I'd never read Hardy before starting this course, I think I had it in my head that he was one of these writers that killed all his characters off. (If you haven't guessed, at the moment, everybody dying at the end of the book is not one of my favourite plot developments - kind of ironic as I've just started reading Game of Thrones.)
Now, this may be the case for Hardy's other novels, but not here.
So the plot - Bathsheba Everdene has three suitors - a shepherd (Gabriel Oak), a farmer (Boldwood) and a soldier (Troy). The story follows the events over the course of a farming year.
This was actually a really easy read, and in some ways the plot reminded me of a soap opera. Even the dialogue
"...she has her faults," said Gabriel..."And the greatest of them is - well, what it is always."
"Beating people down; ay, 'tis so."
Gabriel,...glanced back to where he had witnessed her performance over the hedge, and said, "Vanity."
You've got adultery, death, madness, reversal of fortune, in some ways the plot wouldn't be out of place on Emmerdale. And from the start you are rooting for Gabriel to end up with the girl, even though Bathsheba does treat him badly.
There's a point at the beginning of the story, when Gabriel's fortunes take a turn for the worse, that I knew what was coming up, I anticipated it - and even said "Oh no!" out loud whilst reading. (Apart from anything else because I'm a dog lover) It had the inevitability of watching a car crash. You could see what was going to happen but there was no way of stopping it. I think the phrase "You bitch." also escaped my mouth later on. I think this is the only book on the course (so far) where I got so involved with what was happening on the page.
So as much as I wouldn't recommend Germinal as a first 19th Century novel, I would recommend Far From the Madding Crowd.