Thomas Hardy has a unique way of standing up for women, such as in this poem ‘The Ruined Maid.’ As a Victorian man, Hardy knew the harsh double standard that was placed on men and women. While women were expected to be virtuous and pure, men could do whatever they liked. When a woman had sex outside of marriage, she was ruined. When a man had sex outside of marriage- well, that was just the norm. Hardy’s poem, ‘The Ruined Maid,’ uses the voice of a woman who has been “ruined” in the eyes of society. She has no more respect and probably little to no chance of marriage. Using the subtle implications of this Maid’s life, Hardy points out the difference between the expectations placed on men and women, and by doing so he speaks up for women during a time when they could not speak up for themselves.
The Ruined Maid Analysis
“O ‘Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?” —
“O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.
‘The Ruined Maid’ opens up with the speaker addresses a woman. Her name is Melia. The speaker calls her “my dear” which reveals that the two are close with one another. The speaker begins with an exclamation, surprised at encountering this friend in town, and even more surprised at Melia’s “fair garments” that reveal that she has had some “prosperity”. Melia, however, replies that she is “ruined”. The term “ruined” in the Victorian age referred to a woman who had experienced a sexual relationship outside of marriage. Now it becomes clear that Melia has lost her virginity before marriage, and that somehow it has resulted in finer clothes.
— “You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!” —
“Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.
The speaker then gives the readers more insight into Melia’s past by a continuance of exclamations concerning Melia’s transformation from wearing “tatters, without shoes or socks” to wearing “gay bracelets and bright feathers”. Melia simply responds that such is the way ruined women dress.
— “At home in the barton you said thee’ and thou,’
And thik oon,’ and theäs oon,’ and t’other’; but now
Your talking quite fits ‘ee for high compa-ny!” —
“Some polish is gained with one’s ruin,” said she.
The speaker then comments on Melia’s speech, suggesting that it has become more proper and “quite fit” for “high company”. Melia replies that a little polished speech comes along with being ruined.
— “Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!” —
“We never do work when we’re ruined,” said she.
The speaker continues to point out all the changes that have happened to Melia, including that instead of rough-looking hands, she was wearing lady’s gloves. Melia replies that women who are ruined never do work.
— “You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
And you’d sigh, and you’d sock; but at present you seem
To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!” —
“True. One’s pretty lively when ruined,” said she.
Now that the speaker has commented on Melia’s dress and physical features, he or she (we do not yet know whether it is a friend or a lover addressing Melia) comments on Melia’s attitude. This further reveals that the relationship between the two is close enough that they are familiar with one another’s attitude in life. The speaker remarks that Melia is no longer “melancholy”. Melia responds that a ruined woman can be “pretty lively”. Melia’s answers to all of her friend’s questions do not seem personal, but rather monotonous. She gives no details about her new life, and she does not carry on a conversation with the speaker, whom she clearly was once close with. She simply continues to respond with the same answer, basically saying, “that’s what it’s like when you’re ruined”.
— “I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!” —
“My dear — a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,” said she.
Finally, the last stanza of ‘The Ruined Maid’ reveals that these are two women talking with one another. Now the readers can see that the first woman wishes that she “had feathers” and “a fine sweeping gown” so that she “could strut about Town”. But Melia replies that “a raw country girl” could not expect to have such luxuries if she was not ruined. The interesting thing about Melia is that she does not seem at all upset about being “ruined”. Rather, she seems short with her old friend and perhaps somewhat snobby, as if she has risen to a place too high to speak with her old friend. She clearly enjoys her new clothes and her ability to speak properly.
The fact that the speaker notices right away that Melia is no longer melancholy, suggests that Melia is not ashamed at being “ruined”. If she were ashamed of it, she would not likely flaunt her new attire and admit, multiple times, to being “ruined”. But Melia does not seem to mind that she has lost her virginity and thus any respectable place in society. So then, the readers must question why she is in finer clothes and why she has clearly been around high society. This all implies one of two things. Either Melia has become the mistress of a rich man, or she has been brought into high society prostitution. This reveals a few aspects of men in Victorian society.
Clearly, it was acceptable for a rich man to have a mistress, to clothe her and give her fine jewelry and to flaunt her about. While it was viewed as despicable for a woman to lose her virginity before marriage, it seems it was an acceptable practice for a man to openly keep a mistress. If Melia was not a rich man’s mistress, but a high society prostitute, this suggests an even more grotesque aspect of Victorian men. If she had her fine clothes because she had become a prostitute, this suggests that while she lost all of her honor and respect, men could buy her services as they pleased and yet still be considered “high society”. In either circumstance, ‘The Ruined Maid’ reveals the vast difference between the way that men and women were treated in the Victorian age.
Thomas Hardy Background
Thomas Hardy was not necessarily a feminist of his day, but his life was profoundly impacted by numerous women. He clearly admired them all, as he wrote many poems in regards to them. “Tryphena must have exerted some profound effect on Hardy’s life since she appears in disguise in many of his novels and poems. After her death, Hardy wrote a poem pervaded with personal memories, entitled ‘Thoughts of Phena.’ When he was in his mid-twenties, he fell desperately in love with Emma, whom he would marry when they were both thirty years old. Upon the death of his wife, he wrote many poems alluding to the days when they were young and happy together.
Hardy also had relationships with many young artistic ladies. These relationships cause him to become estranged from his wife in the latter years of their marriage. Nonetheless, Hardy was entirely captivated by women, and he clearly held many of his female friends in high regard. It was these relationships and feelings toward women that produced in Hardy the sentiments expressed in ‘The Ruined Maid.’ Though he does subtly, Hardy uses the conversation between two women to point out the unfair attitude toward men and women in his society. He also uses a woman who does not seem to mind being “ruined” to point out that not all women are the same, and that not all women are devastated if they don’t behave the way society expects them to behave. These are all fairly feminist ideas for a man living in the Victorian Age.