Far From the Madding Crowd: an interview with Ruth Goodman
Despite being one of the most dramatic love stories of the 19th century, Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, Far From the Madding Crowd, in fact centres on a headstrong young woman who is determined to defy the conventions of the day and not get married
Set in the Dorset countryside in the mid-19th century, the film follows the life of independent Bathsheba Everdene, who catches the attention of three very different suitors: a sheep farmer, a wealthy, older bachelor, and a dashing – yet notoriously philandering – soldier. The novel also encapsulates Hardy’s nostalgia for the romantic countryside in the mid-Victorian period.
The film adaption of Hardy’s work, which stars Carey Mulligan and Michael Sheen, was this week released on DVD.
Here, speaking to History Extra, historian Ruth Goodman discusses how the film reflects the great sense of community among those living in rural England at the time, and considers how Hardy’s work challenged ideas regarding the position of women in the 19th century.
Q: What do you particularly like about the film?
A: I think it’s the feeling of the countryside. When you walk into the countryside today, it’s empty. There’s very little people working on the land, and those who do work on farms are usually encased by machines. However, in the 19th century – particularly in the mid-19th century – before any efficient farm machinery arrived, the country was filled with people.
The film Far From the Madding Crowd really creates the feeling of a place of community and life among the countryside. In the sheep-washing scene – where the farmers stand in a water hole while the sheep are moved through the water one by one – you can see that this is a community event. Everyone is there – both sexes, people of all ages and many different social classes are gathered together for this big agricultural activity. You also see this in the harvest scene where the workers are gathering the crop – everyone is working together.
However, we cannot glamourise this – in reality it was hard physical work.
Q: Was farming the centre of the rural community in the mid-1800s, the time in which the film was set?
A: Definitely. We take it for granted these days that we have so much to eat. In the 19th century, every person in society watched the harvest. From the rural workers to the wealthiest landowners, everyone had to watch it in order to survive. This was because if you had a bad harvest, there wasn’t any form of mass transport that could be relied upon to bring in supplies of food to the country.
The mass transport of grain from the US that occurred in the later decades of the century is what changed the countryside. Food could now be imported from other countries, meaning there was less need to rely on British farms to produce enough food for everyone. But before this, there wasn’t a way of transporting goods on mass around the country. So the harvest mattered to everybody. Even if you worked in the city as a railway clerk, for example, how much you ate depended on the weather that summer.
Q: How has community life changed from then to now?
A: It is definitely different, but in my opinion we can’t say it is better or worse. Countryside communities were very interconnected at the time. I happen to live in a village at the moment, and no one works with anyone else from the local community. We might meet in the pub, but we don’t work alongside each other.
But, at the time that Hardy was writing, people did live their whole lives alongside one another. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that is was a great life, as there was an enormously strict hierarchy.
It’s very rare for any community to live and work with each other these days. While those people who used to work alongside each other in factories or in the dockyard would also live alongside each other, that kind of lifestyle has completely gone today.
Q: Despite the expansion of the railways in the second half of the 19th century, we understand travel was still quite restricted for many people. However, there seems to be a great sense of camaraderie and community in the film. Does this suggest that people didn’t find travelling to work an issue?
A: If you were a landless labourer and you had work on a neighbouring farm then that was fine, as you could walk to work. However, if the only place you had work was 10 miles away, then you would have had to have found a way to travel there, or else you would have starved.
So what you find is that people were moving around in small areas quite a lot for work, just like you see with Farmer Oak in the opening scenes of the film. Historians have proved that the idea that British farm workers stayed in one place and worked on the same farm for generation after generation is a total fantasy.
In reality, you grew up somewhere, and then you left home for work – which would usually be located a few miles away – when you were around the age of 14. After this, your next job might be a few more miles away, and your job after that might be even further still. By the time you finally got married and settled down, you would probably have found that you were living around 50 miles away from where you started.
It is when you look at parish records from the time, that you find that it is only the surnames of landowners who were consistently found in the same communities.
Q: How did the introduction of new farm machinery and technology during the Industrial Revolution impact upon people’s jobs?
