Through the summer I ticked the books off my reading list until only two remained. The first, Dombey and Son, daunted by its size. The second was Far from the Madding Crowd. At seventeen I read Tess of the d'Urbervilles and hated every word. Dull, dull, dull. At forty-two, I pushed Hardy further down the pile until I couldn't ignore it any more.
Far from the Madding Crowd, first published in 1874, is the story of Bathsheba Everdene and her three suitors, Gabriel Oak, Farmer Boldwood and the dashing Sergeant Troy. Set in Hardy's fictitious Wessex, we follow Bathsheba's progress towards self-knowledge and emotional maturity. The book has an episodic quality, with key events closely linked to the shepherd's calendar. Hardy describes key scenes with an artist's eye, as in this scene where Gabriel Oak fights a fire on Bathsheba's farm:
'This before Gabriel's eyes was a rick of straw, loosely put together, and the flames darted into it with lightning swiftness. It glowed on the windward side, rising and falling in intensity like the coal of a cigar. Then a superincumbent bundle rolled down, with a whisking noise, flames elongated and bent themselves about with a quiet roar, but no crackle. Banks of smoke went off horizontally at the back like passing clouds, and behind these burned hidden pyres, illuminating the semi-transparent sheet of smoke to a lustrous yellow uniformity. Individual straws in the foreground were consumed in a creeping movement of ruddy heat, as if they were knots of red worms, and above shone imaginary fiery faces, tongues hanging from lips, glaring eyes, and other impish forms, from which at intervals sparks flew in clusters like birds from a nest.'
I won't give the story away, but there are other dramas too: the coffin scene and Troy's reappearance to name but two. And then there's sex. Or at least, as close as you could get in a Victorian novel intended for the general public. In a chapter suggestively entitled 'The Hollow amid the Ferns', Troy seduces Bathsheba with his sword skills:
'He flourished the sword by way of introduction number two, and the next thing of which she was conscious was that the point and blade of the sword were darting with a gleam towards her left side just above her hip; then of their reappearance on her right side, emerging as it were from between her ribs, having apparently passed through her body...
'Oh!' she cried out in affright, pressing her hand to her side. 'Have you run me through? - no, you have not! Whatever have you done!'
'I have not touched you,' said Troy. 'It was mere sleight of hand. The sword passed behind you. Now you are not afraid, are you? Because if you are I can't perform. I give my word that I will not only not hurt you, but not once touch you.'
'I don't think I am afraid. You are quite sure that you will not hurt me?'
'Is the sword very sharp?'
Steamy stuff indeed.