The space next to me bristles with silence. The emptiness is palpable. Loss isn’t an absence after all. It is a presence. A strong presence next to me.
Trumpet, Jackie Kay.
Far From The Madding Crowd has everything I have come to expect from a Thomas Hardy novel: farming, dead babies, tragic love affairs that come to a bloody end… Everything on the Thomas Hardy bingo card, really. After Tess of the d’Urbervilles (review here), Under The Greenwood Tree, and a number of short stories, I felt more than adequately prepared for the task. I let myself get sucked into the drama, but the whole time, I was on my guard. After all, the mortality rate is high in Wessex. Bathsheba Everdene had all the makings of a tragic heroine and I was waiting for her to meet her horrible fate. However, not only does she live to tell the tale, but she ends up married to the man we knew was right for her all along.
Was Hardy more optimistic here than in his later years? Or is this not such a happy ending after all?
Victorians were obsessed with death in general and suicide in particular. For women who wanted to take their own lives, drowning was a common choice and the image of a female body floating in the water became a popular one in the Victorian imagination. This idea was heavily romanticised: it was like these women (especially “fallen women”) had been cleansed of their former sins and had found a quiet beauty in the (imagined) quiet serenity of their demise.
Artists and writers depicted women falling out of windows, jumping off bridges, and walking into lakes. Performances of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet were very popular, the painting of Ophelia by Millais (see above) was painted and exhibited in 1852, and in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Lord Henry asks Dorian how he knows that “Hetty isn’t floating at the present moment in some starlit mill-pond, with lovely water-lilies around her, like Ophelia?”
As Foucault noted in Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1988),
when civilization, life in society, the imaginary desires aroused by novel reading and theatergoing [sic] provoke nervous ailments, the return to water’s limpidity assumes the meaning of a ritual of purification; in that transparent coolness, one is reborn to one’s first innocence.
When I first read Tess of the D’Urbervilles, I was nineteen years old; every fifty pages or so I would let out a sound of frustration, slam the book shut, and fume silently with my arms crossed for a few minutes before sighing and picking it up again. Tess made me angry. Six years and a whole lot of gender studies later, this book makes me furious.
And that is a good thing.