Historical Perspective

A Darwin and Social Darwinism

The last fifty years of the nineteenth century saw innovations in science and technology that changed society to a greater degree than ever before. The theory of evolution popularized by naturalist Charles Darwin in his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, published in 1859, had enormous cultural implications. The idea that humans were descended from apes changed accepted views of religion and society. It shook belief in the Biblical creation story and, therefore, all religious beliefs. It shocked the Victorians (those who lived during the reign of the British Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901) to think that their ancestors were animals. They glorified order and high-mindedness, and thought themselves, as British subjects, the pinnacle of culture.

To make Darwin’s theory more palatable, a complementary theory called Social Darwinism was formulated. Proponents of this social philosophy argued that Darwin’s ideas of “survival of the fittest” also applied to society. The existence of lower classes could be explained by their inferior intelligence and initiative in comparison to that of the upper classes. Angel refers to this theory when he expresses his surprise that there is no “Hodge” amongst the workers at Talbothays. “The conventional farm-folk of his imagination-personified in the newspaper-press by the pitiable dummy known as Hodge-were obliterated after a few days’ residences.” He is surprised to discover in Tess “the ache of modernism.” For Tess, Angel, and others of their era, the God of their childhood was no longer able to answer their Questions. Darwin’s book ended forever the security of a society that could offer unalterable answers to every question; like Angel, many began to put their faith in “intellectual liberty” rather than religion.

B Industrialization and Rural England

When the railroad came to the area of southwest England where Tess was born, the area still led an isolated, almost medieval existence. The railroad made it easier for country folk looking for work to leave the towns where their families had lived for centuries. The railroad also fostered new types of agricultural use of the land. Large dairies such as Talbothays, where Tess worked as a milkmaid, could flourish only because the rapid trains allowed transport of fresh milk to heavily populated areas. When Tess and Angel take milk cans from the dairy to the nearest train station, Tess reflects that the next morning in London “strange people we have never seen” will drink the milk. The trains converted a closely-knit society into one where consumers never met the producers and where strangers lived together in larger and larger groups.

England entered an agricultural depression in the 1870s, brought on in part by the completion of the first transcontinental railroad across the United States in 1869. (This made it easier and cheaper for American goods to complete with British goods.) Rural workers unable to get jobs, flocked to British cities, causing urban population to double between 1851 and 1881. Less profitable farming, meant farms had to become larger in order to turn a profit, so smaller farms were bought out by larger farm owners. Machines, like the steam threshing machine at Flintcomb-Ash, made agricultural workers less in demand. The large landowners felt no connection with the families living on their land, so to not renew their leases-as was done to Tess’s family on Old Ladies Day-was a question of economic good sense, nothing more. Hardy criticized this practice in “The Dorsetshire Labourer,” an essay published in Longman’s magazine in July 1883 quoted in Martin Seymour-Smith’s biography of Hardy. “But the question of the Dorset cottager,” Hardy notes, “here merges in that of all the houseless and landless poor and the vast topic of the Rights of Man.”

C Women in Victorian Society

In Tess Hardy considers both the “Rights of Man” and, with equal sympathy, the rights of women. Women of the Victorian era were idealized as the helpmate of man, the keeper of the home, and the “weaker sex.” Heroines in popular fiction were expected to be frail and virtuous. The thought that Hardy subtitled his novel “A Pure Woman” infuriated some Victorian critics, because it flew in the face of all they held sacred. For while the Victorian era was a time of national pride and belief in British superiority, it was also an age best-remembered for its emphasis on a strict code of morality, unequally applied to men and women. The term Victorian has come to refer to any person or group with a narrow, uncompromising sense of right and wrong. Women were not only discriminated against by the moral code, but they were also discriminated against by the legal code of the day. Until the 1880s married women were unable to hold property in their own name; and the wages of rural workers would go directly to the husband, even if he failed to provide anything for his family. The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 granted the right to a divorce to both men and women on the basis of adultery but, in order to divorce her husband, a women would have to further prove gross cruelty or desertion. Women who sought divorce for whatever reason were ostracized from polite society. Women, like children, were best “seen, but not heard,” or as Seymour-Smith observes, “The Victorian middle-class wife … was admired upon her pedestal of moral superiority only so long as she remained there silently.”