‘She was of the stuff of which great men’s mothers are made.’ –Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

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?

‘It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.’ –Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

‘Do you like me, or do you respect me?’

 ‘I don’t know—at least, I cannot tell you. It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs. My treatment of you was thoughtless, inexcusable, wicked! I shall eternally regret it. If there had been anything I could have done to make amends I would most gladly have done it—there was nothing on earth I so longed to do as to repair the error. But that was not possible.’

—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter LI
Bathsheba Everdene responds to Boldwood here with an utterance that seems as if it had been inserted into the galley proofs of Thomas Hardy’s idyl of the Wessex countryside with a drawing knife and rubber cement. Could this be feminism? Of course, I’ve known women who would have taken the opposite approach, and celebrated that as feminism: fearlessly appropriating male discourse and then not apologizing for her rude treatment of her suitor.
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‘Not mannish, but so almighty womanish that ‘tis getting on that way.’ -Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

‘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!’

—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.