Deeds of endurance, which seem ordinary in philosophy, are rare in conduct, and Bathsheba was astonishing all around her now, for her philosophy was her conduct, and she seldom thought practicable what she did not practise. She was of the stuff of which great men’s mothers are made. She was indispensable to high generation, hated at tea parties, feared in shops, and loved at crises. Troy recumbent in his wife’s lap formed now the sole spectacle in the middle of the spacious room.
—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter LIV
This is one of the best-known Thomas Hardy quotes out there. Generally everyone loves a mother, and everyone loves finding something to say about a mother. I happen to see it as a little bit of damning-with-faint-praise: accomplish all this and the most you achieve is to have a future president or poet laureate slip from your womb? (Quick, can you name Barack Obama’s mother?)
Bathsheba is attending a Christmas party at Boldwood’s, when all of a sudden her presumed-dead husband appears and shatters Boldwood’s chances of marrying Bathsheba on the rebound. So Boldwood, taking his cues from R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet videos (or the Jimmie Rodgers–popularized ‘Frankie and Johnny’ song), does what any insane admirer would do and shoots his rival dead.
Somehow, in this one episode, Hardy manages to unite Bathsheba’s earthy practicality in love—as expressed in her reluctance to dally with the affectionate male gaze—with her earthy practicality as a small business–woman. She is the all-practical All-Star here, combining her unquenched affection for Troy with sure steps to save his quickly waning life.
It’s confusing, therefore, that Hardy then sets out to diminish her with the mother simile. Is it that her power over the narrative has reached such a point that he needs to undercut her authority in order to bring the book to a close?