It’s revision time again and me and thousands like me are full of anxiety about how well we’ll do in our exams and what the future will hold for us if we don’t get the grades we’re hoping for.
Outside the blackbird sitting on top of my roof is singing blissfully across the garden, the clothes on the line move in the gentle wind, and I’m sad that while my children and their father are outside playing, I have to stay in and study the finer points of 19th century fiction. Somehow, probably by the sheer determination that drives all mature students, I turn my attention from the beauty outside back to Hardy. Well at least in his writing I can read about nature, even if I can't enjoy it today.
The course book is discussing gender roles, highlighting the feminine aspect of Gabriel Oak’s (the male protagonist) personality, his care for animals as a shepherd and his devoted love for Bathsheba. It's all standard; it’s done the same for the other seven novels I'm going over. But then the text reminds me of something I had forgotten: the love and respect which Hardy gave Gabriel for the Divine Mother.
The first time I read Far From the Maddening Crowd I was struck, as everyone else is who reads Hardy, with the beauty of his descriptions of the natural world, but chapter 36 had really brought a lump to my throat. It covers the coming of a great storm after Bathsheba’s marriage to Sergeant Troy, when everyone is drunk and celebrating. Gabriel is the only one concerned about the coming weather and what the rain will mean for the recently gathered harvest, the loss of substantial income for the farm. The drunken Troy’s cynicism leads Gabriel to begin to doubt his instincts.
‘Gabriel proceeded towards his home. In approaching the door, his toe kicked something which felt and sounded soft, leathery, and distended, like a boxing-glove. It was a large toad humbly travelling across the path. Oak took it up, thinking it might be better to kill the creature to save it from pain; but finding it uninjured, he placed it again among the grass. He knew what this direct message from the Great Mother meant. And soon came another…’
Gabriel knows nature’s signs because he is of the earth, and as such a great example to us modern pagans. We live in a time of such distraction and detachment from the natural world that we’re often surprised by a rain shower, or caught off guard by a thick fall of snow. But nature, our original Mother and all the creatures that live in her have plenty of messages to share with the careful observer.
I’m not on par with Gabriel yet, my washing got rained on this afternoon, but I’m inspired. Once I can leave the books behind for a few months, I intend to listen to what Hardy calls the ‘voice in nature’; even though I’m aware they’ll always be a lot of Sergeant Troys around who can’t hear her subtle whispering over the sound of their own voice shouting “Pooh!"
If you want to read the rest of the chapter you may do so here: Far From the Maddening Crowd - Chapter 36
Or buy it here: Amazon