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The End of the Farm? Thomas Hardy’s Agricultural Vision

La fin de la ferme ? L’agriculture vue par Thomas Hardy
Anna West

Abstracts

In his depictions of rural life in semi-fictional Wessex, Thomas Hardy has sometimes been charged with romanticising rural life and portraying the pastoral instead of the real. His characters frequently inhabit agricultural communities, which form the basis of their lives and livelihoods. In tension with the pastoral, romanticised village is the recognition of agriculture as a capitalist venture: Hardy’s writings capture the end of the old sense of land as a natural relative and the shift to land as an exploitable resource. With the industrialisation of agriculture in the late nineteenth century, the scale on which farming took place increased, both in the working of the land and in the raising of domesticated animals for consumption. This essay will attempt to mobilize a reading of Hardy’s agricultural vision in the context of changes to farming that have contributed to the current ecological crisis, with the goal of defamiliarizing the familiar concept of the farm by way of the alterity of the present – a present that has been in development for over 150 years. Hardy’s writings offer a dual perspective of the farm. Through one end of the telescope appears the sheep-shearing barn of Far from the Madding Crowd, a symbol of the farm’s enduring power as an entity transcending politics and religion, as steadfast as the human need for sustenance that drives an ongoing relationship with the soil, an image that feels familiar, close. Flip that telescope around, and one sees the weather-beaten barn that Jude climbs as a useful vantage point to look toward Christminster, an infinite distance between him and the farmland around him. Between these two barns, Hardy’s fiction depicts a moving picture of the emerging mismatch of functional scale between human and machine, the mechanisation of human and animal bodies – and the rendering of the landscape as an industrial resource and product – that launched a fundamental shift in what one might think of as the farm.

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  • 1 Fred Reid gives an excellent summary of critical stances on this topic in his essay on “The Dorsets (...)

1In his depictions of rural life in semi-fictional Wessex, Thomas Hardy has sometimes been charged with romanticising rural life and portraying the pastoral instead of the real1. His characters frequently inhabit agricultural communities, which form the basis of their lives and livelihoods. In tension with the pastoral, romanticised village is the recognition of agriculture as a capitalist venture: Hardy’s writings capture the end of the old sense of land as a natural relative and the shift to land as an exploitable resource. With the industrialisation of agriculture in the late nineteenth century, the scale on which farming took place increased, both in the working of the land and in the raising of domesticated animals for consumption.

  • 2 For a thoughtful discussion of the loss of social capital with the rise of industrialised agricultu (...)

2Hardy described the impact of the changes he viewed upon the people who worked the land in his essay “The Dorsetshire Labourer” (1883), noting the benefits of increased wages and freedom, but questioning the cost to the land and to the broader society. Today, the massive factory farms (or megafarms) that have become synonymous with agriculture in the US and the UK have an outsized negative environmental impact on the land upon which they depend. More elusive is the impact on broader society: researchers can estimate the monetary costs of environmental degradation and health issues caused by some modern agricultural practices (for example, the use of pesticides), but the loss of social and human capital within the agricultural community is more difficult to measure, let alone “solve”2.

  • 3 Critics have noted the transference of ideas articulated in this essay to Tess of the d’Urbervilles (...)

3By his own account, Hardy’s writings were meant to be neither romantic nor realist, but rather impressionistic: sensory sketches of moments in time, open to individual perception, to multiple perspectives and multiple readings. While “The Dorsetshire Labourer”, as Fred Reid has noted, resists a definitive stance on the impact of the changing farm landscape upon the individuals engaged with it (Reid 184), Hardy’s fiction feels like thought-experiments probing the questions implied in the nonfiction essay3. What happens when individuals lose personal investment in the land? What is the impact of an eroded “sense of long local participancy” in the environment, social and natural? (Hardy 1966, 182).

4These questions necessarily link the Victorian farm to its present counterpart. In his essay “Where is Victorian Ecocriticism?” Jesse Oak Taylor discusses the concept of “strategic presentism”, which “brings subsequent scientific understanding of ecology and the environmental implications of historical processes to bear on the materials from earlier materials” and “attempts to mobilize those readings in relation to the ecological crises of the present” (Taylor 877–878). He argues that:

Victorian studies […] is beneficial not in spite of the gap between the critic and the object of study, but because of it: it is the weirdness of the Victorians that makes them fascinating. At the same time, ecological timescales render the historical gap between the Victorians and ourselves much smaller, placing us both within shared frames such as “industrial capitalism”, or the “fossil fuel era. This is particularly acute in relation to the Anthropocene, a new geologic age defined by human action, which is most often dated to the Industrial Revolution. (878)

5The effect of strategic presentism, Taylor offers, is that it “defamiliarizes the present by way of the alterity of the past” (878). This essay will attempt to mobilise a reading of Hardy’s agricultural vision in the context of changes to farming that have contributed to the current ecological crisis, with the goal of defamiliarizing our collective concept of the farm by way of the alterity of the present – a present that has been in development for over 150 years. Current readers of Hardy do not find themselves in a suddenly changed landscape, but one very much connected to changes already in effect during Hardy’s lifetime, 1840–1928.

6Hardy’s novels are uniquely positioned to do this. As J. Hillis Miller wrote, “Hardy is adept at making sudden relatively small shifts in perspective which put his reader virtually, though not actually, at an infinite distance from events – as if they were suddenly seen through the wrong end of a telescope”, a disorienting effect that causes the reader to reconsider scale, perspective and relativity of viewpoint (Hillis Miller 51). Furthermore, Hardy’s depiction of landscapes often overlap with his representations of the humans who dwell within those landscapes. In his essay “Faciality and Sensation in Hardy’s The Return of the Native”, William Cohen notes that “[t]he relationship between the heath and human sentience is at once symbolic, embodied, and continuous – which is to say, the landscape is a metaphor for, is metaphorized by, and is metonymic with the human” (Cohen 447). His writings point to the fact that what happens to the land does not occur within a supposed vacuum between the human and the natural world; humanity’s existence is bound up with the landscapes we inhabit.

