Valentine’s Day is here, and with it, the usual slew of literary and pop culture reminders of what love does to us. Pick your poison—Jane Austen, Nicholas Sparks, the Brontes, Old Hollywood, 90s rom coms, BBC bodice rippers—we are saturated by reminders that a rewarding life includes a worthy, rewarding and, above all, romantic relationship.
I don’t hate the romantic canon. But I want to convince you that we should broaden it by reviving an underrated masterpiece: Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. (The novel has also been made into a beautiful movie, although, full disclosure, I’ve not seen the 1967 version with Julie Christie, only the 2015 version). Hardy was a master at capturing the messy struggle between the rational mind and our worst human impulses. Although set in the nineteenth century, the story retains a hit-you-in-the-gut relevance.
The novel is set in a fictional English Wessex countryside, late 1870s. Enter Bathsheba Everdene (yes, Suzanne Collins gave Katniss of Hunger Games fame a similar last name in tribute to her.) She is a well-educated, gorgeous, impecunious daughter of forward-thinking parents who died, leaving her to live off relatives’ charity. She soon crosses paths with Gabriel Oak, an ambitious shepherd nearing financial security and prepared to settle down. He asks Bathsheba for her hand in marriage.
Bathsheba rejects his very decent proposal of marriage with a few quote worthy lines, such as, “I hate to be thought men’s property in that way—though possibly I shall be had some day,” and “A marriage would be very nice in one sense. People would talk about me, and think I had won my battle, and I should feel triumphant, and all that. But a husband. . .” Doesn’t that sound familiar?
Fate strikes them both decisively. Bathsheba inherits a farm, making her just the sort of woman she urged Oak to go find. He, meanwhile, loses his flock, is reduced to nothing, and fate intercedes to put him in her employ. Situations and roles are reversed, and her determination to be taken seriously as an unmarried woman farmer is unbounded. As she tells her farmhands, “In short, I shall astonish you all.” Her work is her everything. Sounds pretty twenty-first century millennial feminist to me.
Yet their equal commitment to work and unspoken respect for each other allow Bathsheba and Gabriel to find an even keel despite the possible awkwardness of the situation. As she challenges all expectations, his confidence in her and his honesty keep her business steady.
Yet Bathsheba does some stupid, human things, such as sending a Valentine on a dare to Boldwood, a rich, older bachelor farmer. Boldwood, for his part, receives it and begins to obsess over Bathsheba, eventually proposing to her. (Warning to us all: Don’t send that text message you know you shouldn’t). Bathsheba eventually handles Boldwood’s proposal badly, telling him, essentially, “It’s not you, it’s me. I’m not ready for a relationship.” But she keeps him hanging on, and he grows more obsessive.
Meanwhile, Bathsheba also grows dependent on Oak, despite her outsized sense of independence. When they argue and he leaves, she begs him, in a stance of complete public vulnerability and humility, to return. Oak stays, saves her flock, and they are reconciled. It’s a turning point. He speaks his mind, serves her with dedication, but stands on principle and will leave if she mistreats him.
And then along comes Frank Troy, a wayward Army officer and typical bad boy. Bathsheba meets him when he is on the rebound from another love affair. He flatters her, albeit often inappropriately, and as Hardy describes:
Bathsheba loved Troy in the way that only self-reliant women love when they abandon their self-reliance. When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away.
Gabriel Oak confronts Bathsheba about her affection for Troy and insists he has no conscience or morality. She ignores Gabriel’s advice and elopes with Troy. Things deteriorate immediately. As Bathsheba and Oak struggle to keep the farm afloat, Troy gambles away their profits and makes the marriage a living hell. Eventually, Troy abandons Bathsheba, and is believed dead.
Time passes. Boldwood again proposes to Bathsheba; he would be her sugar daddy if she would be his trophy wife. When Christmas Eve arrives, Bathsheba—like many a young lady avoiding a nightmarish social situation—tries to avoid giving Boldwood a response to his proposal, but then Troy reappears. The scoundrel arrives at the party determined to reclaim the cozy lifestyle his wife’s hard work made possible for him. When Troy tries to drag Bathsheba out of the room, Boldwood shoots and kills him, willingly going to prison for his crime of passion.
A better life for Bathsheba eventually comes, but, as with all good things, it takes a little more time. She eventually realizes just how dependent she was on Gabriel even when she thought she was independent. In a tenderly written, delicately awkward dance of implied meanings and new understandings, Hardy gives Bathsheba and Gabriel a happy ending. That conversation is too beautiful to sum up here so check it out for yourself.
So what advice might Hardy’s masterpiece have to offer the 21st century millennial woman? A great deal more than one usually finds in Austen or Bronte. In Hardy’s Bathsheba, we find a financially independent, modern young woman pursuing her business with passion and sense, yet failing to pursue romance with the same insight. She makes stupid decisions despite her intelligence, and gets into ugly situations despite her beauty. Only with time does she see where virtue really lies: not in the excitement of a bad boy, or the financial security of a sugar daddy, but in the relationship that made her smooth the rougher edges of her nature; the relationship that gave her freedom in dependence. As Oak reflects, “Love is a possible strength in an actual weakness.”
So ladies, this Valentine’s Day, take advantage of these life lessons. Pursue your career passions with gusto, and find someone who supports your passion, as you do for him. Find a friend. Find a Mr. Oak. Gents, realize that Gabriel Oak is not perfect. Hardy gives him inner monologues that make clear he isn’t. But he is good. So aspire to be a Mr. Oak in your dealings with women. If you can’t be a Mr. Oak, at least avoid being a Boldwood or Francis Troy.