I learned I’d prefer to save my Hardy reading for the summer. There is nothing better than being able to read Hardy outside in summer, when the warmth and greenery makes it easier to imagine the bucolic setting of the Wessex novels. Plus, having the day available for reading allows me to sink my teeth into novels like Far from the Madding Crowd, which are meant to be read in big gulps rather than sipped here and there as free time allows. I’ll re-read this one day, in a summer, and I know I will like it even better then.
For now, though, I’m content to say that I liked it—as I was bound to do, with Hardy being one of my favourites—but it doesn’t have that weight of his later works. I know some view that as a positive: this is Hardy at his most upbeat. I could totally see Hollywood doing an adaptation of this in the style of 10 Things I Hate About You’s adaptation of Shakespeare—this is an almost-textbook romantic comedy that happens to have been written in the Victorian era. Even this early in Hardy’s career as an author there are hints of his iconoclastic willingness to skirt the bounds of propriety. At the same time, there are conventions—Oak’s bald-faced proposal to Bathsheba not weeks after meeting her for the first time is one—that are more than comical by our standards.
Now, I bought this copy used, as I like to do with classics. (There’s just something that feels right about reading a classic that has been read before.) And this copy comes with a bonus: reader annotations! It bears the price tag of Mount Allison University’s bookstore, and as far as I can tell, it once belonged to a student in a Victorian literature class. I assume the student is male, because of the messiness of the writing and the way the notes are … phrased. Every chapter has two or three thoughts jotted at the end to summarize the key events, and passages here or there throughout are marked up with choice commentary on the part of this reader.
I love annotating books. I don’t do it often enough, even with books I own, because I am lazy. (And I don’t do it with books other people own, unless they give me express permission. And I don’t do it with library books, because the library would frown at me and kindly ask me to refrain from ever patronizing it again, which would make me sad.) Discovering the comments of a previous owner in the margins of a book is one of the benefits of buying used. I feel like I’m part of a long-delayed conversation, and I’m always keen to discover if the past reader and I share sensibilities and reactions to the story—or if we differ and diverge along the way.
These notes, though … these are fascinating, in an anthropological kind of way. So rather than review Far from the Madding Crowd directly, I instead present to you Review of Select Commentary on Far from the Madding Crowd.
The first few chapters suffer from a dearth of commentary. In Chapter 3, we get a few passages underlined; the sole note at the end of this chapter is “cool” in reference to the chapter’s closing remark: “‘Now find out my name,’ she said teasingly; and withdrew.” Clearly this person is getting sucked into the plot!
We do just that—find out her name—on the next page. It’s Bathsheba Everdene. Either this student is a stone wall, or he’s reading this prior to The Hunger Games, because there is no comment on how much that sounds like “Everdeen.” May the odds be ever in Bathsheba’s favour—she’s going to need it.
The notes don’t really pick up until Chapter 10, when the student correctly picks up on the importance of Bathsheba’s interaction with the people who work her land. The student has some interesting comments on Hardy’s dry observations about marriage. In this quotation, about one of the wives of Bathsheba’s farm workers, the student underlines the sentence I’ve emphasized:
She was a woman who never, like some newly married, showed conjugal tenderness in public, perhapbe because she had none to show.
He marked this up with an arrow and “PDA.” Actually, I thought it said “POA” and struggled with it, until a coworker quite rightly corrected me: it’s public display of affection, anachronistic but nonetheless accurate.
The passage and commentary continues:
“Oh, you are,” said Bathsheba. “Well, Laban, will you stay on?”
“Yes, he’ll stay, ma'am!” said again the shrill tongue of Laban’s lawful wife.
“Well, he can speak for himself, I suppose.”
“Oh Lord, not he, ma’am! A simple tool. Well enough, but a por gawkhammer mortal,” the wife replied.
The above highlighted passages are annoted, respectively, with “Ball n’ chain” and “Bitch.” Classy.
This is also the chapter with the first real summary note at the end—just quick observations on the important characters here.
Chapter 13 is interesting, though. When Bathsheba and Liddy unwisely cook up the prank valentine they send to Boldwood, our intrepid reader writes:
Flip the book.
Fucking with Boldwood cuz no look at her.
Could not have said it better myself, really. But wait, what’s this on the next page, at the end of the chapter?
Did it cuz mad cuz he no look at her.
