Book 5: Far From the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy

‘Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenour of their way.’

‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’

Thomas Gray

Far From the Madding Crowd marks the second Hardy novel of my challenge, following hard on the heels of Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Book 3), and it is another novel which is dominated by a strong female figure, although a markedly less tragic one than the unfortunate Tess.

Bathsheba Everdene is Hardy’s headstrong heroine in this earlier pastoral text that follows her trials and tribulations in love. Placed in a remarkably independent position by the inheritance of her uncle’s farm, spirited Bathsheba decides to go it alone and manage the farm herself, seeing no need for marriage. Yet the captivating protagonist’s beauty is out of her control and earns her a trio of admirers in the form of loyal Gabriel Oak, obsessive Farmer Boldwood and dashing but dangerous Sergeant Troy.

Bathsheba’s position is quite extraordinary for a nineteenth century literary heroine, being the mistress of her own property and having no form of parental restriction or guidance. It is no surprise, therefore, that she has been of particular interests to feminists over the years. Her pursuit of an independent destiny and her determination to succeed by herself certainly make her a strong female exemplum, but she is by no means a feminist ideal.

Much like Tess’s ‘goodness made interesting’, Bathsheba is a complex character of competing passions and is all the more fascinating for it. While possessing rational judgement, she is often swayed by the force of her whim and becomes the puppet of desire after encountering serial seducer Troy. Bathsheba is also a victim of vanity and in this fault and in the strength of her passions embodies many feminine stereotypes of her time, a criticism that seems to rule out Hardy’s novel as a feminist text.

Yet for all these stereotypical tendencies, Bathsheba never fails to be a multi-faceted and fully believable character. Hardy’s insights into her mental turmoil demonstrate how passion erodes at reason and uncover the essential goodness she has at heart. She also, despite her surrender to her desires, remains a remarkably feisty and modern heroine and admirably protests against the patriarchal framework of her world, complaining that ‘it is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in a language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs’.

The men are, however, frequently incapable of expressing such emotions. Farmer Boldwood in particular is repression personified, suffocating emotions that fill him with ‘a fearful sense of exposure’ and forming an increasingly unhealthy obsession for Bathsheba. Unchecked passion may be warned against through Bathsheba’s fate, but Hardy’s depiction of Boldwood demonstrates that unacknowledged or hidden passion is just as undesirable.

Equally unappealing is Troy, another of Bathsheba’s suitors and also the lover of unfortunate maid Fanny Robin. While the handsome Sergeant can string together a pretty speech or two in his wooing of Bathsheba, his fickle and boyish nature soon becomes repellent rather than attractive and he stands as little more than a rakish stereotype, much like Alec in Tess of the D’Urbervilles – perhaps, however, not quite so despicable.

To continue the Tess parallels, this is another novel in which the male characters cannot live up to the heroine. There is one hero, however, in the unwaveringly loyal and frankly adorable Gabriel Oak, Bathsheba’s first sweetheart and one staunch friend and supporter throughout. In his constant love, simple goodness and harmonious connection to nature, the only real objection that might be made to Gabriel’s character is that he is a little too perfect; the good shepherd in every respect.

This brings me to the wealth of Biblical references in the novel and its ambiguous attitude towards religion. Both Gabriel and Bathsheba have Biblical namesakes whose characteristics can be seen reflected to some extent in their natures, while Gabriel’s profession as a shepherd, united with his many virtues, has obvious Biblical resonances.

Yet Gabriel’s goodness seems more innate and tied to the natural world than connected to religion and despite the constant influence of Christianity, most of the inhabitants of Hardy’s rural world are casual churchgoers at best. Indeed, the most ardent follower of religion, Joseph Poorgrass, is little more than a rustic butt of jokes; a hypocritical and ridiculous would-be preacher. Where, then, can we locate Hardy’s standing on religion?

Ambiguous too is the novel’s viewpoint on the rural world that it depicts, a world that during Hardy’s time was under the threat of encroaching modernity. This text does not engage much with the wider world beyond the farms and villages of the central characters and has as a result been criticised for ignoring social issues, but there is subtle mention of the modernisation sweeping across Britain and an implicit warning against threatening outside influences in the form of the corrupting Troy.

Although Hardy’s text takes its title from the Thomas Gray poem quoted above, his rural community is one that is far less peaceful and manages to have its fair share of noise and drama despite being remote from the bustle of the city. At the same time as enshrining the myth of the pastoral ideal, Hardy in another sense smashes it apart through the tragic disruptions caused by death and sorrow.

