightly kinder to him: his obsessive behaviour is so bizarre – and Hardy offers evidence like the wardrobes of clothes he’s bought for Bathsheba and documents labelled ‘Mrs Boldwood’ dated seven years after Troy’s death – that it is seen as a kind of temporary insanity. In accordance with the workings of the 19th Century fictional universe, he is allowed to live. We don’t need to believe it’s the universe that we really live in, any more than comic-book fans believe in the ‘Marvel universe’. It’s how it is, and we accept it. Except… if the author stretches things too far he’s in danger of losing our respect. How far is too far? Which of the coincidences make the reader feel like shutting the book in exasperation? How much disbelief are we willing to suspend?
I couldn’t possibly comment.