7Hardy’s agricultural vision as traced in his oeuvre presents this same duality of perspective and overlap between human and landscape. Through one end of the telescope appears the sheep-shearing barn of Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), a symbol of the farm’s enduring power as an entity transcending politics and religion, as steadfast as the human need for sustenance that drives an ongoing relationship with the soil, an image that feels familiar, close. Flip that telescope around, and one sees the weather-beaten barn that Jude climbs as a useful vantage point to look toward Christminster, an infinite distance between him and the farmland around him. Between these two barns, Hardy’s fiction depicts a moving picture of the emerging mismatch of functional scale between human and machine, the mechanisation of human and animal bodies – and the rendering of the landscape as an industrial resource and product – that launched a fundamental shift in what one might think of as the farm.

“Though Dynasties pass”: the enduring image of the farm

8Seen through one lens, Hardy’s writings offer a static image of agriculture as an institution that would endure through the ages, as can be seen most explicitly in the composition of his 1915 poem “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’” (Moments of Vision, 1917). Hardy wrote the poem in response to a request for a piece that would rally public spirit in the midst of World War I, drawing upon a moment during his courtship with his first wife Emma in 1870 on the day of one of the bloodiest battles of the Franco-Prussian War when he was struck by the contrast between what he was experiencing in rural Cornwall and what was happening elsewhere in the world (Hardy 1984, 81). The poem reads,

                        I.
Only a man harrowing clods
     In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
     Half asleep as they stalk
.

                        II.
Only thin smoke without flame
     From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
     Though Dynasties pass.

                        III.
Yonder a maid and her wight
     Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
     Ere their story die.

                           (Hardy 1976, 543)

9Hardy later noted that the poem “contains a feeling that moved me in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war, when I chanced to be looking at such an agricultural incident in Cornwall. But I did not write the verses till during the war with Germany of 1914, and onwards. Query: where was that sentiment hiding itself during more than forty years?” (Hardy 1984, 408).

10One might argue that this “sentiment” was hiding in plain sight, as an idea recurring in Hardy’s prose and verse throughout his career. Perhaps most emblematic of this sensibility stands the Shearing Barn in Far from the Madding Crowd, a building that “resembled a church with transepts” and “a range of striding buttresses” along each side wall “which were perforated by lancet openings” (Hardy 2002a, 143). The narrator notes that the barn – “unlike and superior to” the church or castle that match it in “age and style” – continues to be used for the same purposes for which it had been built:

[T]he old barn embodied practices which had suffered no mutilation at the hands of time. Here at least the spirit of the ancient builders was at one with the spirit of the modern beholder. Standing before this abraded pile the eye regarded its present usage, the mind dwelt upon its past history, with a satisfied sense of functional continuity throughout, a feeling almost of gratitude, and quite of pride, at the permanence of the idea which had heaped it up. […]
The fact that four centuries had neither proved it to be founded on mistake, inspired any hatred of its purpose, nor given rise to any reaction that had battered it down, invested this simple grey effort of old minds with a repose if not a grandeur which a too curious reflection was apt to disturb in its ecclesiastical and military compeers. (Hardy 2002a, 143; emphasis added)

11Unlike the ruins of ancient cathedrals and castles whose features it shares, the barn stands erect. Agriculture offers a sense of permanence, a continuity of a human practice seemingly devoid of the controversy that religion and politics engender. The barn demonstrates what Hillis Miller referred to as Hardy’s “static view of time”: the notion that “everything already exists before it happens and goes on existing after it has happened in history” tied up with “the assumption that any event is a repetition of similar events which have already occurred over and over in history and will occur innumerable times again” (Hillis Miller xi). Hillis Miller notes the tension created by the narrator’s alternation between this god-like objective viewpoint and the close-up perspectives of the characters in the scene, a tension that might similarly apply to Hardy’s vision of agriculture. Read in another light, the passage almost feels like a plea for honouring the traditions of old, elevating the humble barn to the status of the cathedral or the castle.

12In The Woodlanders (1887), Hardy reverses the architecture featured in an image that also speaks to agriculture’s enduring power over dynasties. Grace Melbury drives to see the ruins of Sherton Castle, once the home of Fitzpiers’s maternal ancestors, and discovers that they are being “utilized by the adjoining farmer as shelter for his calves, the floor being spread with straw, amid which the young creatures rustled, cooling their thirsty tongues by licking the quaint Norman carving, which glistened with the moisture” (Hardy 2000, 160). The irony of circumstances – the dynastic power represented by the castle usurped by lowly calves, its carving appreciated by the animals not for its aesthetic beauty but for the increased surface area that allows it to catch more moisture – feels distinctly Hardyan, with the word “creature” quietly questioning the boundary between what is considered “human” and what is considered “animal”, as I have argued elsewhere.

13But perhaps the image that most directly echoes Hardy’s poem inspired by that day in Cornwall is the agricultural field of Waterloo, known best for being the military setting of Napoleon’s defeat. In preparing to write The Dynasts (1904–1908), which dramatizes the Napoleonic Wars, Hardy copied a passage from Charles Reade on the site: “The chronic history of Waterloo field is to be ploughed & sowed & reaped & mowed: yet once in a way these acts of husbandry were diversified with a great battle, where hosts decided the fate of Empires. After that agriculture resumed its sullen sway” (Hardy 1985, vol. 1, 148). Hardy was struck by the pastoral aspect of the field when he visited it in 1896 during a trip to Belgium. Of this experience he later noted, “Shepherds with their flocks and dogs, men ploughing, two cats, and myself, the only living creatures on the field” (Hardy 1984, 301–302). In The Dynasts, the field before battle is described as “a green expanse, almost unbroken, of rye, wheat, and clover, in oblong and irregular patches undivided by fences” (Hardy 1924, 484). Battles and wars may come and go, but the cycle of agriculture continues.