On some level, he’s correct—if not really willing to look much deeper into Bathsheba’s motivations. But I don’t get it. You’re a university student who clearly has enough intellect to pick up some of the subtext of this book. Why the hell are your abbreviating “because” as “cuz”?
In Chapter 14, we get to see how Gabriel Oak interacts with the other labourers on the farm. This portrayal, so essential to the Hardy vision of rural England, the student boils down to:
They admire Gaberial cuz he's “smart”
Gaberial, folks. Can’t even be bothered to spell the main character’s name right in your notes. It’s literally a few centimetres up the page.
By the end of Chapter 18, though, he has clued into the fact he can just abbreviate Gabriel’s onerously long name, and he does it correctly:
Gabe knows of letter Basheba vows never to fuck with Boldwood’s mind again. Realized what she’s done = regrets it
Those mindfucking lady farmers, I tell you. Boldwood clearly can’t take it, because in Chapter 20 he breaks down and begs Bathsheba to marry him. Let’s look at how the student interprets this scene:
Boldwood “Begs” for marrige Bathsheba sez sorry didn’t mean for vallantine Boldwood Desperate [“Desperate” double-underlined] Bath no want him sez was just a joke but genuinely sorry. Boldwood can offer her a lot of $ and good life.
Hey, I know I’m being cheeky in my commentary on this commentary, but I’ll level: questionable syntax and spelling aside, that’s not a bad summary of what happens in this chapter.
The top of Chapter 20 shows the student took a break and also switched pens, because the formerly red ink is now blue. Squeezed above the chapter header, we have:
Should treat Farmer Boldwood fairly sez Oak shows he knows can't win so will help Boldwood -very decent man
The student picks up on all the hinky sexual and romantic symbolism in “The Great Barn and Sheep-Shearers,” noting (in red pen again) that it is “very imp chapter = read again, very symbolic,” and I hope they did. So far, his level of insight continues to bely his hopelessly crude notetaking skills.
I continue to vacillate in my opinion regarding whether the student is just lazy or genuinely has bad spelling. This is a pretty insightful summary for Chapter 26:
very imp overflowed by enfatuation for this smooth talking Lothario Sgt Troy gave her a valuable gold wach Bathsheba doesn’t know why she feels so horny for Sgt. Troy
Really, if we all wrote our literary criticism like this student, wouldn’t the world be a better place?
Sometimes, as is the case at the end of Chapter 31, the student gets even more real:
Boldwood sez “Fuck you bitch for fucking with my mind” He stole yr heart with his lies I’ll kill him “you've hurt me bitch!!
And back in blue pen at the top of Chapter 32:
Troy must marry or else shell be thought a slut cuz everyone knowz about her woody fer Troy
OMG, did you hear about Miss Everdene’s woody? She’s, like a total slutbag! I know, right? Why can’t she just choose between Gale or Peeta already?!! Like, WTF? She certainly seems DTF with Troy.
Unfortunately, as we learn in Chapter 41, Troy is DTF with someone else and totally <!--3 Bathsheba’s heart:
-->Bash an Troy fight cuz Bash finds lock of other gurlz hair. Troy won’t burn it cuz loves other girl Fanny dies of exhaustion Basheba finds out “other girl” was Fanny
Oh no he didn’t.
Interestingly, the student is pretty quiet on “Fanny’s Revenge,” the pivotal chapter in which Bathsheba looks in the coffin—even though she shouldn’t—and discovers Fanny actually had Troy’s child. Oops. There’s a lacklustre summary at the end of the chapter but none of the inline commentary during the important scene.
There’s plenty of underlining but a dearth of commentary in the subsequent chapters, mostly very short summaries and little notes like “read again.” At this juncture, the student was probably reading the book at a healthy clip in order to meet some deadlines, and just absorbing the basic plot was good enough for him. Hopefully he clued into the foreshadowing that while Fanny’s fate is a tragedy in and of itself, it is merely the opening act in a much more involved tragedy that wrecks Bathsheba and Troy’s marriage not once but twice.
And yes, this is still one of Hardy’s lighter works.
The last two or three chapters are entirely devoid of notes or even underlining. And so I am left in suspense. Did he even finish the book? What did he think of it? There’s not even a “Nice” or “Cool” on the last page to let me know he is satisfied with the happy ending.
Did you read this book for a Mount Allison University Victorian lit course, only for it to somehow end up in a used bookstore in Thunder Bay? Did you annotate it in red and blue pen? Let me know what you thought of the end of the book.