The opening scene of Far from the Madding Crowd, the new adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, shows Carey Mulligan’s Bathsheba Everdene stride into a stable, rain pouring outside, to comfort a horse. No skirts rustle or drag in the mud – she’s wearing leather riding trousers and jacket. It’s an image that jolts us out of comfortable period drama expectations, announcing that the film revolves around a woman ahead of her time.
Bathsheba initially lives modestly with her aunt – and there are shots of her working hard on the farm and riding carefree on the hills. But she soon inherits her uncle’s farm, a large agricultural property and old manor house – now financially as well as spiritually independent.
She quickly decides to manage everything herself and makes for a very hands-on estate manager – at least until her marriage to the handsome and reckless Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge). She keeps her own accounts, personally negotiates sales of her produce in the corn-market and closely supervises key agricultural tasks such as sheep shearing – even getting involved after being taunted by the hero of the novel, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts).
Quite how far Hardy intended Bathsheba to be a proto-feminist figure is debatable. The novel was in part a response to unease at changes in the law on women’s property rights – specifically, the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882. These modified the common law on coverture (the legal fiction that a married woman’s identity was subsumed within her husband’s), allowing married women to own property in their own right for the first time.
Although Hardy was relatively unique in writing strong female characters and writing so many of them – there are other property-owning women in The Woodlanders and A Laodicean, for example – an unease with this change in the law sometimes seeps to the surface. In Far from the Madding Crowd, I’ve always found Hardy’s depiction of Bathsheba’s success in the corn-market particularly distasteful. Having braved the all-male space and begun to negotiate sales of her corn, the narrator comments that something in her face when arguing over prices “suggested that there was potentially enough in that lithe slip of humanity for alarming exploits of sex”. This rapid juxtaposition of her achievements and her sexuality seems unlikely to go down well with modern feminists. Needless to say, it’s also not the version of Bathsheba we see in the film.
Slightly earlier, Gabriel Oak (a sheep farmer, who lost his flock and is looking for work as a farmhand) expresses considerable surprise at finding his potential employer to be a mistress rather than a master: “A woman farmer?” he remarks aloud.
Yet despite what this implies, as a woman farmer Bathsheba was far from unique in Georgian and Victorian England. New research suggests that, even before the changes to the law in the late 19th century, female landowners were by no means as rare as was once thought by historians.
The real Bathshebas
Soon-to-be-published research suggests that around 10% of land in 18th and 19th-century England was owned by women – individual women might own anything from a one-acre smallholding to large estates incorporating several thousands of acres. While not all of these women were actively involved in managing their property, research shows that many of them were energetic and dedicated agriculturalists.
The widowed Elizabeth Prowse of Wicken, for example, was an enthusiastic estate manager who spent more than 40 years improving her 2,200-acre property in south-west Northamptonshire. She improved both the home farm and tenants' holdings, installing new drains, experimenting with new crops and introducing new agricultural machinery on her own land as well as subsidising her tenants’ costs in undertaking similar improvements.
She also extended Wicken house, rebuilt the local church, renovated her labourers’ cottages and set up a school for the cottagers’ children, all of which she carefully recorded in her meticulously organised estate ledgers. It was perhaps no wonder that her tenants were hailed as “the happiest set of peasants in England”, as they were by one visitor in 1777.
Or there’s Mary Clarke of Chipley (near Taunton). She managed a large farm on behalf of her absent husband, spending her days overseeing the home farm and negotiating with the tenants over things like rents and repairs, all almost two centuries before Thomas Hardy set pen to paper. Like Bathsheba, she dismissed a dishonest bailiff and took on the role herself, noting in October 1696 that she was now “very busie in my new office of head bayliff”. It was a role of which she apparently felt great pride, later noting that “I am not only a perfect farmer’s wife but a farmer too now”.
Subjects of ridicule
These are just two examples, but there are many more real Bathshebas to identify in the archives. Looking carefully quickly brings to light dozens of examples of female farmers and landowners from across the length and breadth of early modern England. Amongst them are single women, wives and widows from across the social spectrum.
Of course, to argue that women played a far greater role in farming and estate management than we once thought is not to say that they didn’t experience difficulties in doing so. As one female landowner put it in the early 19th century: “a woman undertaking to farm is generally a subject of ridicule”. Societal expectations weighed heavily against them, just as they were also profoundly disadvantaged by both coverture and primogeniture (inheritance by the eldest son).
Further research is needed to establish exactly how landowning women were seen by society – not least in novels like Far from the Madding Crowd – as well as how they thought about themselves. But perhaps Hardy was right in having Bathsheba say, as she does in the film while asserting her authority to her farm-hands:
I shall be up before you are awake; I shall be afield before you are up; and I shall have breakfasted before you are afield. In short, I shall astonish you all.
As today, it often seems that women had to prove themselves to be doing things better than their male peers, just to be taken seriously.
Briony McDonagh has received funding from the Leverhulme Trust and the Arts and Humanities Research Board for research connected with this article.
Authors: The Conversation