‘She had never taken kindly to the idea of marriage in the abstract’ –Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

Until she had met Troy, Bathsheba had been proud of her position as a woman; it had been a glory to her to know that her lips had been touched by no man’s on earth—that her waist had never been encircled by a lover’s arm. She hated herself now. In those earlier days she had always nourished a secret contempt for girls who were the slaves of the first goodlooking young fellow who should choose to salute them. She had never taken kindly to the idea of marriage in the abstract as did the majority of women she saw about her.…That she had never, by look, word, or sign, encouraged a man to approach her—that she had felt herself sufficient to herself, and had in the independence of her girlish heart fancied there was a certain degradation in renouncing the simplicity of a maiden existence to become the humbler half of an indifferent matrimonial whole—were facts now bitterly remembered. Oh, if she had never stooped to folly of this kind, respectable as it was, and could only stand again, as she had stood on the hill at Norcombe, and dare Troy or any other man to pollute a hair of her head by his interference!

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

Bathsheba Everdene is the most puzzling character in Far from the Madding Crowd, but with this passage, Thomas Hardy really clarifies her motivations. Too bad it arrives forty-odd chapters into the book, but if one’s read this far, it comes as a well-deserved prize to find this little cribsheet stuck between the pages.

Bathsheba and Troy, her husband, have been quarreling over his previous relationship with the ill-starred Fanny Robin, and this passage brings to the fore her regret over marrying at all.

I love self-sufficient people, but reading about them is always a lot more interesting than meeting them, because it’s so hard to find common ground on which to converse. Bathsheba in this passage bemoans the loss of her self-possession and how she has degraded herself through marriage. It’s a pretty revolutionary stance to take, and I think this is why it only comes after we’ve read two-thirds of the book: it would make no sense if we had not already gotten to know Miss Everdene, both through her prior steadfastness against marriage and her latterly regretted indulgence of it.

Retweet this!

‘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.