Observation and Setting in Far from the Madding Crowd

Thomas Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd became the author’s first commercial success when it was published in serial format in 1874. This book was also the first of what would be known as the “Wessex Novels”,  which featured unique plots and characters, but shared a common setting in a fictional country in the South-East of England called Wessex. Hardy, in the preface to Far from the Madding Crowd, explained that his fictional, Victorian Wessex was loosely inspired by a historical kingdom of the same name which was dissolved following the Norman Invasion (Madding Crowd, Preface).

Hardy’s use of a fictional country as the setting for Far from the Madding Crowd may to today’s readers seem a strange one. Fictional countries and alternate histories are most often featured in children’s literature and science fiction, such as the Island of Sodor near the Cumbrian coast in Wilbert Awdry’s The Railway Series, or the “Brytain” of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, which was a Catholic theocracy rife with supernatural and steampunk elements.

Yet there is nothing slightly fantastic about Hardy’s Wessex, neither in the days of their release, nor to modern readers. Hardy, within the story itself, makes no distinction through narration or footnote that Wessex is an imagined country, and non-British readers, without contextual clues and references familiar only to locals, might accept the existence of a modern day Wessex without question and be surprised to find that it exists only at the end of Hardy’s pen. The inclusion of a detailed Wessex map in later publications complete with esoterically renamed towns and villages corresponding perfectly with “real” ones adds to this realism and potential confusion.

The success of Far from the Madding Crowd and the works that followed it gave a modern context to a period and region which by the 19th Century was mentioned only in history books, as Hardy mentions in his Preface to Far from the Madding Crowd, “...until the existence this contemporaneous Wessex was announced in the present story, in 1874, it had never been heard of...” (The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy 171)

In the Preface to Far from the Madding Crowd and in other sources such as letters to his publisher, Hardy emphasizes the modernity of his imaginary Wessex, calling it “a modern Wessex of railways, the penny post, mowing and reaping machines, union workhouses, lucifer matches, laborers who could read and write, and National school children.”, yet, the actual story seems to place value on pastoral visuals and romanticizes rustics such as Gabriel Oak and his fellow farmers. Chapter XXII describes in detail the sheep shearing ritual. Far from a modernized operation, the equipment used, and the building in which the shearing performed, had gone unchanged for centuries, the narrator calling the scene “ picture of to-day in its frame of four hundred years ago” (Madding Crowd 144) and using this to discuss the role and nature of time and how people perceive it.

The only mention of a railroad (perhaps the highest development of the day) in the novel is to illustrate Boldwood’s lack of understanding of his own relationship with Bathsheba by comparing him and Bathsheba to a reaper observing a passing train in Chapter XVII, “...as something foreign to his element, and but dimly understood.” (Madding Crowd 118) The one time the poor house, though perhaps a desirable improvement over a lifestyle of begging, appears, is as a place for the forlorn Fanny to die in. The modernity Hardy seems to laud as the crux of his setting is, in the story for which Wessex was invented, representative only of alienation and death, while the rural ancient traditions are the ways of fruitfulness and prosperity.

Additionally, as Keith Wilson points out in his essay “Hardy’s Vision of Wessex”, the term “Wessex” only appears in the text of the original serialized version once and is easily overlooked. Why then did Hardy bother with the added complexity of a purpose-built setting? Though perhaps not at the outset, at some point once Far from the Madding Crowd and the stories that followed it gained notoriety, Hardy viewed his fictional Wessex as a marketable asset of his works, saying in a letter to his publisher “Could you, whenever advertising my books, use the words "Wessex novels" at the head of the list?... ...I find that the name… ...is getting to be taken up everywhere…” (The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy)

That Hardy was concerned with preserving his right to market the name “Wessex” shows that he recognized the unique identity his setting endowed his stories with. Though he may not have anticipated it, Hardy’s Victorian Wessex is of tremendous benefit to Far from the Madding Crowd, a story that romanticizes the rustic and ancient, by assigning it a self-defining, all inclusive setting which Hardy keeps complete control and ownership, even from beyond the grave.

Mention of C.S. Lewis’ land of Narnia will always conjure images of magic, witches, and talking beasts; modern readers of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe need not know or care about the World War II air raids on London that lead the Pevensie to discover Narnia in the first place. Similarly, Wilbert Awdry’s The Railway Series books, set on the fictional Island of Sodor, could comfortably ignore the gradual modernization taking place on mainland Britain and continued to feature steam engines.

