Far from the Madding Crowd’s Bathsheba was far from unique
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.
Five incredible old English homes built by women
We tend to think of the landowners, architects and builders of the past as men, just as we do its politicians, rulers and artists. Women rarely get a look in. But research is uncovering more and more historical examples of women who played a leading role in society, politics or the arts – and the public, it seems, are fascinated. Take Amanda Vickery’s recent series on The Story of Women and Art for example, or the idea that Bach’s wife composed some of his finest works.
Likewise, research on the histories of the British landscape is suggesting that women owned far more land than was once thought – and this despite the fact that before the late 19th century the law made it difficult for married women to own property of any sort. As a result, we’re also recognising that women played a far greater role in designing, commissioning and building country houses, gardens and parklands than was once imagined.
The nature of surviving historical sources means that women’s contributions are often poorly recorded, but there are exceptions – and we’re uncovering ever more of them. So as the National Trust and English Heritage open their properties to the public for the summer, why not pop along and visit a country house where the influence of a woman in its past is plain to see? Here are a few suggestions to get you going.
This vast Tudor/Jacobean house stands in grounds near Leeds that were landscaped by Capability Brown. Originally built for Thomas, Lord Darcy (who came to a grizzly end after rebelling against Henry VIII), the house was remodelled in the late 18th century by Frances Ingram, Viscountess Irwin, a highly involved female patron.
Her whopping £60,000 dowry – worth more than £7m in today’s money – had been used to fund improvements to the house and grounds in her husband’s lifetime, but it was only after his death that she was really bitten by the building bug. As a widow, she demolished and rebuilt the entire south wing “for the sole pleasure in building [it] up again” – as she put it – and redecorated much of the rest of the house.
Weston Park is a Palladian-style mansion in Staffordshire largely designed and built by Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham in the 1670s. Weston was her childhood home and while her husband was the legal owner, Wilbraham seems to have retained considerable control of the property during her marriage. We know she was heavily involved in both the design of the new hall and the financial management of the building work, and she’s often hailed as the architect of the house.
A la Ronde
An unusual 16-sided house near Exmouth, A la Ronde was designed by cousins Jane and Mary Parminter in the 1790s. Somewhat unusually for women at the time, the Parminters had spent nearly a decade travelling in Europe and were apparently inspired by a visit to the octagonal chapel of San Vitale at Ravenna (Italy). The Exmouth property was small and there was no tenanted agricultural land, but the cousins also designed and built a chapel, almshouses and school in the grounds just as much wealthier women did on their estates.
Built by Elizabeth Talbot, countess of Shrewsbury (better known as Bess of Hardwick) Hardwick Hall is perhaps the most well-known country house in Britain built by a female landowner. Bess was born into a minor gentry family in Derbyshire, but was a woman of great ambition: she married four times, and the property left to her by her four dead husbands eventually made her the richest woman in England.
She oversaw the building of Chatsworth Hall from about 1550 onwards, and later built not one, but two, grand houses at Hardwick. Soon after finishing the Old Hall in 1591, she began to build the adjacent New Hall, a vast house known for its glittering glass façade and unusual floor plan. Visitors should look out for Bess’s initials “ES”, highlighted for posterity in parapets of the towers and elsewhere in the house.
Elizabeth Manners, fifth duchess of Rutland, was credited by contemporaries both as the driving force behind the rebuilding of Belvoir Castle in the 1820s and the principal manager of the family’s Leicestershire estate. As one friend noted at the duchess’s death in 1825, the duke “did nothing for himself, and his estates, his horses, his family, everything was under her rule”.
While it’s unclear how far this was a fair assessment of the duke’s contribution, the duchess certainly oversaw landscaping works to the castle grounds and took an active interest in the agricultural aspects of the property, including designing a model farm. She also made improvements to Cheveley Park (Suffolk) in the early 1800s, oversaw the building works at York House on the Mall for her lover the Duke of York and drew up designs for a new palace for George IV.
The list of such houses is growing. So, while undoubtedly disadvantaged both by the law and by societal expectations of their gender, the wives, widows and single women of the past could – and did – build grand country houses. Not all female landowners had access to the money and resources necessary to re-build or significantly extend their country residence of course, but others re-planned gardens and parklands or improved the large agricultural estates which lay beyond the park boundaries. In doing so, these women and others like them had a far greater impact on the landscapes of early modern and Georgian England than history has so far acknowledged.