With a richly textured setting and cast of characters, Far From the Madding Crowd is a deliciously English novel that celebrates the pastoral without shying away from life’s bleak realities. While often idyllic, Hardy’s ‘sequester’d vale of life’ is far from a rural idyll.

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Book 4: The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

‘The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes’

Sherlock Holmes is the stuff of literary legend, a character who has transcended the books and author who brought him into the world and even the genre which has provided his vehicle.

As a cultural icon, Detective Holmes has many faces, be it the traditional Basil Rathbone incarnation, a hands-on, superhero-esque Robert Downey Jr in Hollywood’s recent action movie transformation, or the rather more detached and intellectual Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC’s Sherlock. The latter has certainly filtered my mental image of the great fictional detective, but The Hound of the Baskervilles marks my first encounter with Holmes’s origins and the character as Arthur Conan Doyle originally envisaged him – and not a deerstalker in sight.

In this most famous of the Holmes stories, the detective faces one of his toughest challenges. Sir Charles Baskerville has died suddenly in strange circumstances, a death connected with an old legend about a supernatural hound that haunts the Baskerville family. As Charles’s heir Henry moves into the family’s isolated Dartmoor home of Baskerville Hall, Holmes and Watson are brought in to solve the mystery. While Holmes’s scientific mind dismisses such fantastic myths, the case is dogged with superstitious rumour (no pun intended) and the baying of a hound is heard across the moors at night …

Uniting all the trademark elements of a gripping crime thriller with a generous dash of the Gothic, Doyle creates a memorable page-turner. Without having read any other Holmes stories with which to compare it, I tentatively suspect that the enduring popularity of this novel over all the others is its incorporation of something beyond the usual detective yarn. While the supernatural may go completely against the grain of Holmes’s signature scientific approach, it adds a vital element of doubt that heightens the tension of the text; could this be the one case which Holmes fails to solve? Is there a force greater than the detective at work here?

The famous sleuth himself does not disappoint, being every inch the eccentric but brilliant mind that his cultural status had led me to expect. He is also the mouthpiece for some quite wonderful speeches, combining genius with a healthy dose of arrogance. If I were Watson, however, I might frequently be quite miffed by Holmes’s dismissals; the following lines, for instance, stand out in my memory as the ultimate backhanded compliment: ‘It may be that you yourself are not luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it’. Ouch.

Having Watson as narrator, however, proves to be a canny decision on the part of Doyle, and Holmes’s sidekick provides the perfect narrative viewpoint on events. Through the eyes of this rather ordinary man, with whom readers can identify far more than with the figure of Holmes, we are allowed to shape our own impressions of all the main players and suspects and formulate our own theories. This device also allows us to see Holmes in all his glory as refracted through the consciousness of one of his greatest and most loyal admirers.

To delve further into the plot would be to ruin Doyle’s meticulously engineered suspense machine, but suffice to say that this is an extremely clever and well-crafted detective novel. I must admit that I am far from an avid reader of crime fiction and am not often tempted to read detective stories, but this classic kept me hooked and was made all the more interesting by the unforgettable central figure of the greatest and most famous detective that literature has given us. He may not constantly claim centre stage throughout the narrative, but this novel rightly belongs to Mr Sherlock Holmes.

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Book 3: Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy

‘But, might some say, where was Tess’s guardian angel? where was the providence of her simple faith?’

Exquisitely beautiful in its inevitable tragedy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles makes a masterpiece out of melancholy.

Charting the steady, irrevocable destruction of doomed heroine Tess, the book takes on a poetic texture, as Thomas Hardy’s lyrical descriptions of nature mirror and echo the experiences of his protagonist. The other main character of this novel, if there is one, is neither of Tess’s lovers, but rather the Wessex countryside of which Hardy is as enamoured as he is of his captivating heroine.

Irving Howe has described the eponymous Tess as ‘that rare creature in literature: goodness made interesting’. There is no doubt that Hardy’s lovingly rendered heroine is the heart of the novel, eclipsing the whole host of colourful characters that inhabit the pages alongside her. Hardy’s subtitle describes Tess as a ‘pure woman’, which she certainly is in every sense at the opening of the narrative, where we meet her as an innocent country girl of modest origins. Her fate is sealed, however, when her parents send her to the D’Urbervilles, their supposed distant relations, where she is robbed of her innocence by Alec D’Urberville.