14By the time Hardy wrote “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’”, the idea of the endurance of the farm over politics and religion could already be traced in his oeuvre. Yet the central allusion and the imagery of the poem evokes a sense of agriculture’s vulnerability. The allusion in the title to the Biblical passage of Jeremiah 51 points to the fragility of the images of the farmer and the young couple; the passage reads, “For with thee will I break in pieces the nations […] and with thee will I break in pieces the young man and the maid; I will also break in pieces with thee the shepherd and his flock; and with thee will I break in pieces the husbandman and his yoke of oxen”. The nation, the farm and the notion of romantic love are placed on an equal plane, each containing the potential to be broken.

15This sense of exposure is reiterated in the images of the poem’s first two stanzas, each set up by a seemingly diminutive use of the term “only”. In the first image, the reader sees “a man harrowing clods” with “an old horse that stumbles and nods”. The fact that they are both “half asleep as they stalk” implies a feeling of frailty and possible danger: in such a state, Tess loses her family’s horse Prince, who is stabbed in the chest by an oncoming cart. The second image – “Only thin smoke without flame / from the heaps of couch-grass” –seems innocuous enough, but as Hardy’s novels show, smouldering couch-grass can flare into flame in a matter of moments. As the narrator of Desperate Remedies (1871) explains:

Farmers and horticulturists well know that it is in the nature of a heap of couch-grass, when kindled in calm weather, to smoulder for many days, and even weeks, until the whole mass is reduced to a powdery charcoal ash, displaying the while scarcely a sign of combustion beyond the volcano-like smoke from its summit; but the continuance of this quiet process is throughout its length at the mercy of one particular whim of Nature: that is, a sudden breeze, by which the heap is liable to be fanned into a flame so brisk as to consume the whole in an hour or two. (Hardy 2003, 167)

16Read from a modern perspective, the passage almost feels like a metaphor for the Industrial Revolution’s impact on agriculture and climate change as “the sudden breeze” that has led to the consumption of the vast majority of the earth’s resources in a relatively short period of time. In Desperate Remedies, couch-grass cleared from a strip of “ploughed, harrowed, and cleaned” ground “which for many years had been looked upon as irreclaimable waste” smoulders quietly for two days before catching a change in the wind and burning down the farmer’s properties, setting in motion further complications to the novel’s plot (Hardy 2003, 165). Thanks to new advances in farming, land that was previously unworkable becomes arable, but instead of benefiting the farmer as expected, it burns down his world.

17The metaphoric (and literal) volatility of couch-grass appears again in Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891). Just before her world changes, Tess spends a hopeful evening clearing couch-grass from her family’s field allotment, working hard in the company of her community. With one forkful of couch-grass added to the heap and a sudden flare, everything shifts. The flare illuminates Alec at her side, mockingly dressed in the traditional garb of a field worker. Discomfited, Tess returns home to find that in the course of the evening, her ill mother has made a sudden recovery, but her father who had been “only a little bit ill” has died, which leaves her family homeless with the end of a three-generation life-hold lease on their cottage (Hardy 2008, 371; emphasis added). Like the potential volatility of the smouldering couch-grass pile, Tess and her family’s security is tenuous, liable to burn up in the course of a few hours at the whim of a changing wind. Something that may seem like “only a small thing” can have a life- (or plot-, or planet-) altering effect.

  • 4 Part of a broader series titled “The Great War: Britain’s Efforts and Ideals”, this agricultural dr (...)

“Burning Couch Grass” (1917), William Rothenstein, National Museum Wales4

18Like many of Hardy’s poems, “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’” opens to multiple readings, one of which quietly suggests that what seems immutable may in fact be in jeopardy. The American poet and farmer Wendell Berry, writing about the loss of small farms in the US in the 1970s, quotes this poem of Hardy’s, noting: “Today most of our people are so conditioned that they do not wish to harrow clods either with an old horse or a new tractor. Yet Hardy’s vision has come to be more urgently true than ever. The great difference these sixty years have made is that, though we feel that this work must go onward, we are not so certain that it will” (Berry 17). In the century between the poem’s inspiration and Berry’s quotation, and the additional half century since, agriculture has continued to undergo a cultural change, moving away from individual and collective human (and animal) connection with the soil. Under the dynasties of industry and capitalism, the farm as once imagined has been replaced by agribusiness.

“A farmer on an extensive scale”: mismatches in the functional scale of production

19Central to this development from agriculture to agribusiness is a shift in scale, broadly and ecologically speaking. As Geoffrey West writes in his book Scale (2017), the Industrial Revolution dramatically impacted the scale of agricultural production, thanks to “inventions such as the thresher, the binder, the cotton gin, the steam tractor, and the wrought iron plow with steel cutting edges, as well as advances in crop rotation and the increasing use of commercially produced fertilizer” (West 229). He explains:

These contributed enormously to the greater efficiency of production by increasing yields and mechanizing processes that for the previous ten thousand years had primarily been done by hand. In 1830 it took almost three hundred hours of human labor to grow one hundred bushels of wheat; by 1890 this was reduced to less than fifty hours. Today it takes less than a few hours. (West 229–230)

  • 5 For more on functional scale mismatches, see Cumming et al.

