August 13, 2010

'Hardy's Hot Women!' Review: "Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy" by Rosemarie Morgan

When reading the novels of Thomas Hardy one can't help but want to delve into the author's mind about these incredible women that he has developed.  Think about it for a moment.  What Victorian male author do you know of that has created such a suite of women?  Women who are strong-minded, strong-willed, soulful, and imbued with their latent natural femininity and sexuality; and that these women defy the Victorian norms and convention at every turn.  While the outcomes of some of these novels have the power to absolutely devastate me, I am at the same time simply amazed at the depth and breadth of the character of the female heroines that he has created.  Being the father of two beautiful and incredibly intelligent adult daughters, I have to say that I am an unabashed fan of these women who round out the spheres of each of Hardy's novels (and a good bit of his short stories and poetry too).

I recently ran across a bibliographic citation to Rosemarie Morgan's book,  "Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy", in the Introduction to the Everyman's Library edition of Hardy's "The Return of the Native."  I decided that this was definitely something I wanted to read, and while it was a bit difficult to procure, I was able to find a nearly brand-new copy on-line.

Dr. Morgan is the current President of the "Thomas Hardy Association"and is considered quite the Hardy scholar.  And while her book is clearly a scholarly analysis, it is eminently readable and quite fascinating.  After reading Under the Greenwood Tree, A Pair of Blue Eyes, Far From the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Woodlanders, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure I knew that I needed to dig deeper and try and better understand all that Hardy was trying to tell me about these women.  Reading these novels you can't help but become very much aware of each of these amazing women.  Hardy almost physically forces you into their space and into their mind, and sometimes it is damned uncomfortable and very painful; and I think that is just as he intended it to be.

The women in Hardy's novels are not perfect; far from it.  In fact, Hardy himself vehemently rejected the model of the 'perfect woman in fiction.'  Sharing his feelings in a letter to a friend in 1891, Hardy wrote, "that I have felt that the doll of English fiction must be demolished."  Well, all I can say, in having read his novels in order of publishing, is that I believe he has accomplished this in every case.  Even before I read Dr. Morgan's book I had come to the conclusion that Hardy liked to include a 'witch' in his novels.  These witches aren't necessarily bad, but they are enchantresses; they are powerful, seductive, assertive, and self-determined women.  These are not the 'limp-wristed' helpless beauties of so many of the Victorian authors that we read today.  No, these are women that we can all relate to in almost every way, and in almost any time.

Morgan sets forth the notion that Hardy's fusion of moral seriousness and feminine sexuality yields, as she says,
"a set of fit and healthy, brave and dauntless, remarkably strong women.  The sexual vitality which infuses their animate life generates vigour of both body and mind; from thence springs intelligence, strength, courage, and emotional generosity, and that capacity so many Hardy heroines possess for self-exposure expressing both daring and intimacy--the ultimate intimacy which demands facing the fear of ego-loss in those moments which call for abandon.
Morgan's thesis continues with the observation that
"Hardy's platform remains consistent and forthright: the world that denies autonomy, identity, purpose and power to women, is to be, on his terms, the loser."
Morgan's aim with the book then, in her words, "is to present a revisionist study of Hardy's treatment of female sexuality, a new vision of his work, reshaping our impression of him through the refracting lens of his view of women."

Dr. Morgan's book walks the reader through her interpretation of Hardy's authorial intent associated with the following heroines (and my editorial comments):  the sweet Elfride Swancourt (A Pair of Blue Eyes); vivacious Bathsheba Everdene (Far From the Madding Crowd); my favorite 'witch', Eustacia Vye (The Return of the Native); my dearest beloved, Tess (Tess of the d'Urbervilles); and the ethereal Sue Bridehead (Jude the Obscure).  If you read Hardy, and if you love Hardy, you simply must read this book.  If you are a fan of Victoriana, this is a book that must be on your shelf.  If you truly want to explore women's issues and female sexuality in the late-Victorian then this book is for you.

It is my experience that people tend to automatically pigeon-hole Hardy's novels as "bleak," "black," "depressing," or "morose;" but these labels are nothing but superficial; and while his novels are certainly tragedies in the Greek sense, they are at the same time uplifting, liberating, and enlightening for the situations in which women are placed in the late-Victorian.  In my opinion, and this is an important facet, I think Hardy does the job well.  He was one of the 'Voices in the Victorian Wilderness' screaming for the emancipation of women, the equality of the sexes, and the recognition of natural female sexuality in a time that rejected all of it out of hand; and especially when it came to the rigours and institution of marriage.  He truly believed that marriage needed to be reconsidered from the perspective of the female participant.  This, I believe, is Dr. Morgan's contention, and I agree wholeheartedly.  I applaud her, and I most especially applaud Thomas Hardy for his moral fortitude in presenting these magnificent women, just as they are, and their issues, to us for our view and consideration.  How can we not fail to accept them for who they are?  Can we honestly fail Eustacia, Tess, and Sue yet again?


  1. Thanks for reviewing this. I have to admit that even though Ive only read Far from the Madding crowd and watched various tv adaptaions of his other novels, its the female characters which end up sticking most in my mind esp Sue.

  2. This definitely sounds like a book I should read. In college people thought Hardy only wrote the "messes up and dies at the end" female character. Some truth to that but there's so much more to it! Thanks for the great discussion.

  3. Great review! I live near a university and their library contains a healthy collection of books about Hardy so I'll have to see if they have this one.

    I know what you mean about it taking a lifetime to "get" Hardy. I'm constantly coming across things as I'm reading that make me think, "gosh, I know there's more to that statement/phrase/word than I'm getting - I should look it up." But then I'd spend all my time looking up all the references instead of reading - so I try to be selective. :)

  4. I've read only two Hardy novels: The Mayor of Casterbridge and Far From the Madding Crowd. Of course, FFTMC has a kind of happy-ish ending (I would not go so far as to say an unqualifed Happy with a capital "H" ending) and both books had plenty of humor, both broad and subtle. So, you know, not so very bleak and black. I do have a whole Hardy collection on my Kindle and will definitely be reading more. Thanks for this review!