At the time of its first publication, Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd encapsulated a piece of British culture that was rapidly vanishing to mechanization, urbanization, and industrialization. The setting of a fictional (though historically plausible) Wessex provides an instant, ready-to-serve backdrop that has helped preserve Hardy’s own vision of his settings and characters. Wessex makes Far From the Madding Crowd immune to follies such as references to towns which have since changed their names, streets which no longer exist, or other period touches which would mark the book as being antiquated to today’s readers.

Modern readers need not “turn back the clock” of today’s Britain to discover Wessex. The  permanence and stability Hardy gave to his setting and the overall care in its construction demonstrate his desire to build up Far from the Madding Crowd as a story of observation and setting.

The beginning few chapters of Far from the Madding Crowd seem to star the setting and landscape almost as much as the characters themselves, as Linda Pavlovski observes in “Narrative, Gender, and Power in Far from the Madding Crowd” in Volume 153 of Modern Literary Criticism “The "Wessex" setting is almost a theme in itself... ...It is noteworthy that the most positively portrayed characters are those closest to the earth, such as Gabriel and the peasants who work the soil.”

This is apparent early on in the story, when in Chapter II, Hardy describes Norcombe Hill in vivid detail. The main character, Gabriel Oak, makes the pastoral scene complete, playing his flute, wearing his farmers garb and demonstrating an intimate knowledge of his surroundings on earth and the stars above, which Gabriel is able to keep time by and even build sun dials, a dying skill in the Victorian age of inexpensive pocket watches.

As though to draw focus to the scenery and Gabriel’s awareness of the scenery, Hardy in the narration of Chapter II says, “The instinctive act of humankind was to stand and listen, and learn how the trees on the right and the trees on the left wailed or chanted to each other in the regular antiphonies of a cathedral choir” (Madding Crowd 14), inviting the reader into becoming as much of an observer of the world on the page as Gabriel himself.

The narrator in Far from the Madding Crowd is not only omniscient, but acts almost as a one man Greek chorus, not only commenting on the actions and intentions of all the characters in advance of them happening or being expected by an unknowing reader, but observing, commenting on, and judging their developments in real time, an example of this being at the end Chapter XIII when Bathsheba writes and mails an insincere valentine to Mr. Boldwood asking him to marry her, “So very idly and unreflectingly was this deed done. Of love as a spectacle Bathsheba had a fair knowledge; but of love subjectively she knew nothing.” (Madding Crowd, 98) The narrator’s use of diagrams to make visual details such as footprints and wagon tracks explicit, such as in Chapter XXXII, further establishes the narrator as an intelligent, biased, and self-aware story teller and observer rather than a selfless mechanic by which the story is told.

As the reader first observes Oak through the narrator as though from a distance, Gabriel’s first encounter with Bathsheba is also a distant observation as she rides past Gabriel as a passenger on a wagon, while she is in turn observing herself through a mirror. Despite not having met her yet, Oak judges her as being guilty of vanity, though we are allowed to witness her treatment of the wagon driver and perhaps have more to assess her character by than Gabriel. Gabriel’s next experience with Bathsheba is also from afar, when he sees her, assuming that no one is watching, make unorthodox, though practical maneuvers on the back of her horse to avoid low hanging branches as she rides by.

Aside from the setting and all its components, Bathsheba is likely one of the most observed things to be found in Far from the Madding Crowd. She is watched from the beginning by Gabriel gawked at curiously at the corn market as one of the few women present. Watched by Boldwood figuratively as he waits anxiously for his chance to marry her and literally at the circus where the description of her seating there nearly makes seem as though the object of the show itself. Later in the circus scene, Troy secretly watches Bathsheba through a hole he cuts in the tent. Even Bathsheba herself is at least partially aware of all the attention being spent on her, commenting almost prophetically in Chapter XII after her adventure in the corn market, “...it was as bad as being married. Eyes everywhere!” (Madding Crowd 93)

At the time of its inception, the fictional setting of Far from the Madding Crowd may have been a whim or a gimmick with little impact on the story itself, and after the books success Wessex was used by Hardy and his publishers as a marketing tool, but to readers of today, both in Britain and beyond, Victorian Wessex frames the world of Gabriel Oak and establishes both setting, our perception of time, and the role of the observer as central themes of the novel.

Purdy, Millgate, “The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy:, Purdy
     Oxford: Clarendon, 1978
Wilson, Keith “Hardy's Vision of Wessex” English Literature in Transition p.214

    New York, 2003

Pavlovski, Linda “Narrative, Gender, and Power in Far from the Madding Crowd” Volume 153 of Modern Literary Criticism. p.162
    Detroit, 1991

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