“The madding crowd” is an expression that we have often heard. The word “madding” should not be confused with “maddening”; the latter means irritating, while the former means frenzied. Best known for his spellbinding novel, Tess, Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), an architect, made his living as the writer of serials for magazines that became a dozen well-regarded novels, many short stories, along with considerable poetry that is still admired. Hardy had the gift of making us fall in love with his heroines and believe his other characters, because, like O’Henry, he couldn’t hide his love of mankind and Mother Nature and his acceptance of the cruelties of life, as bravely endured by his characters. With deceivingly simple tales of everyday life, we fall under the spell of his captivating descriptions, superb vocabulary, poignant details and his pellucid prose, but, above all, it is the pull of his heroines that glues us implacably to his text, to linger over every word that Hardy will share with us.
Hardy’s plots are replete with intriguing twists and turns, and his characters are fascinatingly real and painfully vulnerable to the hostile forces of our planet. While Hardy rarely discusses religion or God, his characters’ lives reveal an underlying agnosticism or existentialism. The critics were rarely kind to Hardy, and he ceased writing around 1900, but his novels grew in popularity in his later years and still sell in airport book stores.
When we finish his books, his phrases haunt us at myriad levels: “she was a romance among sermons, a breeze among furnaces…a desolating wind…a fathomless shade…”; “…trees that wailed at each other in the antiphonies of a cathedral choir…hair overgrowing his gnarled figure like the grey moss and lichen upon a leafless apple tree…”
Although Far from the Madding Crowd, the title of his third novel, is a catchy phrase that has become part of English lexicon and the story has been presented in films, its flavor, milieu, characters, etc. are reminiscent of his classic, Tess, a product of his final writing days. Since both present stories of English farm life in early to middle 1800’s, regions that had yet to feel the impact of the incipient Industrial Revolution, if the reader has time to read only one Hardy book, Tess is the clear choice. See my book notes on Tess.