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Far from the Madding Crowd | Context

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Publication and Critical Reception

Hardy was one of the Victorian authors who wrote serial fiction, or novel-length stories that were published in short installments. In November 1872 Hardy was invited by the editor of London's recognized literary publication Cornhill Magazine to submit a serial story. In September 1873 Hardy sent in the first 10 chapters of Far from the Madding Crowd with a scheduled plan that the magazine would begin serial publication in January. He finished the book in July, and it was published as a complete novel in late November 1874, just before the last section was published in the magazine.

Initial reviews of Far from the Madding Crowd were not as negative as the reception Hardy received for some of his later books, most notably Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895). Hardy garnered positive reviews regarding his ability to create an interesting and engaging setting. The December 1874 review by American-British novelist Henry James allows that Hardy has strength in his representation of the rural. The January 1875 response by Andrew Lang in The Academy notes the pastoral aspects as particular strengths of the novel. However, there were prejudices against the character of Bathsheba. In his review, James notes that "we cannot say that we understand or like Bathsheba." This critical negativity toward Bathsheba in particular appears again in the Westminster Review (January 1875). The reviewer charges that Bathsheba is "a character not to be admired, as [Hardy] would seem to intimate."

Pastoralism and Realism

Despite living in the Victorian era (1837–1901), Hardy's novels have traits that linger from the British Romantic era. The British Romantics (loosely the first half of the 1800s) had a keen awareness of nature, while the Victorians were more concerned with the city and industrialization. Hardy, however, demonstrates a pastoralism that is atypical in the Victorian era.

Pastoral literature is premised on the notion that the country is purer, more honest, and generally superior to the city. Far from the Madding Crowd takes its title from a poetic quotation about being away from the city, where one finds the so-called "madding" (frenzied) crowds. The primary hero of the novel, Gabriel Oak, is a shepherd. Every character within the novel, other than Sergeant Francis Troy, works on a farm. Three characters—Bathsheba Everdene, Gabriel Oak, and William Boldwood—are farm owners, and the primary threats that the characters face are those having to do with their farms. Gabriel's close connection to and skill with nature precedes him: Matthew Moon tells him that "We hear that ye can tell the time as well by the stars as we can by the sun and moon, shepherd."

Moreover, pastoral literature often argues that truths can be found within nature. The narrator in Far from the Madding Crowd expresses similar ideas: "The instinctive act of humankind was to stand and listen, and learn how the trees to each other in the regular antiphonies of a cathedral choir." This pastoral argument proposes that wisdom and clarity appear in nature—and within those who are a part of nature. The narrator provides one idea regarding the discovery of pastoral wisdom: "it is necessary to stand on a hill at a small hour of the night ... disregardful of all such proceedings at this time, long and quietly watch your stately progress through the stars."

Despite the traits that mark the novel as pastoral, Hardy's pastoralism is not as simple as some of the earlier texts in this tradition. In Far from the Madding Crowd, he ties realism to the pastoral. Traditionally in the pastoral world, the simple farmer tending his flocks is upheld as happier than any of the three farmers in Far from the Madding Crowd. Gabriel negates this idea. He pointedly tells Bathsheba, "don't suppose I'm content to be a nobody. I was made for better things." Literary realism (an attempt to show subject matter truthfully without artifice) enters the text not only by way of the realistic details of everyday life but through a social realism in the way that Hardy presents questions of gender and marriage.

Industrialism

Hardy's pastoralism is a response to the industrialism of the age. The advent of steam-powered technology led to the development of massive factories, which employed people who worked long hours for low pay. The creation of these factories meant that there was a surge in population in the cities as people moved there in pursuit of work. England in the 1800s saw a move from rural to urban along with massive population growth. The population of England swelled from 9 million people at the start of the 1800s to 36 million by 1911. In addition to population surges, the consequences of industrialization included pollution and the extreme misuse of some classes of workers. Many Victorian novels capture the harsh realities of industrialization. Hardy, instead, addresses the life in his beloved rural settings.

