Thomas Hardy found himself amidst the rigid class system popular in Victorian England. Within a society dominated by men, Hardy is able to see past the stereotypes of the time and empathise with the plight of not only different classes, but most commonly, the problems women faced. His stories carried a recurring theme; women from different backgrounds attempting to remove the straight jacket that the attitudes within their society have forced upon them. At this time in history, women were perceived as having a diminutive purpose with little independence.
The restrains of society can clearly be seen through Sophy’s character in ‘Son’s Veto’. This story tells the tale of a young parlour maids journey through life at this point in history. Hardy describes her as a ‘young invalid lad sitting in a wheeled chair.’ as a result of an accident in her youth. It was this accident that first sparked Mr Twycott’s interest in the young Sophy. Sophy was a lady in every sense of the word – except the home she was born into: a complete women but not polished and refined as middle class ladies were expected to be at the time.
‘Sophy the women was a charming a partner as a man could possess, though Sophy the lady had her deficiencies.’
Victorian England’s society meant that people were often more interest in were you were from and your image within society, rather than the person themselves.
Sophy married the Vicar out of respect for him – not love. We begin to wonder whether Sophy views marriage as a matter of convenience and that those feelings for someone would grow over time. She is more concerned over her future and knows that any marriage would mean that she would have a home and a good lifestyle in the imminent years. ‘It would be a home for me.’ The marriage is of convenience for My Twycott as it provides him with a companion to spend his life with, as well as another chance to have an heir to carry on the family name. He had no children from his previous marriage. This is also the first time we see some of Sophy’s personality: the side of her that would prefer to put herself at risk than to hurt other people.
She builds Mr Twycott up to be an almost God like figure who is so much higher on the social ladder to her – how can she say no to this marriage?
‘Even if she had wished to get away from him she hardly dared refuse a personage so reverend and august in her eyes.’
There was already some kind of friendship between them and Sophy felt a great deal admiration for him. This was not hidden so perhaps he asked her, knowing she would not refuse him. It may also have been a sense of guilt. Sophy fell bringing him food while he was ill and so he may have felt it only appropriate to propose and secure her future.
Despite this seemingly happy occurrence, to the parish, vicar Twycott had committed social suicide and would therefore never again be respected within the community, even though Sophy had a ‘spotless character.’ As a result, the new family moved into ‘a narrow, dusty house in a long straight street.’ This all occurred after the marriage and ‘all on her account.’ This implies that it was not a move to make things easier for Sophy, but as a result of her uneducated background.
Regardless of the move, Sophy was still unable to gain respect from within the community as ‘she was less intuitive’ within a cultural environment. Despite her husband taking the trouble to properly educate her and make up for her upbringing, she still confused many words and this ‘did not beget a respect for her among the few acquaintances she made.’ It could be said that her husband was ashamed of Sophy’s poor childhood and little education. He did not wish to be embarrassed in public and therefore took the expense of educating her. This was again more for him than for Sophy’s own interest. Her twelve year old son Randolph is now old enough ‘perceive these deficiencies in his mother,’ and Sophy knows that he ‘feels irritated at their existence.’ Her own son feels humiliated at his mother’s working class background.
Randolph attends one of the best public schools and ‘no expense had been and would be spared’ on his education. He is training to be a priest and to follow in his dads footsteps and so Sophy finds it hard to truly connect with her son. He was his father’s son through and through.
‘He seems to belong so little to me personally, so entirely to his dead father.’
Even with these feelings of being sidelined, Sophy still finds it important to devote her time to keeping her son happy and respecting his wishes as she would his fathers. She has always been proud of her son, which is slightly ironic as she never mentally became a lady – but she still recognises that he would never have been sent to just any state school. Randolph has made Sophy feel that she can never live up to the expectations of being a lady but he will always be a gentlemen through his father’s influence.
‘I have a son, you know….
Not in one of these wretched holes.’
This is one of the pitfalls in Sophy’s character as she is the adult within this relationship, but she always her son to control them both by spoiling him and following his wishes to a ‘T’. She allows him to become the parental figure in the relationship as he feels it is his job as a gentleman to correct her.
‘It is not you who are the child but he.’
They are in an unequal relationship and he has no affection for his mother – just shame at her origin.
‘a mother whose mistakes and origin it was his painful lot as a gentlemen to blush for.’
Shortly after her husband’s death, a former lover in Sophy’s life re-emerges. Before accepting Mr Twycott’s proposal, Sophy has been proposed to by Sam Hobson. When he is reintroduced to the story, we can clearly see how strong his feelings for Sophy were as he has still not married, but has worked to improve his own economic standing. He is of the same working-class as Sophy and they had always been close. To begin with he may have appeared arrogant at his assumption that Sophy would marry him, but we soon see that deep down he is a gentleman despite his background. ‘I have never even said I liked ‘ee.’
