19th Century British Authors: English Romanticism
Nineteenth Century English Literature is remarkable both for its high artistic achievement and for its variety. The greatest literary movement of its earlier period was that of romanticism. It was born in the atmosphere of the violent economic and political turmoil that marked the last decades of the 18th and the first decades of the 19th century. The outburst of political activity brought on by the Great French Revolution of 1789 and the bitter wars with Napoleon's France that ravaged Europe for almost 25 years were the dominant political forces at work. The hardships of the industrial and agrarian revolution whose joint effect was a gradual change of all aspects of social life in England made the situation rife with class hatred.
Great distress was caused by large landowners enclosing millions of acres of land for their own purposes and thus dispossessing labourers who were reduced either to slaving on the fields of their masters or to migrating in search of the means to support themselves by working 12—14 hours a day for wages notoriously below subsistence level. The labouring poor, in town and country alike, suffered the utmost misery from underpayment and overwork and from crowding in hugely overpopulated industrial areas. This, briefly, was the background for the English Romantic Movement.
Two authors whose writings reflected these tumultuous changes were Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. Hardy chose to evaluate the changing patterns of relationships within the framework of upper middle class society with his drama, (Tess of the D’urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge). Dickens focused more on the culturally depressed and the downtrodden with satire (Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol), and with the legal and social injustices of the day (A Tale of Two Cities). I will begin with Hardy’s fourth novel, “Far From the Madding Crowd”, and then reflect on Dickens novel, “The Pickwick Papers”, later in the month.
One of Hardy's central concerns in all of his writing was the problem of modernity in a society that was rapidly becoming more and more industrial. His project as a writer was to create an account of life in the swiftly changing Dorsetshire as it had once been. He was particularly interested in the rituals and histories of that part of England, as well as the dialect of its locals. The title Far From the Madding Crowd suggests avoidance of the life of a city, modernized government, crowds and industry; in it, Hardy tries to fashion a portrait of what he saw as an endangered way of life .
At the beginning of the novel, Bathsheba Everdene is a beautiful young woman without a fortune. She meets Gabriel Oak, a shepherd, and saves his life one evening. He asks her to marry him but she refuses, because she is not in love with him. Upon inheriting her uncle’s prosperous farm, Bathsheba moves away to Weatherbury.
In one of the most dramatic scenes (rife with metaphor) Gabriel befalls a tragic misfortune as his dog goes mad and drive’s his sheep off the edge of a cliff. (This is a great metaphorical symbol for the changing landscape of the agrarian society,set against the development of Industry). Oak becomes destitute as a result and travels to Weatherbury looking for work.
After rescuing a farm from fire, he asks the mistress if she needs a shepherd . It is Bathsheba and she hires him. But he becomes much more than a shepherd with the needed skills of managing a prosperous farm to his impetuous mistress. His humble ways and loyalty bail her out on more than one occasion. Oak becomes integral to her prospects. However, Bathsheba then falls for a dashing but immature young soldier in his Red Uniform, Sergeant Troy (only after teasing a middle aged wealthy neighbor on a whim with a valentine sent to him that reads, “Marry Me”.) That man becomes obsessed with her. And now with Oak and Troy; she has a 3rd suiter. But her true love is the Sergeant.
Within a series of social accidents, Troy has empregnated a girl (Fanny Robin) right before he falls for Bathsheba. Fanny dies in child birth and Troy leaves the area grief stricken and Bathsheba heartbroken. But the neighbor/suitor is enraged with Troy’s action and kills him. He is then arrested by Oak (who is now also a bailif) and is sent away to prison. With only one prospect left, the durable but whimsical Bathsheba finally consents and marries Oak at the end of the novel. They are seen sitting by a fireplace quite comfortable together. But on the mantle sits a music box with a figurine attired in a red soldier’s uniform; unrequited love on two fronts in an age of Romanticism, Madness and changing prosperities.