Hardy paints Tess with vivid colours, creating one of the most arresting and memorable characters of nineteenth century literature. She is both a reflection and symbol of the natural environment that she inhabits, with her surroundings – so sublimely evoked by Hardy’s prose – continually tied to her shifting emotional state. This deep connection with nature lends a greater dimension to Tess’s joys and griefs, with her sorrow seeming to echo some larger melancholy.

While sorrow is a vital component of Tess’s character, Hardy also endows her with a passionate and impulsive nature that makes her ever more endearing and real to the reader, rather than allowing her to become a meek, drab victim; she is no suffering saint but, as Howe puts it, ‘goodness made interesting’. Few literary characters have been given such beauty and vivacity by their creators, conveying the sense that Hardy found his heroine just as alluring and irresistible as her lovers do. The novel is almost like a love letter to Tess from Hardy, or perhaps more like a mournful memorial to a lost love.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles has many of the markings of tragedy; a reversal of fortune, an inevitability to events, a sense of pathos. Yet Hardy inverts traditional conceptions of tragedy by having a humble milkmaid as his tragic heroine rather than charting the fall of a great figure. In fact Tess’s family have already fallen, as we learn at the beginning of the novel that she is descended from a great old aristocratic family that has fallen on hard times.

The other way that Hardy’s novel diverges from the prescriptions of tragedy is in the lack of an intrinsic mistake or character flaw in Tess that causes her downfall; it is merely the events that seem determined to conspire against her, with unfortunate coincidences and disastrously bad timing befalling her at every turn. If there is any fatal flaw prompting the tragic course of Tess’s life it is her family’s assumed sense of grandeur following the uncovering of their grand origins, a discovery which leads them to send Tess to claim kin from Alec’s mother.

So brilliantly does Hardy’s tragic heroine shine that her lovers seem dim and flat by comparison. Alec fits the bill of the classic villain, a wicked seducer who unrepentingly states: ‘I suppose I am a bad fellow – a damn bad fellow. I was born bad, and I have lived bad, and I shall die bad in all probability’. So blackly is he painted that the reader almost feels the urge to hiss and boo as he makes an entrance, leaving him to serve a purpose more as a symbol than as a fully formed character.

Angel’s character acquires more colour, as he is both Tess’s protector and persecutor by turns. His attempts to break away from his family and be a free-thinker are intriguing, but he proves to be a man of thought rather than of action. His love for Tess, rather than the pure and unconditional love she bears for him, is based upon an idealised image of her rather than a reality and when this image is shattered he retreats to the recesses of his mind, revealing him as essentially weak. To the modern reader, Angel’s condemnation and rejection of Tess is distinctly unpalatable. Only by his eventual return to Tess is he partially redeemed, but never does he achieve the strength or passion of his lover.

There is an almost painful beauty to Hardy’s novel as it moves inexorably towards its tragic conclusion, beguiling in its poetry and captivating in its sorrow. Lyrical and deeply moving, Tess of the D’Urbervilles eventually leaves us with no other option but to join Hardy in mourning the fate of his luminous heroine.

The next book in my challenge will be Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles.

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Book 2: Enduring Love, Ian McEwan

‘We were running towards a catastrophe, which itself was a kind of furnace in whose heat identities and fates would buckle into new shapes’

My challenge continues with another race of a read, this time from Ian McEwan, one of my favourite living authors. This is my sixth McEwan novel, following Atonement, Amsterdam, The Innocent, On Chesil Beach and The Cement Garden, and sits somewhere between the horror-tinged narratives of The Innocent and the deeply disturbing The Cement Garden and the probing psychological depth of Atonement. In a tale that tackles love, obsession and trauma, McEwan brings his brilliant character insight hand in hand with a compelling plot that remains taut as a bow string with tension.

The novel opens with a tragic hot air balloon accident, an incident that is striking in its uncommonness; this is no ordinary, everyday catastrophe, and the singularity of the event, painted in long and vivid strokes by McEwan, makes it a fitting set-piece to serve as a springboard for the rest of the novel. There is from the beginning a tangible sense of the unsettling, prompted by the intrusion of this bizarre disaster into an idyllic countryside picnic. It is rendered all the more arresting by McEwan’s lingering description of events and the abrupt changes of pace; as McEwan writes, ‘the best description of a reality does not need to mimic its velocity’.