20While it is tempting to correlate smaller-scale farms with more attention and care, and larger-scale farms with a greater focus on economic profit and less regard for the soil, in Hardy’s novels this is not always the case. Gabriel Oak, after all, is portrayed as an excellent manager of the two thousand acres of Boldwood and Bathsheba’s combined properties at the end of Far from the Madding Crowd (Hardy 2002a, 323), while the “starve-acre place” of Flintcomb-Ash Farm comprises only a hundred-odd acres (Hardy 2008, 302). Rather, Hardy’s novels provide a record of the emerging functional scale mismatch between human and machine with the industrialisation of the farm, a mechanisation of human and animal bodies to a rate set no longer by “natural” cycles of seasons or days but the demands and capacities of industry5.

21In ecology, the concept of scale tends to refer to specific spatial and/or temporal domains, allowing scientists to quantify information into data. Ecological scale is determined by two components: grain (or resolution, the smallest unit under examination) and extent (the total physical area under examination, or the total duration of the observation). This concept is important to ecological research because it provides a frame of reference for understanding ecological patterns and processes. Ecological problems tend to be large-scale, but ecological studies tend to focus on “small areas, over short periods of time” (Schneider 545). Notably, patterns and processes existing at a small scale will not necessarily translate to a larger scale, nor vice versa, as they are impacted by multiscale factors (545).

22Unlike most field studies, Hardy’s novels offer a broader observational scale. One might think of Hardy as repeating his fiction-experiments of a specific site (a farm or agricultural village) in a large region (Wessex) at regular intervals (composed every 1–4 years) over the course of twenty-six years (from Desperate Remedies in 1871 to The Well-Beloved in 1897), with his novels themselves each containing specific spatial (Mellstock, Weatherbury, Egdon, Casterbridge, Hintock, Marlott, Marygreen) and temporal (ranging from 1840s to 1890s) domains. Within each novel, the narrator denotes specific spatial and temporal domains for each scene (what the literary scholar might think of as setting). Hardy attends to the size of the village or farm in the text: Gabriel Oak’s first sheep farm has a flock of two hundred sheep over one hundred acres (Hardy 2002a, 16, 23); Diggory Venn increases his fortunes as a reddleman to go from being a small dairy farmer to taking on a “large dairy of eighty cows” (Hardy 2005, 368); and Farmer Crick’s Talbothays Dairy, in the Valley of Great Dairies, has a large herd of 95 milchers (Hardy 2008, 137). Using Henry Stephens’s The Book of the Farm (1860) as a guide, the majority of the farms represented could be classified as either pastoral (“chiefly appropriated to the rearing of one kind of sheep, or one kind of cattle”), dairy (dedicated to “the manufacture of butter and cheese, and the sale of milk”), or mixed husbandry (“a regular system of cultivating grains and sown grasses, with the partial rearing, and partial purchasing, or wholly purchasing, of cattle”, with sheep “purchased in autumn, to be fed on turnips in winter, and sold off fat in spring”) (Stephens 65–68).

23On the farm, Hardy gives a sense of functional scale in relation to the value of production and labour. The reader learns that “five wheat ricks […] and three stacks of barley” make up half the annual output of Bathsheba’s farm and are worth a total of 750 pounds; her workers are paid in the range of ten shillings per week for an assortment of agricultural tasks (Hardy 2002a, 240). Henry Fray’s tasks include “carting things all year”, “shoot[ing] the rooks and sparrows” in seedtime, “help[ing] at pig-killings”; Temperance and Soberness Millers’ include “[t]ending thrashing machine, and wimbling haybonds, and saying Hoosh! to the cocks and hens when they go upon your seeds and planting Early Flourballs and Thompson’s Wonderfuls [potato varieties] with a dibble” (80–81). The attention to the value of specific tasks shows a fine-scale level of grain within Hardy’s broader observational scale of contemporary agricultural practices.

24In his attention to grain, Hardy is continually shifting the level of the scale, from a single organism to a population of organisms to a broader landscape and back. Richard Kerridge notes this as a key factor in Hardy’s ecological vision:

He will not allow anything, place or person, to stabilize in meaning; its meaning is always the product of a shifting set of relations and always seen in the act of generation by those relations. Paradoxically, this is to create a stronger sense of the elusive, excessive presence of places, since the descriptions and narratives they generate never cohere for long and are quickly exposed as relative. (Kerridge 141)

25In Tess, for example, the land, cattle and farm workers have shifting meanings depending on the level of focus. A herd of cows closer up become named individuals with particular preferences; a group of workers crawling on all fours in a field to weed out a stray patch of garlic is portrayed as resembling a collective “Hodge” to a distant passer-by. In the latter scene, the resolution shifts to the level of the grass, demonstrating how something existing in “very microscopic dimensions” can have an outsized impact: one bite of garlic by one cow – with “not more than half-a-dozen-shoots of garlic being discoverable in the whole field” – is “sufficient to season the whole dairy’s produce for the day” (Hardy 2008,154–155). When the resolution is on the individual farm worker instead of the population united by a task, as Angel Clare discovers, “[t]he conventional farm-folk of his imagination – personified in the newspaper press by the pitiable dummy known as Hodge – was obliterated after a few days’ residence. At close quarters no Hodge was to be seen” (133). Likewise, Clare becomes “so familiar with the spot that he knew the individual cows by name when, a long distance off, he saw them dotted about the meads”, and recognizes that eight in particular – “Dumpling, Fancy, Lofty, Mist, Old Pretty, Young Pretty, Tidy, and Loud” – prefer to be milked by Tess (186, 137). All is relative, shifting, dependent upon perspective.

