[This review, which appears under the title "Bellese Lettres & Contemporary Literature," weighs the demerits of the book's sensation-novel features against its similarities to George Eliot's Adam Bede. The following text has been divided into paragraphs for easier reading.]
"NOT profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for edification, for building up or elevating in any shape! The sick heart will find no healing here, the darkly struggling heart no guidance, the heroic that is in all men, no divine awakenment." Thus wrote Carlyle of the Waverley Novels [of Sir Walter Scott]. What Carlyle would say to our present novels, we will not undertake to say. To even review them is a difficult matter, for as the ancient philosopher observed, it is no easy thing to stick soft cheese on a hook. Their dulness is their security. One novel, however, has at all events marked the past year. "Far from the Madding Crowd" stands to all contemporary novels precisely as "Adam Bede" did to all other novels some sixteen years ago. In fact, when the first chapters of Mr. Hardy's story appeared in the Cornhill Magazine many good judges pronounced it to be a work of George Eliot's. Nor was their critical sagacity so very far wide of the mark.
Mr. Hardy has not reached the splendid heights which George Eliot has attained, nor sounded her spiritual depths, but his new work will certainly in many other respects bear favourable comparison with "Adam Bede." And there are many obvious points of comparison. George Eliot in that story dealt with the farming class in the North Midlandshire Counties. Mr. Hardy has taken his characters from the same class in the Western Counties. There is no imitation on Mr. Hardy's part, but we may use the word in no invidious sense, a challenge. George Eliot has introduced into her story a number of rustic scenes, notably a harvest home. Mr. Hardy has replied also with a number of rustic scenes, but most prominently with a sheepshearing supper. George Eliot has made one of her chief characters a young squire, an officer in the militia. Mr. Hardy also has introduced a soldier, but he has in this instance avoided George Eliot's failure. George Eliot's Arthur Donnithorne is a simple impossibility. No man in his position could have acted in the way in which he behaved to Hetty after seducing her. Sergeant Troy's conduct to Fanny Robin is at least consistent with his character and bearing. Arthur Donnithorne, on the other hand, is represented as not only a man of high social position in his county, but a gentleman in feeling; yet he acts like a cur. Men in the army are not very squeamish about seduction, but Arthur Donnithorne would have been scouted by his brother officers for his base desertion of Hetty. Mr. Hardy at least has steered clear of this mistake. Sergeant Troy is simply what he is represented. He has no higher morals than most privates in the army. His character is fairly revealed to us on his first introduction in the fir wood with Bathsheba. We are more fully introduced to him afterwards, especially in the drunken orgie in the barn. His SubÂsequent behaviour is all in keeping.
In one other respect, too, Mr. [265/266] Hardy has shown better judgment than George Eliot. In both stories there is a reprieve-scene. Every one will remember the melodramatic scene in "Adam Bede" of Arthur Donnithorne arriving at the last moment waving a reprieve in his hand. Mr. Hardy has not fallen into this absurdity. But the fault of "Far from the Madding Crowd" is undoubtedly its sensationalism. We are not so well acquainted with Mr. Hardy's previous writings as to entitle us to speak with perfect confidence, but as far as we can remember they were distinguished for their pastoral tone and idyllic simplicity rather than for violent sensationalism. At all events sensationalism was a secondary element. But in "Far from the Madding Crowd" sensationalism is all in all. If we analyse the story we shall find that it is nothing else but sensationalism, which, in the hands of a less skilful writer than Mr. Hardy, would simply sink the story to the level of one of Miss Braddon's earlier performances. Take the career of Gabriel Oak, who is the least sensational of the chief characters. He loses the whole of his property in a sensation scene of two or three hundred sheep being driven by a dog over a precipice. He finds his mistress in a sensation scene of blazing ricks. He regains her estimation in another sensation scene of thunder and lightning in the same rick-yard. So the story progresses in a succession of sensation scenes. But sensation scenes are no more Mr. Hardy's strong point than they are George Eliot's. The scene in which Troy woos Bathsheba with his sword is a piece of mad extravagance, fit only for the boards of some transpontine theatre. The whole chapter is simply a burlesque upon the cavalier poet's lines, "I'll make thee famous by my pen, and glorious by my sword." Mr. Hardy has not done this, but only made the one step from the sublime to the ridiculous. Of course Mr. Hardy has had good reasons for dealing us such a dose of sensation. He knows what true art is, but he prefers in this story at least to give his readers a bastard substitute. As we have already hinted, many comparisons maybe found between "Far from the Madding Crowd" and "Adam Bede."
