Thomas Hardy lived in a time when marriage was the expected practice for young men and women. He had a very distinct view of the institution and the implications that came along with it. He himself was married twice in his long life, both times not very happily, and had progressive views about the union of the sexes, most particularly regarding divorce. His ideas and opinions are not too carefully concealed in his literary works, though he contested that he kept his own views out of his fiction.
In order to understand Hardy and his views on marriage, we must first understand the time in which he lived. The Victorian society held rigid views on marriage and the role of women in life. Most women regarded marriage as a fixed fact of nature. It was a fundamental part of their life plan, as was childbearing. In the mid-19th century, reproduction was considered a woman’s only correct occupation. On average, women of all classes married between the ages of 23 and 26, men between 25 and 30.
Marriage and divorce legislation regulated the relations between men and women. During the 19th century there were great changes made to matrimonial law; however, marriage laws still continued to grant more rights to men than to women. Under the common-law doctrine of couverture, when a woman married she lost her independent legal personality as a femme sole (single woman) and became a femme couvert (covered woman). Men could divorce their wives solely on the grounds of adultery, but women were forced to show proof of cruelty, bigamy, incest, or bestiality along with infidelity. Husbands could beat to death their wives and get only a minimal prison sentence, but wives were considered reprehensible for killing their husbands, even after years of abuse, and often received a death sentence. Divorce was very expensive, mostly only available to the rich. People most often simply lived apart or separated from one another. The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923 equalized the grounds for divorce by allowing woman to sue an adulterous husband for divorce.
In the middle of this strict social code, Hardy came into being. He met his first wife, Emma Gifford, in 1870 when he visited Cornwall. He was captivated by both her and the landscape that surrounded her. Some controversy surrounded her methods in securing his hand in marriage. She probably exaggerated her attachment to a local farmer in the hopes of pressing Hardy into a proposal. It did eventually come, and the two were married on September 17, 1874. They were both thirty years old, though she thought he looked older and he thought she was much younger.
Although the first years of their marriage were comparatively happy, tensions infused their union. Arguments over whether to make their home in London or at 1 Arundel Terrace, their inability to have children, tension between Emma and her mother-in-law, and Hardy’s various flirtations either indicated the underlying problems or represented the actual problems themselves. Regardless, each was ill-suited for the other. Hardy retreated inside himself and sought emotional connection with other women like Rosamund Tomson and Florence Henniker. She kept a private journal wherein she recorded her complaints about him and also discussed their marriage with a few acquaintances. Through everything, he never outwardly complained about his unhappy union, but just dealt with it in his own way.
He met his second wife Florence in 1906 and she was welcomed as part of their household by 1909. She and Emma were friends of a sort. She became mentally unstable and eventually died in 1912. In an ironic twist, he had her placed next to his mother in the family plot. Hardy, though he seemed to not feel a great amount of love for her in life, composed some of his greatest love poems for her after her death. He married Florence in 1914. She was 35 and he was 74. She served as his companion, secretary, housekeeper and nurse, and was very melancholy most of the time. She also suffered from various physical ailments and had a tumor removed in 1924. She died of cancer in 1937, nine years after Hardy’s demise.
Hardy’s personal philosophy on “the marriage question,” as it was often phrased, was progressive for his time. He felt that the institution of marriage damaged through “overregulation” what it sought to protect. He felt that it was absurd to force two people to vow to love each other forever and even if that did not happen, the couple was socially required to stay together. Divorce was not only expensive, but it went against the social mores of the Victorian years, as can be discerned from the legislation described above. Hardy was no so much against marriage as he was against the idea that it was an irrevocable contract.
While his novels contain marriages that can be classified as “successful,” it is questionable whether they can be considered “happy” in the romantic sense of the term. There are several criteria that the marriages of Bathsheba and Oak, Thomasin and Venn, and Elizabeth Jane and Farfrae all share in common. Class plays an important role in whether or not a marriage is successful. Having a similar heritage and social standing is a requirement. Even the characters Oak and Venn, who during the course of the novel are the very salt of the earth, through hard work and perseverance, rise above the working class and into the farmer’s gentry. Eligibility for marriage, if it can be put so coarsely, goes hand in hand with heritage and class. The female characters are all a perfect model of the ideal 19th century Victorian wife, that is young, beautiful, faithful, and, most importantly, a virgin. Nor do any of them have any immoral actions hidden in their pasts that could come back to haunt them later in life. Most importantly, the necessity of hard work by both partners is required for a successful marriage. When one, usually the female character, is idle, as is the case with Lucetta, the marriage fails. Hardy seems to be saying that marriage cannot be solely defined by passion and lust; it must instead be grounded in something substantial and real. The union of two such people often results in a working partnership of sorts. Passion quickly dies as seen in Bathsheba and Troy’s relationship, but we get the distinct impression that Bathsheba and Gabriel Oak will enjoy longevity together.
Therefore, we may conclude that Hardy felt practicality should rule marriage. If two people have similar interests and work well together, they should be united by marriage in order to enjoy the physical pleasures of a relationship in a socially acceptable way. However, if two people should grow apart and be utterly miserable with one another, Hardy believes that the practical course is separation and divorce.
Christ, Carol T., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Victorian Age. V. 2b, 7th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
Millgate, Michael. Thomas Hardy: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1982.
Mitchell, Sally, ed. Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1988.
Page, Norman, ed. Oxford Reader’s Companion to Hardy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Perkin, Joan. Victorian Women. New York: New York University