26In his attention to extent, too, Hardy depicts scale as relative. Take, for example, the description of Marlott, “amid the north-eastern undulations of the beautiful Vale of Blackemore or Blackmore”:

This fertile and sheltered tract of country, in which the fields are never brown and the springs never dry, is bounded on the south by the bold chalk ridge that embraces the prominences of Hambledon Hill, Bulbarrow, Nettlecome-Tout, Dogbury, High-Story, and Bubb-Down. The traveller from the coast who, after plodding northward for a score of miles over calcareous downs and corn-lands, suddenly reaches the verge of one of these escarpments, is surprised and delighted to behold, extended like a map beneath him, a country differing absolutely from that which he has passed through. […] Here in the valley the world seems to be constructed upon a smaller and more delicate scale; the fields are mere paddocks, so reduced that from this height their hedgerows appear a network of dark green threads overspreading the paler green of the grass. (Hardy 2008, 18)

27This “Vale of Little Dairies, Blackmoor Vale” is later set up in comparison to “the Valley of Great Dairies, the valley in which milk and butter grew to rankness, and were produced more profusely, if less delicately, than at [Tess’s] home” (Hardy 2008, 118): “The world was drawn to a larger pattern here. The enclosures numbered fifty acres instead of ten, the farmsteads were more extended, the groups of cattle formed tribes hereabout; there only families. These myriads of cows stretching under her eyes from the far east to the far west outnumbered any she had seen at once glance before” (118).

28While the larger scale depicted at Talbothays does not appear to have a negative impact on the human or animal or vegetal organisms who are connected with it – showing a life of greater ease than the one Tess had experienced at Marlott – Jessica Martell argues convincingly that “the dairy chapters provide a less sinister figuration of industrial agriculture” (Martell 74). Martell reads Tess’s time at Talbothays in the context of the history of the Dorset dairy, which was impacted by the expansion of the railway (with access to the railway impacting which rural areas thrived) and the rapidly increasing demand for milk (“the single largest sector of British agriculture” by the 1880s), to conclude that Hardy’s depiction of excess in these chapters suggests “the consequences of such aggressive, and unprecedented, expansion” without regard for “ecological renewal” (76, 87).

29Throughout his later novels, Hardy represents the industrialisation of farming as introducing a mismatch in the functional scale of production between social and ecological systems. Broad-scale social changes – the growth of the population, the shift away from human labour on the farm to mechanical power – create greater demand on the fine-scale agricultural ecosystem: more food must be produced, and more land that was once considered “wasteland” is now deemed arable and converted to farmland, disrupting the ecosystem, which includes the human labourer. In his essay “Tragedy and Ecology in the Later Novels of Thomas Hardy”, Ronald Morrison connects changes to the agricultural environment to Hardy’s tragic vision (186), and indeed it is in The Woodlanders, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure (1895) that mismatches in scale between systems of production and community are evident, particularly with the introduction of mechanical power.

30This shift from human to machine changes what is possible on a farm, impacting the landscape of agriculture on all levels. Farming as a business becomes appealing to a new social class who did not grow up in agriculture and would likely not have pursued farming prior to the advance of the Industrial Revolution. Angel Clare, in line with the advice outlined in The Book of the Farm, “was learning how to be a rich and prosperous dairyman, landowner, agriculturist, and breeder of cattle” by boarding and apprenticing with farmers specialising in each branch (Hardy 2008, 140), having decided that it “was a vocation which would probably afford an independence without the sacrifice of what he valued even more than a competency – intellectual liberty” (133). While Tess thinks it odd that “a decidedly bookish, musical, thinking young man should have chosen deliberately to be a farmer” (140–141), Angel’s discussion of “his plans for the attainment of his position as a farmer on an extensive scale” with his father reveal another motive: “As far as worldly wealth goes”, his father notes, “you will no doubt stand far superior to your brothers in a few years” (180). Farming as a hobby becomes another way to show off one’s wealth, using advances in science to produce food ahead of season (such as the British Queens Alec feeds Tess, despite her observation it is not yet the season) and for indulgence rather than necessity, as seen with the Stoke-d’Urbervilles’ fancy farm with its “acres of glass-houses” where “[e]verything looked like money” and a cottage once used by humans (and indeed built by agricultural copyholders) is transformed into a home for pet chickens of the most fashionable breeds (44, 64).

  • 6 For readings on the impact of the machine on rural Wessex (and Tess), see Meadowsong; Gatrell; Shir (...)

31Perhaps the most striking example of functional mismatch is the physical impact upon the agricultural labourer. In Tess, new dictates for the pace of agricultural labour are set by machines, changing the rhythm of the community and rendering unnecessary those who are not able to keep up or whose work could be done quicker and cheaper by a machine. The intrusion of the machinery is highlighted by their bright primary colours, which stand out as “almost vocal” against the landscape: the “scarlet” arms of the reaping machine (Hardy 2008, 104), the red threshing machine with its black engine (345), the “bright blue hue” of the turnip-slicing machine (334). In the much-analysed Nettlecomb-Tout threshing scene, the narrator describes the pace of human labour as being set by the machine, which “kept up a despotic demand upon the endurance of their muscles and nerves” (345)6. The engine becomes “the primum mobile of this little world”, with the “ceaselessness” of the pace being what “tried [Tess] so severely” (345, 347). Catherine Lanone comments that “[o]ne might expect the machine to alleviate the harsh labour of Flintcomb Ash, but the exact opposite happens” (Lanone 1). As Roger Ebbatson notes, technology in this scene renders the human body as raw material, liable to exploitation (Ebbatson 49).

