Throughout his fiction, whether it be in so slight a creation as Lizzie Newberry in "The Distracted Preacher" (1879) or so thorough an exploration of the female psyche as that afforded in Eustacia Vye in The Return of the Native (1878), Hardy seems to have been fascinated by the one power 'respectable', middle-class women had in nineteenth-century Britain, the power to say "No" to a prospective suitor. Setting his fiction several generations before the date of composition, Hardy explored the relative powerlessness of such women, noting that society gave them one currency only: beauty. For example, in The Mayor of Casterbridge (written in 1886, but set in the early 1840s), Lucetta worries that her "currency" is nearly expended and that she is no longer "marketable": "How many years more do you think I shall last before I get hopelessly plain?" she asks her young companion, Elizabeth-Jane, who astutely replies, ". . . with a quiet life, as many as ten. With no love you might calculate on ten" (Ch. 24). The irony here is that Lucetta wants it all -- long-term beauty and passionate romance -- and she wishes to choose without regard for social constraints and proprieties:
"I will love him!" she cried passionately; "as for him -- he's hot-tempered and stern, and it would be madness to bind myself to him knowing that. I won't be a slave to the past -- I'll love where I choose!" (Ch. 25)
Given the limited availability of divorce for much of the century and the paucity of married women's property rights, one can well appreciate her vexation. How does a woman know when to accept and when to reject, to say "No," is an issue that concerns the whole line of Hardy heroines, from Fancy Day in Under The Greenwood Tree (1872) to Ethelberta Chickerel in The Hand of Ethelbertato Anne Garland in The Trumpet-Major to Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure.
In a number of his poems, too, particularly in "Her Confession" (which he penned in 1865-67, before beginning his career as a professional writer of fiction), Hardy studies the mentality of negation, of a woman's exerting what little power she has by waiving the "proffered kiss" (line 6) and by shifting the topic conversation away from her feelings and towards an emotionally- neutral, "safe" subject such as the "scenery nigh" (line 7). Cruelly, however, and certainly not in a manner consistent with the "proto-feminist" tendencies he manifests in his novels, Hardy ascribes such evasive behaviour to a desire on the part of the female speaker "to enhance [her] bliss" (line 8). Since the poem is a supposed "confession" (if not an out-and-out apology), the speaker insists that apparent lack of ardour and avoiding giving her lover any sign or token of emotional commitment stemmed from feigned or "false uneagerness" (line 13). Only when it seemed that she would lose his romantic overtures did she "falter" in this noli me tangere pose -- posture that so many of Hardy's fictional heroines (Paula Power in A Laodicean , for instance) adopt toward their admirers, as if they are not quite ready to abandon the only freedom society has permitted them. This falsity of outward demeanour and the heroine's disguising of her true feelings to play the only role that Victorian society has given her are raised pertinently by Andrew Clinton in "'She Stopped Like a Clock': Science and Artificiality in The Hand of Ethelberta and The Cornhill Magazine"in The Thomas Hardy Journal 18, 2 (May 2002).