We have already touched upon the question of seduction and the conduct of the two seducers. Sergeant Troy, we must say, is far more true to life than Arthur Donnithorne, who is one of George Eliot's failures. Again a comparison might be made between Adam Bede and Gabriel Oak. Here, again, we think that Mr. Hardy's character, making allowance for the sensation scenes, is truer to nature. Adam Bede is, if we may use the expression, too much infected with self-consciousness. George Eliot has, by the wealth of her language, and a certain pomp of diction, rather overdone him. We are inclined to say, was there really ever a working-man like Adam Bede? This we never ask about Gabriel Oak. We thoroughly sympathize with him and pity him, and we must say that he deserved a far better woman for a wife than such a vain and selfish creature as Bathsheba Everdene. And this brings us to the heroine of Mr. Hardy's story. Upon her he has lavished all his skill. She may for a moment be compared, not from any resemblance, but by way of contrast, with Hetty Sorrel. The famous incident of the looking-glass by-the-bye is repeated with a slight variation by Mr. Hardy. There is, however, not the least ground [266/267] for accusing Mr. Hardy of plagiarism. The incident is common enough. We have seen not only precisely the same scene which Mr. Hardy describes, but have known farm servant-girls take bits of glass out of their pockets and admire themselves in the market-place. Human nature is the same in every rank of life. Ladies have looking-glasses let into their fans and prayer-books, and poor girls carry broken bits in their pockets. The looking-glass is still civilis sarcina belli [the public burden of a beauty]. But to return. Both Hetty and Bathsheba are represented as pretty and vain. But their prettiness and vanity are of two very different kinds. And in her description of the charms of Hetty's prettiness, George Eliot shows herself far more of a poet than Mr. Hardy. Mr. Hardy tells us that Bathsheba was beautiful, and gives us an idea of what her beauty was, but he does not paint it with the same feeling with which George Eliot paints Hetty's face. But neither beauty nor vanity are the key to Bathsheba's character. Whatever Mr. Hardy may wish us to think of his heroine, the one leading trait of her character, and of all such characters, is at the bottom—selfishness. She plays fast and loose with poor Gabriel Oak. She blows hot and cold upon Farmer Boldwood. She flirts with Oak in the most heartless manner. She sends Boldwood a valentine with the words "Marry Me" on the seal. Her very selfishness makes her wayward and inconstant. When she is entrapped by Sergeant Troy with his scarlet coat and his vulgar love-making we feel no pity for her. She never really cared a straw for Troy. She was fascinated by his swagger and his flattery. Her behaviour, however, at his death seems to us most inexplicable, and is the only part or her history which is out of drawing is open to grave objections. In all other respects she is described with great skill. She is hard and mercenary. When she at last marries Gabriel Oak we feel, whatever Mr. Hardy may intend to the contrary, that she marries him not from any admiration of his nobility of character, but simply because he will manage her farm and keep her money together. Bathsheba is the character of the book, and Mr. Hardy may be proud of having drawn such a character. But she is a character not to be admired, as he would seem to intimate.
We have left ourselves no space to dwell upon the individual merits of "Far from the Madding Crowd." We must briefly repeat that it will bear favourable comparison with "Adam Bede" for its humour, its power of description, and character-drawing. This is high praise, but we give it not without due deliberation. Some of the faults, especially the sensationalism, we have mentioned. There are others which seem to be due to George Eliot's influence—a use of a semi-scientific phraseology and a striving after profundity of meaning. As Mr. Hardy has followed George Eliot in her defects, we hope he will imitate her in another direction—not write too fast. (267)
Hardy, Thomas. Far from the Madding Crowd. 2 vols. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1874.
[Review.] "Belles Lettres and Contemporary Literature." The Westminster Review, No. 47 (1875): 265-267.
Last modified 10 March 2008