I thought I had given up on Hardy a long time ago, stuck in the rut of ‘Tess’ and the hopelessness of her plight in an era when the odds felt just too stacked against the female of her time; I had done with reading about all that, my teenage self decided. That was a long time ago; an era in my own life when the romanticism of visiting Hardy’s own ‘country’, his thatched cottage with roses around the door, as the impressionable girl (seeking only romance) that I was. That was when I fell in love with Durdle Door and all those rugged cliff-tops, those flower-spewing country lanes leading to villages with ‘Puddle’ and ‘Piddle’ in their name…and equally longed to love Dorset’s most heralded writer; but maybe I was just saving him up for another time.
Ironically, the legacy that was his arrangement of gravestones around a tree in St Pancras Old Church in the grimy old city of London (see my recent post Layers in the Landscape), now known as The Hardy Tree, was to lead me back to him more surely than any country lane. The coincidence of seeing this around the time the 2015 film ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’ was was put on general release caught my interest more than it might have done otherwise, piquing my curiosity and inspiring a second chance for Hardy where I might otherwise have sailed right on by.
The other coincidence that I had spent my afternoon tending to my oak floors…hand-cleaning and oiling them, marvelling at their endless powers of rejuvenation, the way they leap back in tireless beauty, year after year, making present-day decoration out of time-marks accumulated many decades ago…and then my choice of evening entertainment once my exhausted body was ready for a pile of cushions on the sofa, only hit me a little later. As the movie opens up with the character of Gabriel Oak (as, indeed, do the very first lines Hardy’s story) – strong, dependable, ageless as in being the best of all ages in one package, and with such a sunny twinkle in his eye – you get a taste of the coming theme quickly enough, alongside Hardy’s own grasp of the symbolic nature of trees (making it apt that he should have one named after him, in London…). So plays out a story that is as universal as it is expansive (that is, still unwinding; still delivering new insight); on that is, in ways both subtle and overt, as relevant now as it was ever; handling themes that are just as crucial to our survival as a species as it is caught up in the trivial and domestic preoccupations of its time. Here, wrapped up in its costumes and pastoral setting, is a timeless story that pivots utterly upon the relationship between a man…and a woman.
In the space of two engaging hours and (from what I can gather), closely following Hardy’s own design – I have just started reading ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ for myself – this film plays with more than one version of that motif and, not least, the relationship a (fairly uniquely, for her time) independent woman has with herself; which is just as important, just as crucial to any that she then extends outwards towards any man and, in fact, must be her starting point. By allowing his protagonist, Bathsheba, to come into property, responsibility (a working farm) and an income – independently of any man – Hardy sets a stage full of a potential that had been played with all too little at his time of writing and so begins an experiment in living.
What uncoils from this starting point plays with the fine balance between allowing another to be supportive and, that step too far, allowing them to take all power away from you. It plays with trust, respect and balance; with the difference between acknowledging (seeing, appreciating, meeting them where they are at) and idolising or monopolising another. It faces up to the impact that personal circumstance (and, indeed, reversal of fortune) can have upon the dynamics of relationship. It touches upon all the dazzle that can blind the heart into throwing it all away for a moment’s passion and acknowledgement but then it shows, equally, the slow burning ember that resiliently glows and fills up a space with warmth, bursting into a flame of union that is far more than just the two pieces of wood from which it came. I found myself held, utterly, completely, until the very end of this film; as engaged by its ground-level ‘story’ as I was simultaneous aware that it was dealing with themes as old as the Jurassic hills of Dorset and as current as they could be. As it moved steadily towards a new way of being a man and a woman, together, I felt as though this conclusion had been prepared especially for our times, as though Hardy had foretold something he saw coming in, on a wave, far more universally than upon a farm in mid-Victorian Dorset (where it was almost unheard of); in a modern era when we learn to meet each other in such a state of balance as more norm than exception – and maybe he did hold that vision. We know (and my recent brush with his crossed-out manuscripts at the British Library reminded me) just how frustrated he was with the social mores of his times; so maybe in writing such a story, he envisioned the dawning of something altogether different peeking through the layers of time.
If there is a dimension in which time isn’t linear then one of the ways we gain access to this is, most certainly, through art. Through the artistic mediums of literature, art, music, theatre, (yes increasingly) photography and so on, we are given access to the peculiar insights of the times in which they were ‘made’ (such as the Victorian stance upon the independence of women); points of reference that would not be available to us (at all or in such extreme) through our own current playground of experience. This helps us, in countless ways, to gain the over-view without having to re-live the actual experience and this is, undoubtably, one of the ways that art contributes to evolution. More, when we identify, and play, with solid themes through the various art mediums we have devised, there is a level at which it also feels as though new endings can be written and thrown back ‘in time’, co-collaborating with the artist in all the ways that their work continues to affect our present day reality. Through these timeless mediums, the universality of the bigger themes (such as the relationship between men and women) get worked upon as though from an aerial perspective, allowing new layers of understanding to ripple back and forth as though time were of no consequence. I am particularly fascinated by the way that film adaptations of old ‘classics’ hold the potential to ripple information back and forth across the time between their creation and reinterpretation. Inherent within the ‘story’ that Hardy was playing with here, long before its time, was the potential for it to engage a whole new audience a hundred and fifty years later. Perhaps that audience, and what they are gaining from this new spark of interest via the release of the new film, have thrown back a line to his own creative mind, in a moment of pen-posed inspiration, and helped inform the very insight he was drawing from some wider space than many of his Victorian peers had ready access to. This cross-pollination across time and space is one of many ways I like to regard inspiration as it wafts into my own creative process as both writer and artist.
I should add, I suspect my reaction to this tale (though, as I am now reading it, I am about to find out for myself) relies much on the particular screenplay put together by David Nicholls and the vision of Director Thomas Vinterberg, which take Hardy’s themes to a new present-day accessibility point – as all film adaptations of ‘classics’ necessarily do. Yet it is this very fact of collaboration across time that, for me, only enhances the sense of time collapsing to allow important information, moments of universal relevance and understanding, to sing through, using the artistic process as the very time-worm that connects us to the the many layers of our own evolutionary process. Like the rings of an ancient oak that has been many years in the making yet turned newly relevant as the grainy modern ‘object’ we can so appreciate in this moment, the cross-section often provides the greatest beauty of all.
On a related theme, I notice that I am repeatedly attracted to a genre of art photography – the kind of thing that pops up in my newsfeed over breakfast – that involves recolouring and tweaking vintage photographs to alter and capitalise on what they were originally ‘of’ and in a way that utterly transforms the subject (Jane Long is one such – read an article about her here). Typically, photoshopped to add colour and whimsical touches, these once ‘dark’ and grainy, often grim-faced portraits are suddenly transformed into something new and playful and I can’t help wondering whether the process is two-directional; whether people depicted in them can somehow feel their latter-day reinvention ‘across time’. This potential to ‘lighten up’ history is something that endlessly fascinates me, allowing the possibility that – at some level far beyond the logical – we are all (not only artists) just as capable of influencing the past in everything we do as we are, surely, creating the future.