"Her Reproach" (text; 1867), a lyric written in the same period as "Her Confession" (text) and likewise taking the form of a more-or-less regular English sonnet (except that the sestet is divided into a quatrain and a couplet, perhaps to emphasize the closure afforded by the last two lines), presents the converse situation, after commitment has been made and marriage vows taken. Here we do not have an Atalanta-esque Ethelberta or Paula fending off the advances of an ardent suitor, but a miserable and thwarted Eustacia, bound in holy matrimony to a man obsessed with conning "the dead page" (line 1) of some scholarly tome rather than the nuances of her face. While her erstwhile lover pursues a knowledge of "Cold wisdom's words" (line 2), she feels herself wasting away. While he attempts the ascent of "Fame's far summits" (line 5), she in the valley of domesticity is subject to the "biting blasts" (line 4) of a Time-controlled climate, losing her "currency" like Lucetta, concerned that her cheeks appear worn and her once bright eyes dim. If this persona could but accede to Elizabeth-Jane's advice and avoid the anguish of love she would not be withering in the male carelessness that inevitably (the poem implies) is the aftermath of the lover's winning his race and claiming his prize. She reproaches her lover, not merely for neglecting her to pursue "worldly" Fame through such a masculine endeavour as career, but for failing like a good gardener and husbandman "To water love." His wrong-headedly making the choice determined by patriarchal society is ironic, she contends, because such a "glory-gleam" is soon enough eclipsed by later [male] strivers, only the "kindliest" (line 13) of whom will even momentarily concede that her beloved achieved anything noteworthy: "He, too, had his day." As Tennyson remarks in In Memoriam A. H. H., "Our little systems have their day; / They have their day and cease to be" ("Prelude," lines 17-18). In the context of this Hardy sonnet, "had his day" implies the "15 minutes of fame" concept: ephemeral public recognition and acclaim, followed by oblivion (or, as Housman says in "To an Athlete Dying Young," "the name died before the man"). Such is masculine achievement outside the domestic sphere. The persona's "reproach," then, is that her lover mistook what was valuable (their love) and what was dross (worldly renown), and that he failed to "seize the day" by ignoring her, by an "absence" which may be mental rather than physical, as Clym's attitude towards his wife in The Return of the Native suggests. Neglecting one's obligations to foster a relationship does not necessarily entail the physical absence or apartness of Angel Clare in Brazil.
In The Woman Question, Vol. 3 (1983), Helsinger et al. single out the heroines of Olive Schreiner, George Gissing, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Theodore Dreiser, and Virginia Woolf as "New Women" far different from their sisters in the works of earlier novelists in that these modern heroines are not, like George Eliot's Dorothea in Middlemarch (1871-72), long-suffering angels. Rather, as independently minded, fully-realised characters they have departed from the unrealistic ideal epitomised by poet Coventry Patmore's Angel in the House (1854-56); however, as Helsinger et al. note, such fin de siècle New Women as Sue Bridehead and Tess Durbeyfield "emerge as sympathetic characters who will not or cannot find happiness, despite their possession of both strong minds and womanly virtues" (p. 110). Behind their lack of fulfillment lies the old dictum "A woman might work, but a lady does not." Furthermore, Hardy
seems to have shared with Schopenhauer and others a notion that women, by virtue of their physiological organisation and their biological or social roles as mothers, were closer to the operative forces of evolution, natural and (more particularly) sexual selection. In Tess this will develop into an almost Zolaesque naturalism, when the girl workers at Talbothays are to be found in sultry high summer writhing "feverishly under the oppressiveness of an emotion thrust on them by cruel Nature's law, their individuality extinguished into "portion of one organism called sex" (p. 174). [Boumelha 37]
While unmarried middle-class women earlier in the century were relegated to becoming their married sisters' companions (as first Mary and then Georgina Hogarth were for Catherine Dickens), those who engaged in gainful employment such as domestic servants (for example, Tess in Hardy's novel) or governesses (for example, Tom Pinch's sister, Ruth, in Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit ) virtually lost their social status. A middle-class woman's only means of securing status and economic security was marriage -- hence, the desperate competition between the village beauties for the hand of eligible bachelor Tony Kytes in Thomas Hardy's farcical short story "Tony Kytes, the Arch-Deceiver" (first published in March 1891 in Harper's New Monthly Magazine as the first of what would become the frame-tale collection A Few Crusted Characters in Life's Little Ironies (1894). In the jeux d' espirit that parodies with a gender reversal the romantic situation in Far From the Madding Crowd (1874) -- that is, a heroine wooed by three suitors, Hannah Jolliver exercises the only control she can grasp over the exasperating situation under her father's watchful eye by rejecting the young carrier as a prospective husband, even though she is apparently his first choice: "I have spirit, and I do refuse him!" (Collected Stories 522), casting her refusal in a positive form. "I would sooner marry no -- nobody at all!" Hardy does not mention whether the proud beauty ever does marry, or whether, like the hapless Phyllis Grove, the doctor's daughter in the tragic "Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion" (first published in The Bristol Times in January 1890), she lives to regret losing her sole chance for domestic stability, if not exactly domestic bliss. Such aging spinsters constituted a kind of Malthusian "surplus population" who were regarded as redundant because they could not fulfill their divinely sanctioned roles as wives and mothers as Nature (in the Darwinian sense of biological imperative) seemed to have dictated. William Rathbone Greg reflected a commonly held opinion when he argued against employing middle-class women in "Why Are Women Redundant?" in Literary and Social Judgments (1873).