However, he is now a self made man. He has worked hard to climb the social ladder and although he cannot consider himself middle class, he is still well off.
Seeing Sam again, gives Sophy the courage to do something. Since the unfortunate death of her husband, Sophy had not been seen. Her life had become extremely boring and lonely as her son was away studying- and even when he was around he was too embarrassed to be with her for too long.
‘Her life became insupportably dreary.’
Her late husband had left her well provided – even in death he had done his duty by her. This act of desperation would have been perceived as fraternising by a Victorian community and so Sophy was treading on dangerous ground.
At first Sam acknowledged her formally as Sophy had become a lady by marrying into a higher class than his, but with time this formality began to fade; until it was just like old times again. Talking to Sam again rekindles Sophy’s desire to go back home, back to the countryside. Sophy begins to take back some control as to the direction of her life by taking a wagon trip with Sam. She is starting to recognise that everyone deserves to be happy.
‘I am so lonely in my house, and this makes me so happy.’
Sophy also begins to revive those old feelings for Sam and feels happy and loved once more. She feels that ‘she had something to live for in addition to her son.’ It wasn’t long before Sam asked her to marry him again.
Sophy has always sacrificed her own needs for other peoples, and this occurs once again as she puts her son before her own happiness.
‘If it were only myself I would do it, and gladly’
Sophy says yes but ‘to tell Randolph seemed impossible.’ He has so much control in the relationship that she does not know how to tell him she wishes to remarry, and then explain who Sam is. She is constantly putting this off and postpones the inevitable, giving a slight moral to the story. She has to risk losing what little claim she could lay upon her son and if he disagreed with her choice, ‘could she defy him?’ Did Sophy have the courage to go through with what her heart was telling her anyway?
When Sophy finally finds the valor to tell her son of her thoughts, he is initially welcoming of the idea and questions the status of the man she has chosen. Sam is a gentleman in every meaning of the word except the one that mattered to Randolph – his background.
The Degree of humiliation from her son is shocking. His spoilt nature comes through as a first reaction: thinking about the effects on himself, his reputation and nothing about his mother’s feelings. Sophy is a patient woman and continues to try to change his mind.
He then degrades her further by taking her to kneel in front of an alter and ‘swear that she would not wed Samuel Hobsen without his consent.’ Randolph begins to treat Sophy as his property and even goes as far as to put his father’s name to his actions.
‘I owe this to my father!’
Hardy has included an insult at the church here as the father was a vicar and should want happiness for all – but Randolph insinuates that reputation and class would have been more important to him. By this point, Randolph feels superior and ‘his education had by this time sufficiently ousted his humanity.’ Randolph over powers Sophy both physically and mentally, resulting in her sacrificing her happiness to respect the wishes of her son.
On one hand, Sophy is an extremely weak when she is in and around the middle class society – whether this is her husband Mr. Twycott, the general community or her son Randolph. On the other hand however, amongst people of a working background, she is an extremely strong character.
Rhoda from ‘The Withered Arm’ could be compared to Sophy as she is also from a working class background, who has found happiness hard to come by.
From the beginning, we instantly recognize that Rhoda is emotionally and physically isolated she is. Other workers milk in a close group, chatting together about the occurrences in the neighborhood of Holmstoke, but Rhoda does not join in. Rhoda seems to be a stranger, someone who stays in the background and fades into their surroundings.
‘A thin, fading women of thirty that milked somewhat apart from the rest.’
It also appears that Rhoda is not a social person and that she keeps apart from people not only at work, but also in most other public places. She tries to stay away from social attention as much as possible.
Women during Victorian England were expected to marry; it was the only logical course of events within the society. Their class then determined if they would continue to work – and working women were frowned upon by most people higher up the social ladder. Any women who wanted to be able to make her own choices experienced many difficulties as society didn’t like this; those who conformed to the norm and devoted their lives to their husbands were not affected by the inequalities of the society.
Rhoda was a woman who felt the full effects of a Victorian society. We later learn that after an affair with Farmer Lodge, Rhoda has been raising a son on her own- the father, Farmer Lodge, choosing not to acknowledge his existence.
‘having taken no outward notice of the boy whatever.’
Farmer Lodge treats his own son like a stranger and then proceeds to say that he is ‘One of the neighbourhood.’ He is choosing to neglect his own heir. This means that Rhoda does not have a choice to work or not; or even about getting married. She ensures that her son’s love is deeply cemented for her as she feels threatened by Farmer Lodge and his new wife.
Initially, Rhoda is motivated to find out more about Gertrude due to her jealousy at the recent marriage between her and Farmer Lodge, as well as her need to control situations. She is interested to find out the differences between her and the lady he chose as his wife. It seems that she hates Farmer Lodge through his wife.
