—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter XXX This excerpt is just right for one of those middle-school language-arts exercises, where you put all the adjectives that mean the same as “mannish” in one column, and all the synonyms for “womanish” in another column, and all the words that the students might venture to use to describe Bathsheba in a third, and pretty soon the bell rings, and the class is left with a bunch of new words to describe what they already know. In a private chat with Liddy, her maid, Bathsheba is furiously squashing gossip about her and Sergeant Troy, about whom her other servant, Maryann, has earlier declaimed, “He is a wild scamp now, and you are right to hate him.” Part of the joy of reading Far from the Madding Crowd is admiring how Bathsheba, though in the strictest sense she’s alone in the world, creates a family of sorts around her, despite the varying motives of her entourage. Hardy’s chapter-after-chapter focus on the natural world and the folkways of Wessex makes it apparent that his characters belong in Wessex, their native habitat. And like all such creatures of their context, his characters can express a wider bloom of variation in their comportment and conduct because they have a place to belong. Bathsheba’s “almighty womanishness” fits right in to the landscape, traditional roles be thrown aside. We city-dwellers, in contrast, are the ones who are obliged to conform because we belong nowhere in particular.
‘And, dear miss, you won’t harry me and storm at me, will you? because you seem to swell so tall as a lion then, and it frightens me! Do you know, I fancy you would be a match for any man when you are in one o’ your takings.’‘Never! do you?’ said Bathsheba, slightly laughing, though somewhat seriously alarmed by this Amazonian picture of herself. ‘I hope I am not a bold sort of maid—mannish?’ she continued with some anxiety. ‘Oh no, not mannish; but so almighty womanish that ‘tis getting on that way sometimes. Ah! miss,’ she said, after having drawn her breath very sadly in and sent it very sadly out, ‘I wish I had half your failing that way. ‘Tis a great protection to a poor maid in these illegit’mate days!’