A year or so ago, I bought a copy of Roger Deakin’s Wildwood in a local charity shop and suggested it as a bookgroup read. We hadn’t read any non-fiction before and I was hesitant about going off-piste so I was pleased to find it more like a collection of short stories than a scientific treatise. As I turned the pages, the first hints of autumn were beginning to blush the city’s leaves and, book as inspiration, we decided to swap our usual week-night meeting for a brisk Saturday walk amongst the trees.
Whilst we walked, talk turned to the landscape in literature, how its depiction is as important as that of the protagonist, creating a tone, marking the passage of time, even becoming a character of its own. We resolved to pick for our next novel a tale with nature at its heart and that book was Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd.
Much ink has been spilt over Hardy, from the schoolroom through the lecture hall to the literary supplements, and I won’t pretend that my own musings are any more or less insightful than the next homegrown literary critic. In my previous incarnation I could have written at length about the themes, the metaphors, the social critique, the realism, now what speaks to me is what is furthest from the head and closest to the heart, for I am a child of Wessex.
I left it fifteen years ago and my home is now very much elsewhere, but still, whenever I make the long journey to visit family, something shifts within me as my internal compass swings from north east to south west. My breathing steadies and deepens, my pulse rate changes and an inexplicable sense of well-being floods through me as I approach the boundaries of Hardy’s mythic county. What signals my arrival? There are no border guards, no flags or welcome signs, instead it is the landscape that alerts me, the rolling hills, soft peaks of knees beneath a counterpane of green, high warrens of hedges stretching to meet the fingers of their neighbours overhead, the ever-present aromas of hot soil freshly ploughed, salt spray from the sea and the ghostly echo of gulls unseen.
Last week, we transgressed the bookgroup norms again and made the cinema our venue to watch Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd. Films of books do not often appeal to me, the face we see in our mind’s eye when reading of a character is so personal, a photofit drawn from our unique memories and impressions of the people we have encountered, that it is a rare thing to find a casting director that shares our view. I tried not to fixate on this and, by and large, found the choice of actors in-keeping with my expectations, though I cannot pretend that Matthias Schoenaerts, well acted as his Gabriel Oak was, came anywhere near the Victorian shepherd of my imagination.
The book spans a number of years, with a languid pace that a film just shy of two hours long will find hard to achieve. There was faithful adherence to the plot, as far as possible within the constraints of celluloid, and, what kept what could so easily have become disparate and disjointed scenes without the subtlety of the novelist’s hand, coherent and cohesive was the landscape. I have never seen the raw, sweeping, beauty of my childhood territory depicted with such boldness before and it is these images, beyond all else, that have stayed with me. I suspect Hardy, who named his characters for the trees that both he and Deakin loved, would approve.