In addressing the issues faced by women in the poem ‘The Ruined Maid’, I must consider the conditions of women in Victorian society and more specifically, how the writer has represented them. The presentation of Hardy’s female characters, especially the fallen women, is rather sympathetic. Critic Geoffrey Harvey argues that Hardy’s ‘intelligent and sympathetic portrayal of women is informed by his perception of the inextricable entanglement of gender and class issues’, which means that he observes how women’s rights were restricted and sometimes denied at that time.
Published in 1901, Hardy lived in a society known by its rigid laws and harsh treatment of women. It is well known that Victorian society was patriarchal and women would have to be ‘pure’ in order to be accepted in society. However, Hardy creates female characters who challenge stereotypes, characters who reject an existence in the private and domestic sphere of life. In most of his works, Hardy deals with themes such as the subjection of women and issues related to them, exploring sexuality and prostitution. At this time these were considered offensive themes and subjects that could not be discussed.
Hardy’s ‘taboo-breaking’ works such as ‘The Ruined Maid’ reveals these prejudices and exposes the inequalities and hypocrisy of Victorian society. Hardy’s poem ‘The Ruined Maid’ is written in the form of a dramatic dialogue. It opens by establishing a conversation between two women. One women is left unnamed, perhaps the identity of this women has been left anonymous perhaps demonstrating society’s view of women. The unknown woman lives an existence which, viewed pragmatically, amounts to very little, her world dominated by ‘digging potatoes and spudding up docks’.
She is unmarried, her career as a farm girl is menial, paying her just enough for her basic needs. Her existence is day to day and ultimately meaningless. Roy Porter suggests that in Victorian society women were considered ‘to be men’s shadows’. Unlike the ‘ruined’ Amelia, who has essentially rejected the conventional and socially accepted form of relationships with men, the unknown girl has not, she is still ‘raw’. She still exists in the world where a man would have to ‘claim’ her in marriage for her existence to be validated by motherhood and marital discourse.
Until then, her life is ‘a hag-ridden dream’, her existence at the ‘barton’ plagued by ‘megrims’ and melancholia. One reading of Hardy’s unknown woman is that the farm worker is so naive she does not really understand what she is being told by the woman, she is not grasping the full pragmatics of ‘I’d been ruined’. However I would argue that this is not the case as according to Asa Briggs, prostitution had ‘become a part of social consciousness’. It was no more regarded as a phenomenon that touched only urban life, it was seen as a crime perpetuated everywhere.
The unknown woman’s reaction to Amelia is unusual, she expresses no feelings of surprise or disgust. In the line “O’Melia, my dear, this does everything crown! ’ it establishes her surprise at the transformation Amelia has undergone. The final word ‘crown’ qualifies her friend’s appearance as a majestic sight. This is followed by successive words that depict images of a refined lady and encompasses imagery of Melia elevated status, ‘prosperity’, ‘gay bracelets’, ‘bright feathers’ and a ‘fine sweeping dress’.
Since we are told that Amelia was once a farm worker too and had left the farm in ‘tatters, without shoes or socks’, we can assume that she hadn’t been born into a wealthy family and is in fact a prostitute. The words used to suggest the state of Amelia’s former rustic environment such as ‘digging potatoes’, ‘spudding up docks’ and ‘barton’ suggest the harsh life that she once lived. The unknown woman’s choice of words demonstrates her emotions swaying from extreme surprise and admiration to a deep recollection about a harsh and repulsive life, one which she still endures.
Hardy satirises conventional attitudes towards prostitution by emphasising the ironic contrast between what might have been expected of a woman which is ‘ruined’, a word which is repeated in the last line of every stanza and Amelia’s apparent refinement and contentment. This unexpected prosperity is seen through the ‘fine sweeping gown’, ‘little gloves’ and ‘gay bracelets’. It is suggested that the unknown girl is in fact jealous of Amelia. She craves the security, financial stability and the ability to purchase expensive items, spoiling herself.
