‘The impetuosity of passion unrequited is bearable, even if it stings’ -Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

A woman may be treated with a bitterness which is sweet to her, and with a rudeness which is not offensive. Bathsheba [Everdene] would have submitted to an indignant chastisement for her levity had Gabriel protested that he was loving her at the same time; the impetuosity of passion unrequited is bearable, even if it stings and anathematizes there is a triumph in the humiliation, and a tenderness in the strife. This was what she had been expecting, and what she had not got. To be lectured because the lecturer saw her in the cold morning light of open-shuttered disillusion was exasperating. He had not finished, either. He continued in a more agitated voice:—

‘My opinion is (since you ask it) that you are greatly to blame for playing pranks upon a man like Mr. Boldwood, merely as a pastime. Leading on a man you don’t care for is not a praiseworthy action. And even, Miss Everdene, if you seriously inclined towards him, you might have let him find it out in some way of true loving-kindness…’

—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter XX

I treasure this kind of insight, which I guess you could call epigrammatic romance. Hardy is a master at teasing out the strands of common feeling that connect us with his characters, using his command of the English language as his comb. His axioms aren’t based on psychology, but on the author’s skill at putting feelings, moods and emotional states into words. I especially admire the prescriptive nature of his observations, which manage to sound both completely fresh and exactly on target. As a comparison, just leaf through the shelf of self-help books at your local library to see just how hackneyed and misguided this kind of assertive statement can get.

Bathsheba is trying to get Gabriel’s advice on how she should proceed with Boldwood after sending him a over-flirtatious valentine. She blames Gabriel’s disapproval of her conduct (reprised in the second quoted paragraph) on his failed suit to marry her, but she is overcome when he denies categorically that he is still carrying a torch for her.

Hardy’s observation about ‘the impetuosity of passion unrequited,’ which follows from Bathsheba’s assuming that Gabriel still has feelings for her, is dead on. How many times in our own lives have we taken the petits châtiments of our partners in flirting and joshing as secret compliments, secure in knowing that the deepest layer of sentiment laid down in our correspondents’ hearts is one of deep and abiding love toward us? Some people make this assumption the guiding principle of their lives: all disparaging comments they receive are absorbed and made to disappear in this notional layer of good feeling. Imagine their surprise (and concomitant exasperation) when they are addressed in ‘the cold morning light of open-shuttered disillusion.’

Bathsheba, unlike some of our friends and acquaintances, can take it; she is an independent businesswoman. Her response to Gabriel’s frankness is to fire him from his job.