Thomas Hardy was a major novelist and poet of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. ‘The Wessex tales’ are a set of short stories, which are based in the 1830’s – 1840’s although Hardy wrote them many years later. They are very much based around where he grew up and the society he lived in. Egdon Heath is a moor land where he grew up but has been re-named, along with all the other areas mentioned, which are based on real places.
The three stories that I am writing about are: * ‘The Withered Arm’ * ‘The Distracted Preacher’ ‘The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion’ My essay will be based around the women in these stories, who are all very different. Lizzy Newberry, Rhoda Brook, Gertrude Lodge and Phyllis Grove, are all young women whose lives are portrayed out in rural Wessex communities in the 1830’s to 1840’s. This was a society dominated by men and male values particularly with regard to their relationships with women. In terms of where the power lies within relationships and within this society the women are to some degree powerless.
There is a fatal inevitability to the way their lives end. Whether in loss, love or death. In these stories we see that money is a dominating factor, especially with men. In one story ‘The Withered Arm’, farmer Lodge is a prosperous and successful man, who fathers Rhoda Brook’s child, without being condemned by the local community. He can ignore Rhoda for several years and bring a new wife Gertrude to Holmstoke. Gertrude Lodge is described as a “tisty- tosty little body”, is the opposite of Rhoda Brook, very petite and well kept.
Lodge does not suffer any condemnation from the local community for his treatment of Rhoda Brook. Rhoda’s life on the other hand has been completely altered not to say ruined by the fact that she is now a single mother. As a milk maid her past is often commented on particularly once Lodge returns with his new wife. She works separately from the other dairy maids and lives with her son. In 10 or 20 years time he will be hung for a crime he very possibly did not commit. This happens in virtual isolation from the rest of the community. She is stigmatised. Lodge is not.
Phyllis Grove from ‘ The Melancholy Hussar’ is a very sheltered young woman, who has a father with high expectations of her. He is very dominant thus she was dependant on him. She is a very unusual girl as she kept well away from people. Is she saw someone she “walked awkwardly and blushed to her shoulders” especially if it was any admirers. I think that this had an awful lot to do with her sheltered ness. With her father’s contemporary expectations of that time, she had to marry into a good family, which had the right ideas about life and social status.
Humphrey Gould seemed perfect. He was brought up in money but has none himself “poor as a crow”; however he does have power which is very desirable. He appears as a man of fashion and has social connections with the court. Hardy points out to us straightaway that there was no attraction of energy within the relationship; it was a convenient and reliable solution for Phyllis. Her father influenced her to take up Gould’s offer of marriage but this has repercussions on her.
When Gould leaves to carry on with ‘business’ and doesn’t return for some times, Phyllis has her heart captured by another man. Matthaus Tina a romantic, lustful and lonely figure, in the York Hussars, which is the Kings German regiment. Lizzy Newberry is the exception to the rule for women of her time. She’s a very lively, confident and active member of her community. She lives with her mother in the house that she was left by her late husband. She comes across as a very well off widow. Lizzy is the object of most men’s desire as she has “seductive eyes “.
She knows that she has a great effect on men “something in her smile which showed how conscious she was of the effect she produced”. However in a way she is very much like the men of the village, she seems to be able to twist between two roles and this becomes apparent, when you learn of her involvement in the smuggling. She even sneaks out dressed within he deceased husbands jacket and clothes, to be fully disguised as a man. At this time for a woman to be involved in such a dangerous and adventurous activity, was scandalous, especially to the preacher Stockdale, who was vying for her heart.
When he learnt of her involvement it deeply shocked him, as he had already been imagining her as the perfect preacher’s wife. I don’t think that he realises how independent she is, until she says that she won’t give up the smuggling as it has been in her family for generations. She has a spirit and energy, a life that is thoroughly admirable. Lizzy is not committed to a man but she may have set her sights on finding another one, her early reference when first talking to Stockdale “my first husband”, demonstrates this.
It may be a subtle hint that she is looking for another husband maybe? Rumours hint at a relationship with her cousin Owlett, which eventually adds to Stockdale’s insecurity. Men were dominant in society at that time and women accepted what they gave them and didn’t contradict them. In a way women become trapped within the relationships with men and the views they have. While Rhoda and Phyllis are trapped by these circumstances, in to their eventual fates, Lizzy is not. In Hardy’s time the classes were much defined. You were upper, lower or middle.
In his stories you see the men as the upper class, whether it was in power, money or status. In “The Withered Arm” we had Farmer Lodge, a farmer with land and consequently power. In “The Melancholy Hussar” we have Humphrey Gould, who was an upper class man but not directly through money. His family had money but he did not, however he had the status and the power of an upper class person. “The Distracted Preacher” has Stockdale, who is distracted from everyone around him because of his job of being a preacher. He didn’t seem to have the money but he did have the power and status.
Women on the other hand, were taken in to the category in which they married into, or which the men in their lives were acquainted with. Phyllis was a lady of middle class due to her father being a doctor and a man of status. If her marriage to Gould had gone through then she would have broken through that barrier, into upper class which is what her father wanted. Rhoda Brook is a lower class lady, who works in a dairy farm, and has a son out of wedlock. Gertrude however seems to come from money and still marries straight into it, with Lodge.
Lizzy Newberry however once again is the one who stands out. She is a widow but seems to have been left very well off. You couldn’t describe her as upper class, but most definitely one of the middle class. For a woman of that time to have achieved that without a man by her side is very unusual. The only men who show any direct sensitivity towards the women in these three stories are of course, Matthaus Tina, who comes from a different background altogether and has a “dreamy musing nature”, which becomes very apparent throughout.
He has a concern for his mother and although he appears deeply and romantically in love with Phyllis he is prepared to lose both military status and eventually his life. He at the same time accepts Phyllis’s rejection of him and does not try to persuade her to with him and loses his life, through loyalty to his friend. The two local males who show some sensitivity are the farmer, who rents land from Lodge, tries to protect Rhoda from gossip. The other is Davies the hangman in ‘The Withered Arm’ who helps Gertrude simply because despite her impediment, she reminds him of his daughter.
Although Lodge appears to have learnt his lesson, where the two women in his life die, he learns that he has been a callous father, a philander, although proud of Gertrude at first almost as if she is a possession, loses interest in her as her disfigurement grows and she is found to be childless. Dr Grove Phyllis’s father is a cruel and narrow-minded. Humphrey Gould is a social parasite with no sense of honour or responsibility. Perhaps in some ways the most vulnerable and slightly ridiculous figure is Stockdale. He is full of socially prescriptive ideas about how Lizzy Newberry should be as a potential rector’s wife.
Her determination and independence of spirit is simply something he can’t understand. It’s interesting that when reviewing the story forty years later, Hardy regretted the ending he gave at the time of writing. He wished that he’d allowed Lizzy to go forth to America with Owlett, rather than regretting her smuggling adventure for the community with all the organisation and energy she showed. Hardy felt by this time that it would have been a much better ending for Lizzy, than settling as she does in the original story, for timid domesticity as the wife of the ‘The Distracted Preacher.