32Because the machine must move on the following day, the labour of threshing is completed entirely in one workday. The narrator hints at what might be lost in the quality of the food produced with the change of speed through the older labourers “who hated machinery” (Hardy 2008, 346): they “talked of the past days when they had been accustomed to thresh with flails on the oaken barn-floor; when everything, even to the winnowing, was effected by hand-labour, which to their thinking, though slow, produced better results” (367). Toward the end of the scene, Tess looks up and sees the growing haystack with its “long red elevator like a Jacob’s ladder, on which a perpetual stream of threshed straw ascended; a yellow river running up-hill” (354). Hardy repeats this up-hill river metaphor with the labourers replacing the straw toward the end of his essay on “The Dorsetshire Labourer”, writing that the “process, which is designated by statisticians as ‘the tendency of the rural population towards the large towns,’ is really the tendency of water to flow uphill when forced” (Hardy 1966, 188). Social and human capital are displaced by economic capital in an industrialised world, and the people impacted adjust accordingly. As Susan Tall and Arabella Donn each explain, “‘Folks must live’” (Hardy 2002a, 81; Hardy 2002b, 59).

33By the time Hardy wrote Jude the Obscure, the seemingly immutable barn of Far from the Madding Crowd is rendered a near relic. The Malthusian worry of the population’s exponential growth overcoming agriculture’s ability to produce food had already been proven insubstantial within the UK thanks to innovations that produced greater crop yields (see West 229). The young Jude proclaims to the rooks he is meant to be scaring away from the field: “There is enough for us all. Farmer Troutham can afford to let you have some” (Hardy 2002b, 9). Upon being caught by the farmer, he justifies his actions by explaining, “I – I – sir – only meant that – there was a good crop in the ground – I saw ’em sow it – and the rooks could have a little bit for dinner – and you wouldn’t miss it, sir”, a “truthful explanation” that “exasperate[s] the farmer even more” (10). As Troutham beats Jude with the clacker meant to scare the rooks, the narrator tells us that the sound could be heard “echoing from the brand-new church tower just behind the mist, towards the building of which structure the farmer had largely subscribed, to testify his love for God and man” (10). This narratorial revelation affirms Jude’s economic observations (and sets up his son’s later note, “Done because we are too menny”, as tragically flawed).

34The field itself is shown from multiple economic perspectives: from Jude’s, as a “work-ground”, from the rooks’, as a “granary good to feed in”, and from the narrator’s, in comparison to a newly manufactured cloth:

The fresh harrow-lines seemed to stretch like the channellings in a piece of new corduroy, lending a meanly utilitarian air to the expanse, taking away its gradations, and depriving it of all history beyond that of the few recent months, though to every clod and stone there really attached associations enough and to spare—echoes of songs from ancient harvest-days, of spoken words, and of sturdy deeds. (Hardy 2002b, 8)

  • 7 Though a short scene, critics have noted the impact of Jude’s crow-scaring in the cornfield. Willia (...)

35The field has been transformed into a product of manufacture. Indeed, the whole agricultural landscape of the village has been transformed; Jude crosses back through the field to reach an “ancient track” that “down almost to within living memory had been used for driving flocks and herds to fairs and markets” but “was now neglected and overgrown” (Hardy 2002b, 14). Near this road, he finds “a weather-beaten old barn of reddish-grey brick and tile” which he finds useful as an object to climb for a better vantage point towards Christminster, the urban center of his young ambitions (14). The image of agriculture rendered in Hardy’s earlier novels is no more, leaving in its wake an unrooted Jude7. In Hardy’s writings, the loss of personal investment in the land and the impact of an eroded “sense of long local participancy” in the environment ends in tragedy.

Defamiliarizing the farm

36What do Hardy readers picture when they imagine a farm in the present day? The image perpetuated in the collective Western imagination tends toward a scene of care: hard work from dawn until dusk, yes, but a relationship between human, animal, plant and land. Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) closes with a depiction of such a space, describing “an ancient tree” that provides a microcosm of a rural ecosystem integrating wild and domesticated elements:

Many hundreds of birds had been born amidst the boughs of this single tree, tribes of rabbits and hares had nibbled at its bark from year to year, quaint tufts of fungi had sprung from the cavities of its forks, and countless families of moles and earthworms had crept about its roots. Beneath and beyond its shade spread a carefully-tended grass-plot, its purpose being to supply a healthy exercise-ground for young chickens and pheasants, the hens their mothers being enclosed in coops placed upon the same green flooring. (Hardy 2013, 172)

37Shaped by organic and human forces, the space under the greenwood tree links together plant, animal and human into a network, one that is “carefully-tended” by unseen and unnamed individuals. Such an image feels reminiscent of children’s literature: The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1893), The Wind in the Willows (1908), Charlotte’s Web (1952), or more much more recently, Apple TV+’s series “Lovely Little Farm” (2022). The idea of the farm remains within the realm of the pastoral, something stable that continues to connect the urban to the rural, the human to the land.

  • 8 As Martell argues, in the late nineteenth century a “complex new eating economy emerged” with the e (...)
  • 9 All data in this paragraph is from the US Department of Agriculture’s website: <https://www.ers.usd (...)
  • 10 For a history of the rise of industrial farming in France, see Bivar.

