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  1. Culture
4 June 2015

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.”

By Will Self

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.

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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.

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