Monday, 15 February 2010

'Feminism and the Novel: 1880-1920' - and Thomas Hardy

I picked up an interesting book in a book sale at Ilford Library recently. It was entitled ‘Women and Fiction: feminism and the novel, 1880-1920’ by Patricia Stubbs, Harvester Press, Sussex, 1979.

I skim-read it – particularly as I had not read some of the authors referred to, so did not want to delve into some of it too much. Nevertheless, some interesting angles and topics were covered. Authors examined in the book included Thomas Hardy, George Moore, George Meredith, H.G. Wells, E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf.

However, what particularly caught my attention, and why I decided to write this blog was in regard to what Patricia Stubbs had to say in regard to Thomas Hardy and feminism.

Thomas Hardy

I have always loved Thomas Hardy’s books. The first book of Hardy’s that I read was ‘Tess of the D’Ubervilles’, which was part of our English A' Level; I have also seen the film. I loved Tess and then went on to read all of his books in time. The Tess story is, though, of course incredibly tragic.

Also, of course, Hardy was a determinist. Now, this is not a position that I adhere to or, indeed, agree, with. I think it is best to think that we are in control of our own lives - even though this is obviously strictly limited within the confines of society. But nevertheless, one will get further on in life, and more likely to break through various barriers if one adopts this approach I think (whilst also remembering not to get too despondent if it doesn't work out!).

But no matter – despite all this and the rather negative and depressing messages that he gave overall in his books – I was, and still remain, hooked and absorbed by the books.

There is just something about Hardy's books that really draws me to them. I love the description of the Wessex county and countryside for one thing, and the way that all the novels were set in this fictitious county. I also love Hardy’s description and portrayal of the characters. I find that I get very absorbed in the whole atmosphere. And I find the plots compelling. Three of my other particular favourites are 'Jude the Obscure', 'Far from the Madding Crowd' and 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' (loved watching Alan Bates in the televised version of this). Well, 'Jude the Obscure' did also have some message of hope as well of course- with someone taking himself off to Oxford like that, to try to get himself an education.

Also, many years ago, when Glenn and I were on holiday in Weymouth, we went to see Thomas Hardy's cottage in Dorset. It was incredible; exactly how one would imagine the place that Thomas Hardy would live in to look like. So often our imagination does not tally with reality; but this really did! What was surprising though, at the time, was that no-one else was there and it was not open to the public or anything. There were no signs of commercialisation at all. Searching now on google, I see that Hardy's cob and thatch cottage is owned by the National Trust and was built by his great grandfather in 1840. By the look of it, one can visit by appointment only. Hardy also lived a long life, which has always pleased me to know (unlike so many gifted people, such as Jane Austen dying at the age of only 40 years).

Thomas Hardy's Cottage in Dorset

Now, what Patricia Stubbs said about Hardy I found to be very revealing and was not something that I had ever really considered much before. It also gave me a better understanding as to why, perhaps, I have always loved the books so much. Stubbs said that Hardy could get into a women's mind, and that he could to this much more effectively than getting into a man's mind.
She says that:

"Critics continually comment on the relative weaknesses of Hardy's male characters, and are right to do so. It is the women who dominate, and they do so through their sexuality." (p. 65)

Then, a litle later Stubbs says that Hardy:

"…was consistently interested in women and became more compassionate towards them...Hardy showed how women's lives were distorted simply because they were women, trapped in a moral order rooted in sexual discrimination, and in a social structure which refused to acknowledge them as complete human beings." (p. 80)

This is, indeed, very correct I think - but we must not fool ourselves into thinking that this has all been solved today and that now everything is perfect in regard to these matters. The way that society is structured still means that women are kept in their place in many ways, and that it can be very difficult for them to really flower.

Hardy also focuses on the destructive nature of sexuality, and Stubbs says, that there was no joy in sex for Hardy in his novels. I found all this absolutely fascinating.

Of course it has to be remembered that Patricia Stubbs, whilst a feminist wrote the book very much from an overall academic perspective, I think. She was a tutor at the Open University, a Lecturer in English and General Studies, and also worked as a Research Officer for the Equal Opportunities Commission. But still, I found it very interesting and enlightening.

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