38How many farms like this still exist in the Western hemisphere8? The changing statistics of farm numbers, sizes and income in the United States – ranked third in agricultural output after China and India but first in global agricultural exports in 2020 according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations – provides a picture of just how dramatically the field has changed. According to the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, there were 2.02 million American farms in 2020 with an average size of 444 acres, down from a historical peak of 6.8 million farms in 19359. This mirrors the number of American farms in operation in the early 1870s (approximately 2 million), when Hardy was writing of scenes of British agriculture. During the period from 1850 to 1935, agriculture saw tremendous growth, with the number of farms increasing from approximately 1.4 to 6.8 million to accommodate a growing population. The following decline in the number of farms is directly connected to the growth of the farms’ productivity: “Innovations in animal and crop genetics, chemicals, equipment, and farm organization have enabled continuing output growth without adding much to inputs. As a result, even as the amount of land and labor used in farming decline, total farm output nearly tripled between 1948 and 2017” (“Agriculture and Food Statistics” 1). While small family farms (as measured by their gross cash farm income) made up 90 percent of all US farms in 2019, most of them do not make a living wage; roughly half of them made less than $10,000 in farm income, with households depending on non-agricultural sources for their income. Most of the food produced by the US comes from large-scale family and nonfamily farms, which made up 5.1 percent of all US farms but 57.4 percent of the value of production in 2019. In terms of animal agriculture, industrial-scale operations are now responsible for raising an estimated 99 percent of all US farmed animals. Nor is the megafarm isolated to US agriculture. A 2017 investigation by The Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that intensive farming in the UK had increased by 26% between 2011 and 2017 alone, with over 800 megafarms – the largest a poultry farm capable of housing 1.7 million birds – providing the majority of meat in the UK (Wasley and Davies 1). In France, 80% of farmed animals are raised in intensive facilities according to research compiled in recent legislation (Benbassa 3)10.

  • 11 The foremother to this turkey farm was the chicken coop of Celia Steele, who in 1923 accidentally r (...)

39On these megafarms, a very different picture exists. In his book Eating Animals (2010), Jonathan Safran Foer describes a covert night-time visit to one of these removed-from-public-vision farms: a complex consisting of “a series of seven sheds, each about 50 feet wide by 500 feet long, each holding in the neighborhood of 25,000 birds […]” (Foer 85). On this farm, “[m]etal pipes spiderweb the outsides of the buildings, massive fans protrude and clang, and floodlights plow weirdly discrete pockets of day” (85). Foer notes the jarring difference between what he saw and what he imagined for a farm, writing, “I doubt there’s anyone on earth not involved in farming whose mind would conjure what I’m now looking at” (85–86). Inside one of the sheds, he sees a “row of gas masks on the near wall”, then “tens of thousands of turkey chicks […] asleep beneath the heat lamps installed to replace the warmth their broody mothers would have provided” (88). He observes that “Besides the animals themselves, there is no hint of anything you might call ‘natural’ – not a patch of earth or a window to let in moonlight”; instead, what one might think of as “natural” farm life has been replaced by “the efficiency and mastery of the machine” with “the birds as extensions of, or cogs in, that machine – not beings, but parts” (88)11. The image Foer conjures may feel foreign and unsettling, but it also seems like logical development of the changes that made Tess “a cog in the system,” to quote Lanone (1).

40Beyond the impact on the individuals directly involved, animal agribusiness plays a significant role in the current climate crisis: agricultural emissions caused by food production and processing and by enteric fermentation are responsible for approximately 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions according to the UN (Gerber et al. 15). Unchecked growth in demand for animal products may increase this, with projections of animal agriculture being responsible for “between 37 and 49 percent of the GHG budget allowable under the 2C and 1.5C targets, respectively, by 2030” (Harwatt 533). Furthermore, animal production uses “~83% of the world’s farmland” while providing only “37% of our protein and 18% of our calories” (Poore et al. 990). For every 100 calories fed to livestock, only 30 calories are returned to the consumer in the form of meat or dairy (Stevenson 4). There is a mismatch between social and environmental scales, with the primarily Western demand for animal products having an outsized impact on both local environments and the planet as a whole.

41A repeated theme in articles and books on modern agriculture is this: the farm of the collective Western imagination no longer exists – or at least, it is not the farm that feeds us. In his pivotal 1989 New Yorker essay “The End of Nature”, Bill McKibben argued that what the general public thinks of as “nature” – which he defines as “a certain set of human ideas about the world and our place in it” – has ended: “Our comforting sense, then, of the permanence of our natural world […] is the result of a subtly warped perspective. Changes in our world which can affect us can happen in our lifetime – not just changes like wars but bigger and more sweeping events”, “concrete changes” that will “clash with our perceptions” (McKibben 1). Likewise, one might argue that what we may think of as a farm has ended. As McKibben notes, “An idea can become extinct, just like an animal or a plant.” Sites of food production still exist, but – to apply McKibben’s argument directly to agriculture – a farm’s “meaning has already changed” (1).

  • 12 In a similar vein, tourists to Wessex both today and in Hardy’s time have often looked for the heat (...)
  • 13 Simon Gatrell also argues that industrialisation impacted Hardy’s decision to stop writing novels ( (...)

42During Hardy’s lifetime (1840–1928), the meaning of a farm was already changing, as can be seen in his writings12. In a contemporary review of Jude the Obscure in the Cosmopolis, Edmund Gosse wrote, “We want our novelist back among the rich orchards of the Hintocks”; Janet Freeman, quoting the review a century later, points out that Gosse didn’t know “the loss he felt would be permanent” (Freeman 163). Perhaps it is telling that with the shift to the rural landscape came the end of Hardy’s farm-focused fiction writing; Zena Meadowsong and Jessica Martell each tackle the impact of industrialisation on Hardy’s narrative form to conclude that the introduction of the machine “deformed” Hardy’s narrative realism (Meadowsong) and created a complex pastoral form (Martell)13.

