Thomas Hardy can be equally dazzling and heavy-handed. In his two masterpieces, Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Jude of the Obscure, his exquisite, lyrical style balances the melodramatic plots. But it's best not to think too hard about his plots. Tess is--clunk--oppressed--clunk--by one man named Alec and another named Angel. Alec gets her pregnant, but Angel becomes a self-righteous prude and abandons her. A Pure Woman like Tess is doomed to be ill-treated by men. Tess is a complicated character, but her passivity and masochism can be irritating. And the gorgeously written Jude the Obscure is, alas, really over the top. The Father Time scene didn't go over with my dashing friends, just back from Asia, or me. "Oh, no." "Oh, God." "Yes, really." Some laughter. But the rest of the novel is so remarkable that one tries to overlook it. If one can just overlook names like Sue Bridehead...
There is much less awkwardness in some of his earlier novels. Far from the Madding Crowd, a pastoral tragicomedy, is a kind of mini-classic. The characters are intense but also have humor and wit. Bathsheba Everdene, a proud, intelligent woman, inherits an uncle's farm and is determined to manage it herself. When we first meet her, she is sitting in a wagon in the woods, admiring herself in the mirror to fend off boredom. Gabriel Oak, a farmer, sees her, amused. He develops a crush on her, as do most men, and is a rejected suitor before he loses his farm in a dog-related tragedy. (Why are dogs in literature so tragic?) The commonsensical Gabriel is the true hero, a quick, brilliant man who saves her farm both from a fire and a storm. Bathsheba is no slouch herself, strong and willing to work side by side with Gabriel, but she has no intention of marrying even when she promotes him to bailiff. Marrying, as far as she can see, holds a women down.
Bathsheba cannot help but flirt a little. She teases a neighbor, a stuffy farmer, Boldwood, with a valentine that says, "Marry me." This humorless man takes it literally and falls in love. But it is Sergeant Troy, a handsome, flirtatious soldier, who appeals to her. Oh no. Why do heroines always fall in love with the wrong man?
The style is more pared-down and modern than in his later work, and some people object to this. I love Hardy's later sonorous, richer sentences, but this casual style suits Far from the Madding Crowd.
By the way, there are two excellent film adaptations that I know of: a movie with Alan Bates and Julie Christie and a Masterpiece Theater miniseries.