By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Far from the Madding Crowd, first published in 1874, remains one of Hardy’s most popular novels. It was his first big success as a writer – his fourth published novel, it was the one which helped to convince him that abandoning architecture in favour of writing novels could be a lucrative career move.
It is among the most adapted of Hardy’s novels. (If you’re interested in learning more about Hardy’s books, check out our compilation of the best Thomas Hardy novels.)
Far from the Madding Crowd was first adapted for film in 1915; the most celebrated big-screen adaptation to date is John Schlesinger’s 1967 film, starring Julie Christie as Bathsheba Everdene. Now, in 2015, a new film adaptation is hitting the cinemas, with a screenplay by Starter for Ten author David Nicholls and with Carey Mulligan in the role of Bathsheba. Over the years there have been other, more surprising, adaptations of the book: one of our favourite Far from the Madding Crowd facts is that in 1996 (and again, more recently, in 2012) the Birmingham Royal Ballet staged a production of the novel. Hardy himself adapted the novel for the stage in 1882, with Marion Terry (younger sister of the more famous Ellen) in the Bathsheba role.
The novel tells the story of Bathsheba Everdene and the three men who vie for her affections: the reliable and luckless shepherd Gabriel Oak, the dashing but selfish soldier Sergeant Troy, and the older, stern figure of Farmer Boldwood.
As with many Hardy novels – consider Under the Greenwood Tree, The Trumpet-Major, and The Woodlanders for points of comparison – the Darwinian competition between the various male characters for the hand of the woman will lead to both tragedy and, thankfully, to happier outcomes. (We’ll say no more for fear of offering spoilers to those who’ve yet to read the book, or see a film adaptation.)
As with Hardy’s second novel from two years earlier, Under the Greenwood Tree, Hardy borrowed the title of Far from the Madding Crowd from a previous work of literature: the title suggests the rural remoteness of the novel’s setting and its pastoral backdrop. ‘Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife’ is a line from Thomas Gray’s 1751 poem ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’. (‘Madding’ is an old word meaning ‘frenzied’ or ‘becoming mad’ and so doesn’t mean quite the same thing as ‘maddening’.)
Between Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd, Hardy wrote A Pair of Blue Eyes, an interesting if not wholly successful novel which, in some important respects, foreshadows his later masterpiece, Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
Hardy first used the term ‘Wessex’ in Far from the Madding Crowd, for the region of south-west England in which most of his novels are set. Now, Hardy’s name is synonymous with Wessex and it is largely down to Hardy that this Anglo-Saxon kingdom’s name came to be revived. Far from the Madding Crowd was popular upon its serialisation in the Cornhill Magazine in 1874, and reviews were generally favourable, although a young Henry James was unimpressed: ‘Everything human in the book strikes us as factitious and insubstantial; the only things we believe in are the sheep and the dogs.’ Posterity has largely disagreed with James.
The novel was published anonymously, leading reviewers and readers to speculate about the author’s identity. It was even suggested that the author was George Eliot, who had recently published her masterpiece, Middlemarch, in 1871-2.
The legacy of the novel extends beyond film (or, indeed, ballet) adaptations to the work of other writers. The Guardian comic strip Tamara Drewe – made into a 2010 film directed by Stephen Frears – owes its existence to Far from the Madding Crowd. And Bathsheba’s surname in the novel, Everdene, inspired the surname of Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games novels, because, as Collins herself has put it, ‘both [characters] struggle with knowing their hearts’.
The novel is available in many cheap editions, of which Far from the Madding Crowd (Wordsworth Classics) is the best.
If you enjoyed these interesting facts about Far from the Madding Crowd, check out our interesting facts about Thomas Hardy and our pick of the best Thomas Hardy novels. And if you want a new Hardy novel to discover, here’s our summary of Hardy’s 1881 novel A Laodicean, his curious tale of photography, castles, lesbianism, architecture, and telegrams.