The unknown girl still exists in the life Amelia left behind, the language used to describe this life reveals a sense of gloom and weariness. The lexical items such as ‘paw’ and ‘raw country girl’ suggests animal-like and undeveloped images. This is furthered with ‘barton’ the archaic word for ‘farmyard’. The unknown woman lives a life characterised by hard manual labour and drudgery. Amelia’s character is central to analysing how Victorian society treated ‘fallen’ women. Hardy was aware that the Victorian society restricted women’s spheres concerning education, economy and politics.
The state of ignorance that women have been kept in can be seen in the line ‘a raw country girl’. The word ‘raw’ meaning a state of inexperience and nativity. In fact, women were denied many rights according to Harvey Geoffrey this stretched to denying and suppressing women’s sexual feelings. Before Amelia was considered ‘fallen’ she was described as in a state of longing. The line ‘you’d sigh and you’d sock’ is indicative of a sense of fulfilment which she has since found in her new life as a prostitute.
In the poem ‘The Ruined Maid’, there are alternative interpretations of Amelia’s own opinions regarding her position in society. One is that through her flippant answers to her friend’s questions, she reveals a bitterness about the way she is now regarded. This is shown in the repetitive ‘O didn’t you know I’d been ruined? ’ and ‘that’s how we dress when we’re ruined’. Perhaps these lines can reveal that the girl is bitter about the society that will never accept her again, now she earns enough money to live on. Another interpretation is that Amelia’s responses regarding her new status is one of arrogance and elevation.
Her speech uses few words and reflects a mediocre tone. Amelia appears to value her way of life even though she acknowledges that she has not only sacrificed her virginity to gain worldly pleasures and status but also is engaging in a disreputable occupation. The third stanza reveals that Amelia has changed not only in appearance but also in idiolect since she has fallen. In Victorian society your class could be identified by the diction you used. By becoming ruined Amelia now appears to have gained a higher class vernacular, however, this change has come with a price.
This becomes apparent in the line ‘your talking quite fits ‘ee for high company’, as ‘high company’ is exactly the company that will never accept her. Hence the rueful reply ‘some polish is gained with one’s ruin’. In the sixth stanza the farm girl expresses her desire for everything that Amelia has- her ‘fair garments’ and ‘prosperity’, her ‘polish’ and her attitude- Amelia responds in a different manner to the rest of her previous utterances. She says: ‘My dear girl—a raw country girl, such as you be, Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined’ The statement that these things come along when a girl is ruined is poignant.
However, her description of the girl as ‘raw’ is a curious word choice. According to Merrian-Webster’s dictionary, to be raw is to be unprepared or imperfectly prepared for use. By suggesting the country girl is ‘raw’, Hardy is stating Amelia is beyond this stage- she is prepared for use. Clearly Amelia lives a better lifestyle than the farm girl and this comes only when one is ruined. Through this Hardy is possibly suggesting Amelia is the better of the two, having been welded for use.
The title of ‘The Ruined Maid’ appears ambiguous as it contradicts its contents. Ruined’ as a word appears to denote a complete destruction and devastation and as the title suggests it refers to a maiden who has fallen. The reader expects to read about the sufferance of the maid, however, Amelia’s ruin has not led to her destruction but has rather allowed her to enter a more comfortable life. With this it is important to consider another inference from the word ‘Ruined’. It can be used to suggest destitute of any financial resources or worldly goods. The irony of Hardy’s punning is not lost on his readers. Melia is morally ruined, although she now has money and therefore is not financially ruined like her acquaintance.
Both girls are “ruined,” but each in a different way. Hardy perhaps is showing the readers the suffering of a woman who is not ostracised from society. Demonstrating women’s limited means to change their lifestyle or gain social mobility independently of men and illustrating two alternatives for a working class country girl, both impossible. One is the ‘virtuous’ life of destitution where absolute poverty makes for an animal existence; the other materially more comfortable life as a prostitute is condemned and rejected by society.
Hardy makes a scathing criticism of the society that treats young women like this. As Simone Du Beauvoir suggest in her novel ‘The Second Sex’, the hard living conditions undergone by women at this time may have urged them to choose the profession of prostitute being the easiest and most accessible work. Du Beavoir is supported by Marro who states that ‘between those who sell themselves through prostitution and those who sell themselves through marriage, the only difference resides in the price and length of the contract’.