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Like A Portrait of a Lady I’m reading this for my Open University course on the nineteenth century novel that starts in October, as they were the only two books on it that I hadn’t already read. As with Henry James I had my own reasons for not wanting to read any more Thomas Hardy. One of my English Lit GCSE coursework books was Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and given my violent feminist reaction to it at that relatively young age I couldn’t see how Hardy’s novels were going to get any better for me as I aged and became far more feminist.

However, at first I thought that I may have been doing Hardy a disservice as Bathsheba, the principle female character of the novel, appears as sprightly and independent a character as you could expect a woman to be in a novel of this period – she even runs her own farm. His prose also, and continued to throughout the novel, delighted me. He describes the floor of a barn as, “formed of thick oak, black with age and polished by the beating of flails for many generation, till it had grown as rich in hue as the state-room floors of an Elizabethan mansion”. This is after he has just compared the layout of the barn to a church, investing the activities and traditions of the farming year with weight and solemnity of sacred rites. In other places he paints pictures of nature through a rich language: when describing a storm “out leapt the fifth flash, with the spring of a serpent and the shout of a fiend. It was as green as an emerald, and the reverberation was stunning”.

But as great as his descriptive power is I cannot forgive him his portrayal of Bathsheba. Although we are told initially that Bathsheba is an intelligent, lively, capable woman, throughout the book she shuns the one man who could give her true love and bring her happiness, and instead becomes embroiled in a series of entanglements with unsuitable men, bringing distress upon herself and them. We are told, when Bathsheba prostrates herself before her husband as he shows himself to be unworthy of her that, “It was such an unexpected revelation of all women being alike at heart” or to take another example (of many), “When women are in a freakish mood, their usual intuition, either from carelessness or inherent defect, seemingly fails to teach them this, and hence it was that Bathsheba was fated to be astonished today.”

In return Hardy seems to ignore the deficiencies of his male characters. Whilst Gabriel is the strong and silent type, fated to sigh from afar, both Troy and Mr Boldwood have highly significant character flaws, which ultimately destroy them. Yet whilst these flaws may be due to God or fate, or (not again) women, their  flaws never seem to follow from their gender.

So, whilst I give Hardy due credit for his ability to describe a pastoral scene, or even delve into the depths of hidden emotions, his (what appeared to me) misogyny spoilt it for me. It will be interesting to see how far I can neutralise my instinctive reaction to his apparent view of women once I’ve studied the novel closely, but I find it difficult to believe I’ll be voluntarily seeking out any more of his books anytime soon.

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