A: It threatened their jobs enormously. People rioted against the introduction of new technology and gathered in crowds to smash them up. This was because, for example, a new threshing machine did not only do the work of a whole group of men, but it also did the threshing work during the winter months when there wasn’t much other work about for these men to turn to. So, for those who were hungry and desperate, threshing work in January and February was what kept them going during winter. But the possibility of this work disappeared with the introduction of new machines.
What is interesting is that Hardy decided to focus on the countryside before the introduction of new technology, so everything in the film was done by hand. For Hardy, as a child he witnessed farming done by hand, but as he grew up he saw the introduction of technology and how this impacted on peoples’ lives. It was this dramatic change that he was addressing in his writing.
Q: The lead character, Bathsheba Everdene [played by Carey Mulligan], is determined at the beginning of the film to remain single, so as to retain her independence. How would you compare her attitudes towards marriage to those of other women in the mid-Victorian period? Was she quite unique?
A: I don’t think she was unique at all. You would have found that there were more women who wanted to live a life like Bathsheba at the time that Hardy was writing the book (1870s), compared to women who were living at the time that the book was set (1840s/50s).
However, I get the feeling when I read the book and watch the film that Hardy didn’t approve of Bathsheba’s independent character. Despite choosing a character who is headstrong and intelligent, he uses the whole story to show that she shouldn’t have wanted to be so independent in the first place, as she did not conform to the social norms of the day.
Bathsheba’s character traits and her decisions led to enormous pain for her and everyone around her, and that’s the point that Hardy is trying to make. Yes, she may be clever; yes, she may be independent-minded, but Hardy argues that by not acting like she was expected to, Bathsheba was badly influencing everyone and everything around her.
I think that this is the kind of view that the Victorian reader would have held. This attitude was a reflection of Hardy’s life and the time in which he was living, as the argument about the independence of women was something that was more and more central to society at the time. Questions around women’s positions in society were beginning to emerge in the 1860s, but this gathered pace as Hardy grew up and began writing many of his novels in the later decades of the century.
To modern-day readers, we see Bathsheba as someone who is championing the position of women at the time, but I don’t think this was how it would have been perceived at the time.
Carey Mulligan plays the headstrong character Bathsheba Everdene in the film adaption of Hardy's novel.
Q: After inheriting a great estate, Bathsheba controls her accounts and she gets involved in the farm work. Was it uncommon to find women controlling estates and farmland during this time?
A: It was uncommon, but it wasn’t unknown. Many women had some involvement in the farming. You would have found that many of the women in farming households would have had some involvement, especially in regards to bookkeeping – a lot of women did the books for their husbands. And with other aspects, such as dairy farming, women still had an involvement in regards to organising the work of the labourers.
What is unusual about Bathsheba is that she is running the farm as a single woman. Widows carried on the work of their husbands after they died, but Bathsheba is different for having never been married.
Hardy focuses on Bathsheba controlling the accounts, yet this wasn’t uncommon at the time, as it was seen as a feminine role. The things that were not considered feminine were tasks like going to the market and selling the corn, which is a significant scene in the film. Selling the corn was deemed a masculine task, and Hardy highlights how unusual this was for a woman like Bathsheba to do.
Q: Why do you think Hardy used the countryside so much in his work?
A: I think this was partly to do with the fact that he had so many fond childhood memories of growing up in a rural setting in Dorset, but also because there was so much rapid change going on at the time in the countryside during the time he began writing his novels. How can you be a person alive in the mid to late-1800s and not notice what was going on around you? It’s like being alive now and not mentioning the internet in your writing, for example.
Also, there were the huge social upheavals happening in the country in regards to land ownership and new machinery, and I think it would have been impossible for him to not include them. Charles Dickens was doing exactly the same in the 19th century, but he was focusing his work on the significant social changes that were happening in the towns.
Ruth Goodman is a social and domestic historian, and recently starred in the television series Edwardian Farm on BBC Two.
Far From the Madding Crowd is out now on Digital HD, Blu-ray and DVD.