The world of women

Hardy was always fascinated by women and seems to have had an intuitive understanding of them, despite his deteriorating relationship with his wife, Emma. His own relationship with his mother was very close. In Tess of the d'Urbervilles, he demonstrates an awareness of female society and of how it functions.

Working women

Although men's and women's worlds are much the same among the working rural communities Tess inhabits, there are significant differences and inequalities to which Hardy draws our attention.

The club-walking

The club-walking (Ch 2) at the beginning of the novel, which forms our first introduction to Tess, is basically just for women, though its very existence is under threat and, elsewhere, it appears, women's clubs have disappeared. The event seems a mixture of female ritual and social event, the wearing of white symbolizing innocence, virginity and purity. Men are allowed in at a later stage and then it could be seen as a courtship dance. Tess is certainly upset at not having Angel to dance with.

Poultry keeping

Poultry, photo by Roger Kidd, available through Creative CommonsTess works in the poultry house for Mrs d'Urberville (Ch 9). Working with poultry was typically woman's work, but the idea of the cockerel and hens symbolically re-enacts Alec's lordship over the women who surround him or who work on his estate. That said, the Trantridge community seems mixed in every other regard (Ch 10).


The harvesting of Ch 14 appears a communal event, yet the men and women have a degree of separation in approach, dress and specific jobs. This is reinforced in Ch 47, 48. Alec has a sense of Farmer Groby getting Tess to do ‘men's work' on the machine and protests about this. Groby, of course, is revenging himself on Tess and Tess is helpless to prevent it (see Sexual predation).

At Talbothays, the dairy work is equally divided between men and women and thus seems the perfectly balanced rural community (Ch 17). What Hardy fails to mention is that the men and the women would have been paid at different rates!

Middle class women

Hardy only briefly mentions middle-class women such as Mrs Clare and Mercy Chant. They would not have had access to many work opportunities. Grace Melbury in The Woodlanders is another example: she has little to do except wait for a husband, even though her father owns an agricultural business.


Tess has received a typical village school education, which was available equally to boys and girls up to the age of ten (raised to eleven in 1893) (Ch 3). Girls were offered their one escape from rural work and class, since the best students could continue their schooling, then train to be teachers, as Hardy's two sisters did, one becoming a headmistress. Such an opportunity is there for Tess, but for her family's inability to grasp the right opportunities. However, education has modified Tess's rural dialect, and she would have had the opportunity to become a domestic servant because of this (Ch 41). This would have been worse paid than agricultural labour but was slightly more permanent and generally lighter work.

By contrast, the only education denied Angel is a university one. Both he and Alec would have had a male middle-class education, which would have fitted them for their status as gentlemen.

The community of suffering women

Hardy makes other significant comments about women, especially their psychology, in terms of powers of recuperation (Ch 16). Women have traditionally formed friendships in the face of suffering. Tess is part of a quartet of lovelorn dairymaids (see Landscapes of desire vs. landscapes of community). Their hopeless infatuation might seem melodramatic but it:

  • Helps define the quality of Tess's love
  • Gives a context to her inner conflict
  • Provides Tess with an opportunity for renunciation and demonstration of loyalty
  • Brings out Tess's natural superiority to the other girls.

The four girls remain loyal to each other, even as they become individualised. By contrast, the village girls of Marlott form no real support system for Tess and she soon becomes isolated from them (Ch 13).

Related themes: Tess as a pure woman; Sexual predation

See also: Characterisation: Tess

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