Like many young girls, I grew up admiring Elizabeth Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for her independent spirit. She is strong, she knows who she is, and she is not “silly” or self-absorbed. Elizabeth is praised endlessly as an example of unconventional independence in the early nineteenth century, making her an early parallel for the modern independent woman. Society praises independent women for realizing their own worth, for being self-motivated, and for not looking to others for approval—and rightly so.
And Elizabeth has had some worthy successors: Nancy Drew, Anne Shirley, Jo March, and Hermione Granger all give her a run for her money. Just recently, I discovered a new (lesser known) literary heroine who, I believe, is a true match for Elizabeth: Bathsheba Everdene from Thomas Hardy’s classic romantic novel, Far from the Madding Crowd. Set in a rural English farming community during the Victorian age, Far from the Madding Crowd tells the story of a headstrong woman and her three lovestruck suitors, each as different from the other as she is from them.
A nineteenth-century English heroine like Elizabeth (though from very different circumstances), Bathsheba Everdene rivals Elizabeth’s strong-willed spirit through her determination to pave her own path and achieve her own success. Her story is filled with heartbreak and hardships, and she is certainly not without her flaws. If there is anything to be learned from the early feminist figure Bathsheba Everdene, it is that there are both advantages and drawbacks to being an “independent woman” in an often male-dominated society, but overall, these hard-learned lessons strengthen one’s character.
Here are just a few of the lessons I gleaned from Far From the Madding Crowd: (Warning: spoilers ahead!)
Independent women know themselves well and are confident in their abilities.
Bathsheba’s true abilities begin to shine when she inherits a farm and quickly and efficiently takes charge. Bathsheba dismisses the farm’s former dishonest manager, announcing to all the men in her employment that she is now in charge: “I have formed a resolution to have no bailiff at all, but to manage everything with my own head and hands.” She believes in her own ability to learn all she needs to know about managing a successful farm, and she makes a firm resolution to do so, not out of rashness, but out of a true desire to prove her own strength to herself and to all of her new employees.
Bathsheba takes on these responsibilities confidently, even in a time when women did not often hold such leadership positions. She announces to her workers:
Now mind, you have a mistress instead of a master. I don’t yet know my powers or my talents in farming; but I shall do my best, and if you serve me well, so shall I serve you. Don’t any unfair ones among you (if there are any such, but I hope not) suppose that because I’m a woman I don’t understand the difference between bad goings-on and good . . . 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.
Bathsheba certainly does astonish them all, not only by demanding their attention and respect, but by proving that she is capable of all that she claims she is. She proves herself to be a strong, determined, ambitious woman—one who will astonish everyone by her confident belief in herself.
Independent women aren’t without their flaws.
As is not uncommon with independent women, Bathsheba greatly suffered from the plague of pride, coupled with a fierce stubbornness. Simply put, she was not adept at admitting when she was wrong (I might be able to relate a little here).
When she plays a joke on a kind but dull man several decades her senior named Mr. Boldwood, Bathsheba soon finds that a small act of impertinence can have massive consequences, as she accidentally leads the poor man to believe she is in love with him. She asks her trusted friend and worker, Gabriel, for his opinion of her conduct concerning Mr. Boldwood, and he gives his honest opinion of her actions, causing her to fly into a rage and dismiss him from her employment. Yet she is forced to surrender her pride less than a day later by sending for Gabriel when she finds herself in a farming crisis and desperately needs his help.
Unfortunately, though, she does not quite learn her lesson, and her pride and impetuousness prove disastrous for her love life. When the dashing, smooth-talking Sergeant Troy enters her life, impulsiveness drives Bathsheba to fall for him without sufficient consideration, and pride keeps her with him. She is both repulsed by his moral looseness and flattered by his admiration for her. Bathsheba serves as an example that even strong, independent women are not immune to sudden weakness—she is certainly not the first woman to fall for the all-too-familiar “bad boy.”
Ignoring the sound advice of both Mr. Boldwood and Gabriel to have nothing to do with Sergeant Troy, Bathsheba stubbornly follows through with her rash decision to trust this man with her life—and her heart. When she finally realizes that she acted imprudently, it is already too late, and “perceiving clearly that her mistake had been a fatal one, she accepted her position, and waited coldly for the end.” (But don’t worry—it’s not actually the end.)
Even independent women need trust and respect in their relationships.
Bathsheba does find love—real love—eventually. She just needs to get there in her own time, on her own terms. Ultimately, she knows that she deserves to be treated with respect by a man, and when things take quite an unexpected turn, Bathsheba ends up doing a lot of self-reflection and discernment concerning which people in her life she can trust.
The man she eventually ends up with is pretty great. Not only does he treat Bathsheba with respect and honesty, but he takes her for who she is—strengths and flaws all wrapped up together—and she does likewise. It may take her a while to get her happily-ever-after, but Bathsheba does get there in time (sounds relatable, right?), and she does it (mostly) by herself, thanks to her strong-willed independence.
While I love drawing parallels between my favorite literary heroines and my own life to find inspiration, it is truly the women in my real life who inspire me to live my best life every day—strong women who forge their own paths and prove people wrong with their determination to astonish. Reading about the life of Bathsheba Everdene reminds me that I’m surrounded by just such women. All of us have something to learn from Bathsheba—whether from her strengths or her mistakes.