An Extended Rant About Thomas Hardy’s Heroines: The Agonies and the Ecstasies of Tess Durbeyfield and Bathsheba Everdene

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My reading patterns have yet again been corrupted by the toing and froing of Hollywood, as I was recently coerced into reading Far From the Madding Crowd before I was ready, since the new adaptation is due to be released in May 2015. I know I will need to see the film, stalwart fan of period dramas that I am, but I couldn’t let that be my introduction to a book I had always planned to read.

My only other experience of Thomas Hardy was Tess of the D’Urbervilles, published 17 years after FFTMC, and I found it a slog. I felt that Hardy had reeled me in and made me love Tess, all of her endearing naivety and head-turning beauty, and then spent the next 400 pages trampling all over her. By the end of the book I truly hated him for it, and considered never picking up another Hardy novel again. I worried that he would do this to me once more – make me love the central Bathsheba Everdene and then trash her – and in the opening few chapters it looked like it was going to happen. He’d introduced another dark haired, heartbreakingly beautiful woman. He billed her as proud and wilful, amongst many other clichés used to pigeonhole women of Hardy’s time, but her greatest offence? Vanity. Bathsheba was all too aware of the powers of her beauty, and beauty in general, and in her youth she sweeps aside the (slightly creepy) advances of our hero, Gabriel Oak, to protect her autonomy. The worst crime of all.

Gabriel, the finest specimen of a hardworking shepherd, fancies the pants off of Bathsheba as soon as he spies her, so follows her about for a while like a stray dog. She proves her independence and her general vim and vitality in conversation and in activity, and even saves Gabriel’s life once, but is frequently referred to by the narrator and Gabriel as foolish – like all women – but more so because of her embarrassing vanity and independence. Despite this sense that the narrator (Hardy) himself dislikes Bathsheba, she is handed a great dollop of independence in real terms: she inherits her uncle’s farm, and runs it successfully with financial substantiation. She works incredibly hard, gets stuck in whenever she can, and handles her employees with fairness and diplomacy, yet there’s that pesky female foolishness that Hardy keeps reminding us of. Every good deed is patronised, every success undermined. This is what I initially hated about FFTMC, but in the end I think I loved it all the more for it – I felt like Hardy had managed to create a female character who transcended his own condemnations.

Bathsheba falls in and out of love like a real woman, she makes mistakes and misjudgements like a real woman, but she also never shies away from her responsibilities, and she clings onto her ideals in the face of looming pressures and expectations, like any woman would. I think the truly farcical character in FFTMC was in fact the Christ-like Gabriel Oak – a character so flawless, so pure and righteous, that I didn’t find the charm in him that so many have, and found his sublime wisdom at times ludicrous. This is sort of why I find it discordant that Bathsheba, someone I can really understand, is given dialogue that is so strange and self-destructive: she questions Troy over his previous affair with Fanny and he brushes her off, to her response: “Can you jest when I am so wretchedly in earnest? Tell me the truth, Frank. I am not a fool, you know, although I am a woman, and have my woman’s moments.” Good one, Bathsheba. Way to shoot yourself in the foot.

I suppose my real question, after all of this prattle, is: despite his attention to female struggles of the period, was Thomas Hardy a misogynist?

My problem is that the casual dismissal of anything deemed feminine comes not only from the thoughts and dialogue of Hardy’s starring characters, but also from the narrator. It is this detail that makes me feel so uncomfortable, because it stops feeling like simply a portrait of what people of the area and period believed, and more like a shared opinion. When an omniscient narrator offers an opinion it becomes difficult to divide the objective intentions of the book from the nature of the author – yet, by knowing small titbits about Hardy’s life it seems as though he was incredibly romantic, pro social reform (a fan of John Stuart Mill, and married to a suffragette no less), anti the constraints of strict marital laws, so everything points towards someone who was at least considering the favourable outcomes of greater gender equality. Despite this, some things that Bathsheba comes out with are so incongruous with the rest of her character and so unlike something a real woman would say, like punctuating her refusal of Gabriel Oak’s proposal with “It wouldn’t do, Mr Oak. I want somebody to tame me; I am too independent; and you would never be able to”, that it sounds like Hardy never really spoke to a woman – or at least never listened to one. At that point she had spent the last page explaining that she didn’t want to marry him because not only did she not love him, but she didn’t want to relinquish her autonomy. Never in my life have I heard a woman say she needed her independence curbed, and I doubt many Victorian women who experienced any social or financial independence would have either.

Looking back, it’s been quite a while since I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles, so my views may admittedly be a little warped. In my mind, Tess of the D’Urbervilles is less aggressively presumptive about women than FFTMC, and relies much more upon the harsh truths of their situation during this period, no more so than in the conversation Tess has with her mother after she has been assaulted by Alec: ‘”O mother, my mother!” cried the agonized girl, turning passionately upon her parent as if her poor heart would break. “How could I be expected to know? I was a child when I left this house four months ago. Why didn’t you tell me there was danger in men-folk? Why didn’t you warn me? Ladies know what to fend hands against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance o’ learning in that way, and you did not help me!”’

I feel now that Tess had a far more refined and complex characterisation, which seems somewhat fairer to the novel as a whole. The struggles between Tess and the men in her path are more explicitly a demonstration of the strains of their society, and not a personal summation of Hardy’s generic understanding of women. The abuses against her are not justified by her narrator – I never felt I was being convinced that Tess’ foolishness was determined by her sex, but by her class and her pastoral heritage, combined with the preconceptions of her gender, all detrimental to her formal and social education. This is the broader message our author is famous for, and maybe this was Hardy looking to a sort of proto-intersectional thought – Tess is angry because she wasn’t more street-wise, because she knows very well that if her society ranked her just a little higher she could have at least learned about this stuff in books.

My grievances against Tess of the D’Urbervilles seem a little misguided to me now, particularly after reading FFTMC. Although I do still feel like Tess was treated uncommonly cruelly by her creator, I don’t think her treatment was at all unrealistic given the era and her specific circumstances. She’s the stuff of poetry, of folk songs that were born during that period. After all of the bloodshed towards the end of the novel, I think I just felt furious with Hardy for subjecting me to such a tragedy. He knew his readers would love her (except for those who felt she was morally loose), and the only way to show them the error of their ways was to present them with the brutal truths behind their social hierarchy through poor Tess.

I don’t really believe that Hardy was a misogynist, but I do still feel that his representation of women in FFTMC was pretty simple minded – his intentions were good, but his execution was sometimes misguided. I think the characterisation of Tess really feels like the product of 17 more years of personal growth. There’s something distinctly telling, too, about the disparate happy ending for Bathsheba and the sack-load of misery for Tess; whether this is representative of Hardy’s personal experiences of the time I will have to investigate, but I am aware that he married his first wife the year FFTMC was published, and wrote Tess some years into an apparently rocky marriage, so, you know. Anyway, after this rant I think I can finally put my Hardy theories to bed, and move on with my life. And maybe in a few years I can read The Return of the Native and start the whole sorry cycle all over again.

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