43Ironically, as climate change impacts agricultural production across the globe, agriculture’s endurance – and our endurance on this planet – is tied up with the acknowledgement of the farm’s end and an urgency to adjust the functional scale of production to better match the needs of the ecological system. Hardy wrote of the planet’s demise in his preface to Late Lyrics and Earlier (1922), expressing uncertainty “whether the human and kindred animal races [would] survive till the exhaustion or destruction of the globe”, but sure that the “conclusion” would inevitably come (Hardy 1966, 53). In the meantime, Hardy concluded, “pain to all upon it, tongued or dumb, shall be kept down to a minimum by loving-kindness” (53). His vision of the “great web” of being that connects human, animal, plant and land – a vision that shows up in The Woodlanders (Hardy 2000, 22) and most vividly in The Dynasts – and of the growth of loving-kindness describes an ecological balance. Hardy felt that “there is no remedy for this growing dis-association with localities – this complete reversal of the old condition of things – but some system by which he could have a personal interest in a particular piece of land”, as he wrote in a letter to Percy Bunting (qtd in Kerridge 187), but his oeuvre pushes toward a closeness and care for the individual and for specific, rooted landscapes. As Keith Wilson writes, “No one had attempted to render the rural worker with the same range, imaginative plausibility, and generosity” (Wilson 133). For Hardy, Wilson argues,

the imperative to minimize pain by the exercise of the capacity for compassion and imagination makes the individual being however and wherever situated – dairymaid or Queen, Hodge or Emperor, Egdon or Paris – the only measure of meaning in an otherwise entirely contingent and arbitrary universe (Wilson 141).

44By calling the reader closer to the individual labourer, to the individual animals populating Wessex, and to the specific plots of land, Hardy actively resists the abstraction and transformation of the rural landscape into raw industrial material, shifting the focus away from the solely economic back toward the value of social and human capital.

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Bibliography

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Cooper, Andrew, “Voicing the Language of Literature: Jude’s Obscured Labor”, Victorian Literature and Culture 28:2 (2000): 391–410.

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Dolin, Tim, “The Contemporary, the All: Liberal Politics and the Origins of Wessex”, Thomas Hardy and Contemporary Literary Studies, eds Tim Dolin & Peter Widdowson, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, 116–137.

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Freeman, Janet, “Highways and Cornfields: Space and Time in the Narration of Jude the Obscure”, Colby Quarterly 27.3 (1991): 161–173.

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Notes

1 Fred Reid gives an excellent summary of critical stances on this topic in his essay on “The Dorsetshire Labourer” (see Reid 177–179).

2 For a thoughtful discussion of the loss of social capital with the rise of industrialised agriculture, see Jules Pretty’s chapters in The Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Agriculture.

3 Critics have noted the transference of ideas articulated in this essay to Tess of the d’Urbervilles, where Hardy recycles whole passages from nonfiction to fiction (see Dolin 122–123).

4 Part of a broader series titled “The Great War: Britain’s Efforts and Ideals”, this agricultural drawing was also commissioned by the British government to bolster public support for World War I (Virag 1). The full series can be viewed on the National Museum Wales’s website: <https://museum.wales/articles/1037/The-Great-War-Britains-Efforts-and-Ideals/> (last accessed 28 Oct 2022).

5 For more on functional scale mismatches, see Cumming et al.

6 For readings on the impact of the machine on rural Wessex (and Tess), see Meadowsong; Gatrell; Shires.

7 Though a short scene, critics have noted the impact of Jude’s crow-scaring in the cornfield. William Siebenschuh writes that it “is a powerful metaphor for both the causes and effects of the emptiness, disconnection, and sense of exclusion that will characterize Jude for the rest of the book” (Siebenschuh 777). Jonathan Wike argues that “[i]n these ‘harrow lines’ we should see history as a palimpsest in the landscape, of which only the latest superficial layer still contains any meaning for the characters who look at it, leaving modern people alienated from the past” (Wike 466). Andrew Cooper notes that “Hardy appears, consistently and deliberately, both to infuse the landscape with deep attachments of a historical nature, and also to deny their relevance to those who inhabit ‘Wessex’” (Cooper 408).

8 As Martell argues, in the late nineteenth century a “complex new eating economy emerged” with the expansion of transatlantic shipping routes and new systems of industrial food production, making the way we eat no longer a national but an international affair (Martell 66).

9 All data in this paragraph is from the US Department of Agriculture’s website: <https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/farming-and-farm-income/> (last accessed 28 Oct 2022).

10 For a history of the rise of industrial farming in France, see Bivar.

11 The foremother to this turkey farm was the chicken coop of Celia Steele, who in 1923 accidentally received 500 chicks instead of the 50 she had ordered and decided to experiment with advances in feed additives and incubators, growing the flock to 10,000 birds by 1926 and 250,000 by 1935, and setting the stage for American factory farming (Foer 104).

12 In a similar vein, tourists to Wessex both today and in Hardy’s time have often looked for the heath, imagining a preserved wildness in the English countryside that lives up to the opening chapter of The Return of the Native. After all, as the narrator of that novel tells us, “Not a plough had ever disturbed a grain of that stubborn soil. In the heath’s barrenness to the farmer lay its fertility to the historian. There had been no obliteration because there had been no tending” (Hardy 2005, 20). Yet Hardy acknowledged that this fictional “great inviolate place [that] had an ancient permanence which the sea cannot claim” was, indeed, a fiction (12). In his preface he advises, “Under the general name of ‘Egdon Heath’ […] are united or typified heaths of various real names” whose “original unity […] is now somewhat disguised by intrusive strips and slices brought under the plough with varying degrees of success, or planted to woodland” (Hardy 1966, 13).

13 Simon Gatrell also argues that industrialisation impacted Hardy’s decision to stop writing novels (see Gatrell 28–32).

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References

Electronic reference

Anna West, The End of the Farm? Thomas Hardy’s Agricultural VisionFATHOM [Online], 7 | 2022, Online since 18 May 2023, connection on 18 June 2024. URL: http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/fathom/2268; DOI: https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/fathom.2268

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About the author

Anna West

Independent scholar

Anna West is a writer and researcher with a background in literary criticism. Her book Thomas Hardy and Animals was published by Cambridge University Press in 2017. She has published peer-reviewed essays on Victorian literature and animal studies in academic journals and collections, including the Journal of Victorian Literature.  

 

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The text and other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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