The red carpet at the world premiere of Far From the Madding Crowd. Photo: Danny E. Martindale/Getty Images
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What would Hardy make of his Bathsheba barrelling past on the side of a bus?

Poor old Tommy-baby. His entire oeuvre, when you stop to consider it, seems like an illustration of Dostoevsky’s dictum: “The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular.”

A film director friend of mine once explained to me the wherefores of successful film distribution in Britain: “It’s all down to your T-sides, Will,” he maintained. “Get your T-sides sorted or it doesn’t matter how many screens you open on, you still won’t get the bums on seats.” I had no idea at the time what a T-side was, but ever since he told me I’ve seen them everywhere. Often a T-side will glide across my field of vision when I’m least expecting it – supplanting my view of the Holloway Road, for example, with the winsome spectacle of a giant Carey Mulligan, red-cheeked and wind-tousled against a Wessex backdrop.

Yes, a T-side is the T-shaped advertising space on the flank of a double-decker bus, and industry types assure me you can’t get a maddened crowd for Far from the Madding Crowd unless your distributor can outbid all the others clamouring for these valuable sites. There seems a compelling irony here when we consider that, despite the enormous success of Hardy’s novel in his lifetime (it first appeared as a serial and then went into four separate bound editions before he died, each one extensively revised), he remained repelled by the new mass culture that emerged in the late 19th century. In John Carey’s path-breaking revisionist cultural history The Intellectuals and the Masses, he quotes extensively from the journals Hardy wrote during the 1880s, when the writer was living in the leafy ­London suburb of Upper Tooting. Haunted by the proximity of the mighty city, Hardy felt he was being watched by “a monster whose body had four million heads and eight million eyes”.

But this wasn’t only a distant dehumanising prospect: the Great Romancer was equally revolted when he encountered the multitude up close and personally. At the British Museum he was nauseated by “crowds parading and gaily traipsing around the mummies, thinking today is for ever . . . They pass with flippant comments the illuminated manuscripts – the labour of years – and stand under Rameses the Great, joking. Democratic government may be justice to man, but it will probably entail merging [with the] proletarian, and when these people are our masters it will lead to more of this contempt, and possibly be the utter ruin of art and literature!”

Poor old Tommy-baby. His entire oeuvre, when you stop to consider it, seems like an illustration of Dostoevsky’s dictum: “The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular.” His novels usually pit the intelligent and – Alan Johnson, take note – aspirational individual against entrenched privilege; yet while inequality may maim a Jude or a Tess or a Gabriel, often what finishes them off is the ignorant prejudices of the yokel mob. Thus Hardy has it both ways: valorising the simple and homespun but simultaneously decrying the herd mentality of the benighted Wessex peasantry. I shudder to think how freaked out he’d be by these crowds of Bathsheba Everdenes and Gabriel Oaks gaily traipsing across towns on the sides of buses.

Still, he must have given permission for the first sale of the novel’s film rights – because there was an early silent adaptation in 1915, while he was very much alive; since then, we’ve had John Schlesinger’s 1967 take on this pastoral of necro-narcissism, a TV movie in the 1990s, and now the Danish director Thomas Vinterberg has brought to the tale the same unvarnished sensibility he applied to his incest-shocker, Festen. The first screen Bathsheba was played by Florence Turner, the so-called “Vitagraph Girl” (after the studio whose movies she starred in). New York-born, Turner pursued a successful career on both sides of the Atlantic, on stage and screen, throughout the Teens and Twenties of the 20th century. As well as acting she wrote scripts, and played a part in directing and producing her own vehicles – so, not an instance of typecasting at all.

In Hardy’s novel the stolid sheep farmer Gabriel Oak is first ensorcelled by Bathsheba Everdene when she lies back on her horse as it trots through a tunnel formed by low tree boughs. It’s an arrestingly sexual image: the beautiful young woman undulating in time with the strong rhythmic movements of the large body upon which she lies prone. Hardy’s crowd-phobia was certainly shared by many of his contemporaries, but you don’t have to accept unreservedly the thesis described in John Carey’s book in order to understand its queered provenance. Like all the great writers Hardy was good at noticing things – and in particular he was good at noticing those involuntary human gestures that reveal our true animality.

Perhaps this is what he really feared: not the prejudices and warped taboos of human society, but the overpowering desires such a culture imperfectly restrains. We all like to separate ourselves off from the mob. It’s they who graze on popcorn and slurp on slushes of ice and sugared water. Their love is bestial – the beast-with-two-backs they make is subject to a geometric progression: first two beasts, then four, then eight, then a multitude. Our love, by contrast, is as pure and soft as one of Gabriel Oak’s newborn lambs; our thoughts as elegant and symmetrical as an arabesque. Which is why it doesn’t matter how many T-sides they get: when we see a madding crowd heading in one direction, we head in the other – together with our own maddening one.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear