Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, and Feminist Romantics . . . Like Me
By Susan Lilley
As I sat in a dark movie theater the other night watching the newest version of Thomas Hardy’s grand novel Far from the Madding Crowd, I experienced an unusual sensation that I have not felt in years. A sort of tingly, achy, shivery, heart-melty feeling that vicarious thrills in books and movies can, in the perfect circumstances, bestow. The whole thing was kind of embarrassing. I mean, really—getting all teary about foolhardy, feisty Bathsheba Everdene and strong, faithful Gabriel Oak—at my age? And I even spilt a few tears for poor Fanny Robin, the ultimate accidental reverse-coincidence jilting victim. What does it all mean? After all, I am a practical feminist who long ago rejected formulaic romantic plotlines that end where most relationships just get started.
As an English literature geek and a general Anglophile, my earliest notions about love and romance were planted and nurtured in the virtual countryside and along the lanes of both pretty villages and dirty industrial towns of 19th and early 20th century England. The windswept moors in Yorkshire and Cornwall cliffs formed the visual backdrop for all my Florida flatland schoolgirl fantasies starting around age 14. Since I had recently matriculated from the requisite horse-loving phase (I know, so Freudian) to the world of real literature, the moody landscapes and emo characters of Emily Brontë, Thomas Hardy, and later D.H. Lawrence formed my academy of all things romantic.
As I grew to full yearning teen-hood in the late 60s and early 70s, the whole culture seemed besotted with the imagery of English romance. TV commercials for British Sterling cologne looked like scenes from a Brontë novel, with a ruggedly dashing guy on a horse offering flowers or something to a waifishly glamorous lass in a feathery-green field. In the pages of my bible, Seventeen Magazine, quotations from Shakespeare classed up the already lush romantic ads for fragrances like Chantilly (“shake your world”) and Emeraude, and clothing lines I was obsessed with: Gunne Sax by designer Jessica McClintock and–the ultimate—Young Edwardian by Arpeja. Their ads managed to marry Carnaby Street modishness with literary 19th century imagery, and the remote world they suggested seemed almost real to my overly active imagination. When I finally saw, a few years after release, the 1967 film of Far from the Madding Crowd with Julie Christie and Alan Bates, I knew I had reached some sort of pinnacle in my development as a young romantic.
Then I went to college and became a fledgling feminist. But did not give up on my love for Hardy, the Brontës, Jane Austen, and now, the bitter, sexy, dream-like tales of D. H. Lawrence. I figured that anything that hit me this hard needed to be looked at carefully. Some of the questions I asked myself then are still worth asking. Was I so steeped in the Cinderella-rescued-happily-ever-after myth that I was rendered blind to the possibility that “good literature” simply veiled the big lie with better language and finely drawn characters? Can I reconcile my delight in these stories with my deeply feminist point of view on all things?
Of course, there is the issue of historical time. Can we hold Hardy responsible for his somewhat spotty attempts to create strong female characters who fall prey to total cads and then need rescuing by the good men? When Tess (of D’Urbervilles fame) is victimized by her lover Angel Clare AND her society’s double standard, her plight functions less as outrage over gender inequality and more as a plot device to bring the character to a necessary low. In Madding Crowd, when Bathsheba and her sassy assistant Liddy bring their farming goodness to the all-male market, we cheer her on as she gets dissed in every possible way for daring to sell her grain while female. Is it Hardy’s fault that things were ACTUALLY THAT BAD for women in his time? At least he was pointing it out, right? That’s how I reconciled it as a younger reader, but the complexity of the problem still plagues me. Especially when movies like “Pretty Woman” still get revived at sleep-overs for new generations of girls. And especially when we have kajillions of women reading shite like 50 Shades of Grey on purpose. As a choice. Without guns to their heads. (Well, sorry, but it had to come up sometime.)
But back to real literature. D. H. Lawrence (under-read these days, in my opinion) took the conversation to a different place, with inchoate (one of his favorite words) passions that really had no place to go. In an atmosphere of class struggle and often confused but intense sexuality, he allowed his heroines to go un-rescued, despite the deceptive trappings of the earlier English romance. But Hardy—he started out all optimistic with that chirpy ending of his early novel Under the Greenwood Tree. You get the feeling that by the time he had lived through his own stories of Bathsheba, Tess, and others, he had nothing but bad news for humanity at the end of his career with Jude the Obscure, a tale so hopelessly mournful that when I read it in grad school I vowed never to open its leaves again. And I haven’t.
What are the best love stories being written today? It is not a type I look for in serious contemporary novels, but I am curious. Who are the descendants of Hardy, the Brontës, and even Lawrence? Maybe film is a better medium for the love story; maybe you have to wrap yourself in darkness and suspend your disbelief for two hours to let the story have its way with you. For that, I do indeed recommend the new film starring the kind of perfect Carey Mulligan and dreamy Matthias Schoenaerts as the central figures in this love quadrangle. Pentangle, if you count the doomed Fanny Robin. (Sob.) If you loved the novel ever, or the 1967 movie, this one will not disappoint. Save the big questions for after the credits roll and you can dab your eyes and pull yourself together.