Among those tangled up in this accident are narrator Joe, his partner Clarissa and lonely young man Jed Parry. What begins as tragedy soon deepens into something more sinister as the collision of the couple with Parry has consequences that none of them would have anticipated. Parry rapidly develops a stifling obsession with Joe, lingering outside his home, writing him endless love letters and causing a destructive rift between him and Clarissa. While the deluded love Parry professes seems needy rather than violent, there hangs over the narrative the constant threat that his unstable character could suddenly become dangerous.

The ‘enduring love’ of the title has a myriad of meanings: the strong and lasting love between Joe and Clarissa that is gradually eroded by the outside pressure of Parry; the unrelenting passion Parry feels for Joe; the obsessive affection that Joe must endure from his stalker. Obsession likewise goes more than one way, as Joe soon becomes as wrapped up in his stalker as Parry is in him. Through McEwan’s nuanced and perceptive portrayal of his narrator, readers are left with a psychological portrait of a strained man still suffering from the impact of trauma, planting a grain of doubt in his ardent fears that he is being stalked. Joe is just unreliable enough as a narrator to prevent this from being a clear-cut case of pursuer and prey throughout.

Despite the page-turning intensity and tense plotting of this novel, Enduring Love is much more than a thriller. As well as the hovering presence of threat and the psychological question posing, there is at the centre of McEwan’s book an intriguing tension between science and religion, logic and emotion. Joe is a science journalist who regrets his abandonment of research, with this regret fuelling a scientific dissection of every aspect of his life, applying a rigorous logic to his situation with Parry that soon tips over into the hysterical and paranoid, ironically going against his desire for cool examination.

Clarissa, meanwhile, is a Keats scholar enveloped in a love of words and the Romantic philosophy, casting a critical eye over Joe’s dogged rationality. Completing this trio of oppositely tugging viewpoints is Parry, a Christian who believes that it is his mission to bring Joe to God. These central characters provide three vital pivots for the discussion that runs as a constant undercurrent to the action, adding a further dimension that gives the novel dual layers of enjoyment. Parry’s religion, however, is treated with a distinct note of disdain that precludes the pursuit of further interesting reflection; while Parry’s perception of Christianity is clearly skewed by his own delicate mental state, there is the danger of associating religion more widely with characters such as Parry and undermining belief through Joe’s dismissal of faith that is, one feels, a slightly unnecessary reflection of McEwan’s own views.

Alongside such discussion, McEwan keeps readers’ jangling nerves on edge through a retrospectively imposed tension on the part of narrator Joe, lending even the most innocuous of scenes an ominous aura by the repeatedly imparted knowledge that some unspecified horror is about to occur. The beauty of McEwan’s writing is that he can unfold a short incident in painstakingly minute detail over the space of chapter and still hook readers on every single word. His disasters are exquisite in their compelling detail.

With his stunning first chapter, however, McEwan sets up an opening that he cannot match with his conclusion. There is a hint of the anti-climax about the way in which McEwan ties up his various threads, with the knots being a little too neat for my liking. McEwan, who usually eschews cathartic narrative resolutions, writes in one of his final chapters that ‘the narrative compression of storytelling, especially in movies, beguiles us with happy endings into forgetting that sustained stress is corrosive of feeling’, yet goes on to give readers an uncharacteristically resolved conclusion. Perhaps he simply began with an intensity that could not quite be sustained.

Yet despite such criticisms, Enduring Love remains a beautiful and engrossing read that confirms once again in my mind – if I needed any further confirmation –  McEwan’s status as one of the great writers of his generation.

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Book 1: The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde

‘what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’ Mark 8:36

Oscar Wilde’s Preface to his only novel, written in response to the scandalised and scathing reception Dorian Gray received from the press, issues the reader with a warning. Wilde states that ‘those who read the symbol do so at their peril’ and that the role of the critic is to ‘translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things’. I am unsure if I can answer Wilde’s demand of the critic and therefore proceed, somewhat cautiously, at my peril.

The premise of Wilde’s dazzling novel is that a beautiful young man, the eponymous subject of the picture, rashly exclaims that he would give up his soul to remain young forever and have his portrait age instead. His desire is inexplicably granted, leaving Wilde to examine the consequences in a book that is as much a meditation on art and life as it is the story of one man’s terrible choice. A vindication of the saying ‘be careful what you wish for’ if ever there was one.