The age of industrialization made life in the city seem appealing. However, a contemporary of Hardy's, English novelist Charles Dickens, highlighted the poverty and filth of the city in his novels, especially in Hard Times (1854). Nonetheless, life in the country was not ideal either. The Corn Laws of 1815 ("corn" being all grain in this context) were enacted to fix the prices of grain. This law was advantageous to the landowners in the country as it controlled the importation of grains, but it also resulted in financial difficulty for those in the cities who could not afford necessary food. To the regret of farmers and the relief of industrialists, the laws (which were a source of political controversy) were repealed in 1846. Far from the Madding Crowd is set after the repeal of these laws, when the focus and interest of much of society had shifted to the city. The rural world of the novel does not address this political issue or its consequences for those who lived in the rural world. Hardy's fictional world of Wessex exists somewhat outside the time and space of the real issues facing the rural world.

Wessex

Hardy's Wessex was first named in Chapter 50 of Far from the Madding Crowd. However, it was not called Wessex in the original version of this novel (the serial or the initial printing). In later revisions, the reference was added. Thomas Hardy's Wessex is a fictional region of England with fictional towns that corresponds to real-world maps to a degree. In an 1895 edition of Far from the Madding Crowd, Hardy notes in the preface that Wessex is "merely a realistic dream-country." As such, he used this setting in all of his novels.

The boundaries of Hardy's Wessex stretch along the coast north to Oxford (which he calls Christminster) and from Windsor (which he calls Castle Royal) to Taunton (which he calls Toneborough) in the west. He kept some place-names of actual English locations—referencing Bath, England, in Somerset County, in Far from the Madding Crowd, for example—but he changed others. The Isle of Wight (which is a British island in the English Channel) was renamed as "The Island"; Slepe Heath is believed to be the source of Egdon Heath in Hardy's 1878 novel, The Return of the Native.

19th-Century Gender Roles and the Law

Hardy wrote in an era where the issue of divorce was one of social controversy. The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 was the first significant revision to the laws involving divorce. Prior to this, the ability to get a divorce was all but nonexistent. Moreover, a woman would lose her children if she got divorced. The 1857 Act required a man to prove his wife committed adultery. That was all. A woman, however, had to prove adultery, as well as cruelty, bigamy, incest, or desertion.

The issue is a significant one for Hardy as he tackles issues of marriage and divorce again in both Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895). In Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), however, he sets forth characters who are conscious of the risks of marriage without addressing the questions of the dissolution of marriage that he addresses two decades later in Jude the Obscure. In Far from the Madding Crowd, Hardy's criticism of marriage reveals itself in the ways in which characters—including Bathsheba—resist it.

For women the right to own property in England ended at the altar. This rule started to change in 1870 with the Married Woman's Property Act. At that point, money earned by the wife was her own. However, it was not until 1882 that married women had the legal right to completely control all their property. Because Far from the Madding Crowd was published only four years after the Married Woman's Property Act was enacted, Bathsheba Everdene's aversion to marriage is contextually understandable. It is not that either Gabriel Oak, who first proposes, or William Boldwood, who proposes next, is unappealing. In fact, Hardy's narrator explains Bathsheba's thoughts when considering the proposals are logical instead.

As a woman, Bathsheba is able to function as a business owner only because she is single. Marriage would necessitate a loss of control over her life, her finances, and her property—and divorce is rare. The stakes are even higher than that, keeping in mind that at this point in history, marriage still entitled a man to keep custody of any children in the event of a divorce if the grounds were that a woman had committed adultery. Children were an almost certain reality with marriage, as birth control was not a reliable or common practice yet. Entering into a marriage was not a decision without risks for a woman, especially one as independent as Bathsheba Everdene. It is no surprise that upon learning that her husband, Francis Troy, still has his former beloved's hair in his watch, her statement to Liddy Smallbury sounds jaded: "Liddy, if ever you marry—God forbid that you ever should!—you'll find yourself in a fearful situation; but mind this, don't you flinch. Stand your ground, and be cut to pieces."

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