The only acceptable alternative to marriage for Victorian women of the middle class was entering one of a limited number of professions, including teaching (like Hardy's Fancy Day in Under the Greenwood Tree, although she is not driven by economic necessity, but, as Boumelha notes, uses teaching as "a means of filling in time until marriage" ), nursing, social work, and (despite the limited number of subjects that society expected them to deal with) journalism and writing (like Hardy's poetess, Ethelberta, and romance-writer, Elfride, respectable women in droves became novelists in fin de siècle Britain). In the 1880s and 1890s, younger middle-class "New Women" were able to take advantage of the social trail-blazing of their sisters in the previous generation, including Florence Nightingale (and of the late nineteenth-century technological revolution), and enter the burgeoning Civil Service and other white-collar and service sectors of the economy without loss of social status.
CON the dead page as 'twere live love: press on!
Cold wisdom's words will ease thy track for thee;
Aye, go; cast off sweet ways, and leave me wan
To biting blasts that are intent on me.
But if thy object Fame's far summits be,
Whose inclines many a skeleton overlies
That missed both dream and substance, stop and see
How absence wears these cheeks and dims these eyes!
It surely is far sweeter and more wise
To water love, than toil to leave anon
A name whose glory-gleam will but advise
Invidious minds to eclipse it with their own,
And over which the kindliest will but stay
A moment; musing, "He, too, had his day!"
Westbourne Park Villas, 1867.
As some bland soul, to whom a debtor says
"I'll now repay the amount I owe to you,"
In inward gladness feigns forgetfulness
That such a payment ever was his due
(His long thought notwithstanding), so did IWith quick divergent talk of scenery nigh,
At our last meeting waive your proffered kiss
By such suspension to enhance my bliss.
And as his looks in consternation fall
When, gathering that the debt is lightly deemed,
The debtor makes as not to pay at all,
So faltered I, when your intention seemed
Converted by my false uneagerness
To putting off for ever the caress.
Billington, Rosamund. "Single Women." Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia, ed. Sally Mitchell. New York & London: Garland, 1988. Pp. 724-725.
Boumelha, Penny. Thomas Hardy and Women: Sexual Ideology and Narrative Form. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982.
Clinton, Andrew. "'She Stopped Like a Clock': Science and Artificiality in The Hand of Ethelberta and The Cornhill Magazine." The Thomas Hardy Journal 18, 2 (May 2002): 77-86.
Hardy, Thomas. Collected Short Stories, ed. Desmond Hawkins and F. B. Pinion. London: Macmillan, 1988.
Helsinger, Elizabeth K., Robin L. Sheets, and William Veeder. The Woman Question: Society and Literature in Britain and America, 1837-1883. Vol. 3: Literary Issues. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Sheets, Robin. "Womanhood." Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia, ed. Sally Mitchell. New York & London: Garland, 1988. Pp. 863-864.
The Thomas Hardy Association's "Poem of the Month." http://webboard.ilstu.edu/~ttha_potm_discussions/
Walters, Karla Krampert. "Women's Employment." Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia, ed. Sally Mitchell. New York & London: Garland, 1988. Pp. 866-868.
The Works of Thomas Hardy. Ware, Hertforsdshire: Wordsworth, 1994.
Last modified 7 July 2002