Farmer Lodge then shows how important looks are to him, when he calls his wife ‘my pretty Gertrude.’ He seems to have had a huge impact on Rhoda in the past as she has a shallow and insecure outlook off herself. This is shown when she send her son out to see what Gertrude looks like and asks ‘what colour is her hair and face?’ Rhoda obviously believes that physical appearances are more important that a person’s personality. This may be from Farmer Lodge thinking that Rhoda was not good enough for him.
Gossip around the village may also be why the family live so far away from everyone. Rhoda wishes to keep her son away from anything which may cause him to be upset with her, despite not caring what anyone thinks of her.
Rhoda is able to reassess her opinion of someone as her and Gertrude soon become friends when she brings better boots for her son to wear. She soon realizes that Gertrude is not as bad as she has first thought.
‘everything like resentment at the unconscious unsurption had quite passed away from the elder’s mind.’
A women who did not marry was often considered a witch, so when Gertrude’s arm is mysteriously injured, some began to accuse Rhoda of witchcraft against her. Farmer Lodge has begun to lose interest in his young wife due to her predicament.
‘a notion that it makes my husband – dislike me – no love me less.’
Beauty is so important to him, that Farmer lodge feels that his wife’s beauty has been blighted by her arm. He did not want to commit social suicide by marrying Rhonda, who is a lower class than him, but now feels maybe Gertrude wasn’t a good choice either due to her arm.
The only positive relationship Rhoda has with a male is with her son Jamie. She appears to try and avoid contact with the opposite sex as much as possible.
At first, Rhoda appears to be an extremely strong character. She has been a single-mom in Victorian England, and has always managed to retain a good relationship with Jamie and ignore the gossip spread about her. Despite this, deep down she is very insecure and emotional hence her hate and jealousy towards Gertrude. Fellow villagers view Rhoda as an outcast from their society.
At times, Rhoda can give the impression of being disrespectful; however this is simply a misjudgment of situations. Deep down she has a great deal of reverence for every character. This can be seen when Gertrude brings the shoes round to the house as Rhoda feels that she is insinuating that she is unable to provide for her own son; she soon realizes her mistake.
Milly Richards from ‘Tony Kytes, the Arch Deiciever’ is a character with little pride or self confidence, as she allows Tony to tell her what to do. She always needs there to be someone there to help her due to her lack of self worth and feels that even though Tony proposed to two other girls first – in front of her; having him was better than having nobody.
She has an innocence about her that makes her believe that people are always doing things for the good, like when she hides from Tony’s ex-girlfriend.
‘under the empty sacks just here in the front of the wagon and hide there out of sight…’
Milly is so naive, that she does not see that Tony is not faithful or loyal and is extremely untrustworthy, even when she sees it right in front of her. Her acceptance of Tony’s proposal could be because of her lack of independence and need for a husband to instruct her on what to do.
Compared to the previous two characters, Milly is extremely weak. She lacks self-respect and has no strength during an emotional situation. However, she has shown some strength as even after everything that happened, she has shown how deeply she loves him by declaring her love for him.
Despite this, the rest of the community views her as a woman following the norm. She lives up to society’s expectations, even if it means showing such loyalty to someone who obviously does not deserve it. They may also feel that she must be desperate, and a little bit stupid, to be accepting Tony’s proposal when she was his third choice.
By the end of the story, we feel a great deal of anger towards Tony because of the way he is treating Milly. Our sympathy is with Milly; however this could have been influenced by the use of a narrator as the used there own opinions when telling the story.
Each of the three women I have chosen have experienced a failing relationship due to society’s view of class, a woman’s role and the way children were brought up. They were all viewed somewhat negatively by their local community: Sophy for marrying the Vicar; Rhoda for having a child out of wedlock and Milly for still accepting to marry someone who didn’t respect her as an individual.
Hardy’s stories centre on the disadvantaged and his is always able to explore the nature of varying characters. He thought about ways in which the humans were downtrodden, or raised to be more than they were in late Victorian England. Many of the themes and troubles he wrote could be considered timeless and I feel that Hardy was trying to break barriers between class, gender and other stereotypical views in an effort to show people that taking the individual as a whole is more important. Every person has ‘value’ wherever they come from or whatever they believe in.
Modern England sees women granted all of these opportunities and more which Hardy would have applauded, but do these choices and freedoms make us happier, or simply make life more complicated? In my opinion, some of those stereotypes from the Victorian Era still exist amongst today’s society; however with all of the choices available nowadays, these stereotypes have become disguised.
I also believe that we cannot judge somebody else’s happiness so nobody will ever be sure if these choices and freedoms have made them happier individuals. Despite this, life for women has improved greatly, but there are new factors which affect their lives and make them appear to still be downtrodden individuals.