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Places to Go: Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Written by Rachael Norris, 17th April 2020

Literature provides us with one of the most powerful experiences of travel, all from the comfort of our front living room. Places to Go, People to See is a special feature that The Reader is bringing to you in the hope that it may provide some inspiration on how we can spend our time at home during these difficult times. We will be posting extracts from stories which highlight special moments of travel and adventure, for you to enjoy and, if possible, share.

If I could go anywhere right now, where would I go? The answer might be a surprising one, in that I wouldn’t choose an exotic location; not a beach with sprawling white sands or to the other side of the world to explore the unknown. As I write, the sky is rather cloudy but it’s a pleasant day, warm and with a faint breeze and sunshine streaming through the open window. Quite a perfect day near the start of Spring. I consider myself lucky to have a fairly spacious back garden, and will certainly be taking advantage of the bright and dry days to sit out, feel the sun on my face and do some reading – as well as some laps of the lawn to up my daily step count (I don’t suspect that my Fitbit is too impressed with me at the moment).

While I’m grateful in some senses that lockdown has coincided with the shift from chilly winds and grey gloom, I am missing having the chance to soak up nature as it bursts into life once more in wider open spaces. My lunchtime walk around Calderstones Park and the beautiful walled gardens, a Saturday spent venturing across the water to a beauty spot I haven’t had chance to see before. A couple of years ago, around about this time of year, a couple of friends and I spent the day at Lyme Park in Disley, Cheshire, perhaps most well-known for being the exterior of Pemberley in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. I remember walking around the gardens, as well as pausing to stand still, feeling awed by the breadth of the surroundings and trying to refrain from using the camera on my mobile phone to capture how lovely everything was: to simply breathe in and appreciate it.

I suppose that something from Pride and Prejudice would have been the ideal choice following on from that anecdote, but instead I settled upon an excerpt from Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. Staying fairly close to home, then, to the rural South West of England. Being a life-long city dweller, and not knowing that much about farm life other than catching the odd episode of Countryfile, I find that visiting this landscape is an adventure for me, with lots of insight not just about the practicalities and day-long toil, but also about the sense of solitude and how it’s much more ingrained into the way of life than for those of used to the hustle and bustle. What would it be like to go days or even weeks without seeing any other people (though the animals would undoubtedly keep you busy)? How do you adapt to and ‘get used’ to that? I suspect that it’s in-built into the nature of some people as opposed to others – a kind of innate resilience and tenacity borne of steel and having to face physical as well as mental adversity - but it would still get tough.

This excerpt is from Chapter 3, early on in the novel. Previously, we have been introduced to Gabriel Oak, who has not that long ago leased a farm as a young, single man, and is looking after some two hundred ewes and rearing their lambs. His lodgings are simple, his lifestyle solitary and focused. However, he has twice encountered – by sight only – a striking young woman, first passing through the fields on a wagon and then, when he spies her in her own dwelling – not far from his own – through a hole in the roof. Modern readers might first think his behaviour as slightly unnerving, but perhaps it speaks to a longing for human contact? Gabriel certainly is intrigued by the mysterious woman, who it will later transpire is one Bathsheba Everdene, the heroine of the novel.

We meet Gabriel hours later as he goes in search of Bathsheba with the task of giving her back the hat she had lost while traversing the previous night. Once again, he finds his attention arrested by a sight he had not expected – Bathsheba riding her horse in a rather unconventional and carefree manner. He does return the hat, and a short conversation ensues between the pair, with Bathsheba expressing more than a little surprise.

What I really like about this extract, other than Bathsheba’s remarkable and impressive display of horse-riding, is the way each reacts to the attentions of the other. Self-consciousness is referred to, and certainly, I’m sure we can all empathise with Gabriel and Bathsheba on how those first impressions and interactions with another person can make us feel more hesitant and shyer than we would be usually. I love this line: “The self-consciousness shown would have been vanity if a little more pronounced, dignity if a little less.” How easily the balance can be tipped one way or another! Though Gabriel has had more time to prepare for the encounter, he is the one who seems more affected: “Yet it was the man who blushed, the maid not at all.”

I also find myself moved by the way in which Gabriel accommodates Bathsheba when he catches ‘perception’ of her being aware that he had seen her on horseback; he shows an understanding, sympathetic nature, giving her courtesy and space to recover herself, when it might have been easy to dismiss or ignore, or steam ahead with his own plans. This makes me think that Gabriel Oak is a decent man, indeed, and even while in isolation he has not lost an ability to pick up on the fine points of human feeling.

The chapter does continue after we leave Gabriel ‘between that of Tragedy and Comedy’, and if you’re intrigued to know how the interaction develops between the two, then I’d urge you to read on a little more. You can do so by clicking here.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed our little trip to the countryside, and if you’re feeling more cut-off than usual then why not reach out to a friend or loved one via phone or video call – with a little more advance warning than Gabriel, of course!

Take care x

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