Between the Pages: Thomas Hardy’s Times


Between the Pages is a new, weekly blog series which explores the life, times and creative works of well-known authors. I plan to run the blog series until the end of 2015, focusing on one author per month. New posts every Tuesday, plus occasional bonus posts.

The first post in the series is a brief biography of the author, the second looks at the historical period of the author, and the third post discusses their creative works. Finally, the last post includes selected quotations and short excerpts by the author.

In Tuesday’s post (Thomas Hardy’s Life (part II), we discussed his difficult personal life. This post moves on to explore his historical era and the context for his writing, using examples from one of his novels.

The Victorian era was characterised by a stark divide between the social classes — the haves and the have-nots. It was the age of the Industrial Revolution, with thick smog, factories belching smoke and workers who toiled long hours from a young age. One of Hardy’s contemporaries, Charles Dickens, is well-known for his portrayal of the dismal lives of the urban poor.

While Hardy’s novels are mostly set in small country towns and villages, there were hardships nonetheless. In an essay, ‘The Dorsetshire Labourer‘, which Hardy published in 1883, he wrote about the plight of rural dwellers:

Drudgery in the slums and alleys of a city, too long pursued, and accompanied as it too often is by indifferent health, may induce a mood of despondency which is well-nigh permanent; but the same degree of drudgery in the fields results at worst in a mood of painless passivity.

It’s easy to assume that country living was idyllic and picturesque, akin to the gentle English pastoral scenes that we see in the novels of Jane Austen (note: Austen is sometimes mistakenly called Victorian, but as you will know if you read last month’s Between the Pages, she lived and died in the Georgian era).

A painting of a cottage by the Victorian artist, Helen Allingham. Public domain image source: Wikimedia Commons

A painting of a cottage by the Victorian artist, Helen Allingham. It looks rather idyllic and picturesque, but Victorian rural life wasn’t all chocolate-box cottages and pretty English countryside.
Public domain image source: Wikimedia Commons

However, as Hardy’s words describe, drudgery was a fact of life for both urban and rural poor. The passage above suggests that the “despondency” of urban poverty and the “passivity” of labouring in the fields are equally grim. The passivity may be “painless”, but is it really a better outcome in life?

At the same time as the widening gap between social classes, Victorian society was defined by a sense of strict morality and culture of prudishness. This was taken to extremes: apparently it was considered improper to say words such as “leg” when men and women were in the same room! “Limb” was an acceptable alternative.

In last month’s Between the Pages, we discussed the social etiquette of the Georgian era, but Victorian moral codes were arguably even stricter than in Jane Austen’s time. It’s interesting to note how the prevailing social mores are reflected in the dress and clothing of the time: late Georgian/Regency fashions were often made from light cotton muslin and permitted freedom of movement, but the Victorians reverted to restrictive whalebone corsets and layers of clothing that would have been heavy to wear. Hoop skirts and crinolines (if you click on the link, it takes you to an informative page from the V&A Museum) were popular in the 1850s and ’60s — quite impractical to wear every day!

I like this illustration of the changes in Western female fashions from 1794 to 1887 — the silhouettes were fairly natural up until around 1830, compared with the changes when the Victorian period began in the late 1830s: flouncy dresses, wide skirts and tight corsets.

“1794-1887-Fashion-overview-Alfred-Roller” by Alfred Roller – Hochschule für angewandte Kunst, Vienna. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, these observations on the fashions of the era apply only to the middle and upper classes, but the impoverished working masses were subject to the judgements of societal influencers, i.e. the wealthy classes. These social judgements extended beyond matters of fashion — the censorship of Hardy’s novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, exemplifies the puritanical views of the time.

Victorian audiences found the novel particularly disturbing for its frank depiction of the downfall of a country girl as a result of patriarchal dominance and violence. The average Victorian reader would also have found Tess of the d’Urbervilles shocking due to its candid depiction of the destructive effects of desire in the novel. If you’re unfamiliar with the story, *spoiler alert*!

For Alec, the arrival of Tess, a “vessel of emotion untinctured by experience” (ch. II), presents a possibility for him to attempt to satisfy his desire for power. He forces himself on Tess and pursues her with a relentless fixation. The situation of being desired not for oneself but as a result of an erroneous visualisation not only results in drastic outcomes, such as Alec’s murder and the hanging of Tess, but also in destructive effects on the emotional state of the woman who is desired. Angel’s cowardly and unjust desertion of Tess after he learns about her past results in her distressed situation, struggling to survive by earning a meagre wage with harsh field-work, which eventually leads her back to the possessive grasp of Alec and her ultimate tragic downfall. Her story is portrayed on-screen in this video from the 2008 BBC adaptation:

For modern-day readers, Tess’s story evokes nothing but sympathy as we follow her in her turbulent life throughout a series of traumatic events, but for many Victorians, Tess would be considered as a “ruined” woman and a social outcast. Hardy deliberately challenged these societal views by subtitling the novel, “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented”.

Hardy was born a Victorian but at the end of his 87 years, he had witnessed changing times, the expansion of the British Empire and the First World War. His powerful novels and poems are deeply influenced by his outspoken criticism of a society with a wide gulf between rich and poor and a society that victimised women and girls such as Tess.

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