Though a relatively slim volume and one that I managed to race through within a day, The Picture of Dorian Gray is more challenging than its number of pages might suggest and remains a bit of a puzzle. While the plot in itself is straightforward enough – though the central metamorphosis affecting the portrait remains a mystery – it is Wilde’s probing of ideas, by turns playful and philosophical, that throws up innumerable questions. Can or should art contain anything of its creator? What relation does art bear to life? How far is it possible to influence another human being? I could go on and on.

One of the most fascinating of the concepts thrown about in the novel is that of art. The Preface advocates ‘art for art’s sake’, boldly stating that ‘no artist desires to prove anything’ and provocatively declaring that ‘all art is quite useless’. Of course its lack of a practical use is one of the beauties of art; it needs no use but to be experienced, appreciated and enjoyed. Wilde also writes in the Preface that there is ‘no such thing as a moral or an immoral book’, suggesting that, contrary to the opinions of the age, art cannot corrupt. This may well be a defence against the accusations made towards his controversial book, but it sets up the rest of the novel in an intriguing manner. Art, Wilde argues, does not exert moral influence, yet it is the exquisite beauty of his portrait that prompts the wish that will determine the rest of Dorian Gray’s life, while he claims that he has been ‘poisoned’ by the book that his friend Lord Henry Wotton lends him.

Here there may possibly be detected a note of cynicism. While Dorian blames the influence of both art and his persuasive friend for his descent into sin, it is perhaps more likely that this is a facet of his nature that has been present all along. He embraces a selfish life devoted to pleasure with little hesitance and although he describes the painting as his ‘conscience’, he seems unswayed by it in his actions despite his disgust for it. When the portrait eventually reveals Dorian as a hypocrite, it is easy to conclude that this is what he has been throughout, placing blame at art’s door when it is he who is truly at fault – a damning rebuke to readers who saw immorality in Wilde’s work. After all, the art that Dorian experiences later in life during his dedication to pleasure holds only temporary sway over him, failing to truly move or influence him.

Almost more fascinating than the central character is his friend and mentor Lord Henry Wotton, surely one of the most quotable characters in English literature. Spouting wonderfully preposterous phrases such as ‘I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible’ and ‘the value of an idea has nothing whatsoever to do with the sincerity of the man who expresses it’, his speeches should be savoured. It is not surprising that his witticisms found him connected with Wilde himself; in one of his letters, the author wrote that ‘Lord Henry [is] what the world thinks me’. Many of the scenes seem set up merely to prompt philosophical discussion led by Henry, leading to dialogue that, unsurprisingly for Wilde, fizzes and sparkles. Henry is indeed all talk and whenever we see him he is connected with conversation rather than action, living vicariously through Dorian, over whom he attempts to exert his influence.

Speaking of influence, Wilde’s own literary influences are quite evident throughout the novel. The central idea of a character surrendering his soul in exchange for some kind of earthly gratification immediately recalls the Faust legend, widely disseminated through Marlowe and Goethe’s literary incarnations, although Dorian Gray wishes for eternal youth rather than unlimited knowledge. There are also hints of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, written by Wilde’s contemporary Robert Louis Stevenson not long prior to Dorian Gray, continuing the nineteenth century literary fascination with doubling and doppelgangers that can arguably seen in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Victor Frankenstein and the Creature) and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (Jane and Bertha).

Furthermore, there is a hint of the Gothic as Dorian’s dread intensifies, with the portrait almost taking on the qualities of a supernatural demon or monster. As surely as the Creature is destined to be Victor Frankenstein’s end, Dorian’s life is irrevocably tied to the monstrous picture that his wish has created. Visible also are strands of psychology, a study that is referred to frequently throughout the novel. Yet Wilde takes all these influences and inspirations and moulds them, to take the words of the Preface, into ‘new material’. Filled with dazzling conversation and beautifully crafted prose, Dorian Gray is, like its protagonist, perfectly formed.

As has probably been made evident, I could write on and on about this book. A quick and thrilling read, it unites a gripping central plot with thought-provoking questions, leaving me to continue mulling over the many philosophical points raised. My initial thoughts only begin to touch on the many themes of this novel, so please expand on my musings by adding your own comments and letting me know what you thought about the book.

One book down, only 99 to go!

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