Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hardy the Radical: Sensationalizing the Late-Victorian Rural Government Vacuum

   Thomas Hardy's scorn for the newly rich, faux aristocracy in Tess of the d'Urbervilles and The Woodlanders involves something in addition to a centuries-old rustic distain for the landed ruling classes. The son and the wife of wealthy industrial outsiders, Alec d'Urberville and Felice Charmond sexually prey upon their ostensible peasantry, a narrative critique readily recognizable to late-Victorian readers trained on a melodramatic tradition epitomized by Dickens' James Steerforth and his seduction of Lil' Emily. The empowered aristocracy, filled by whomever, preys on the disempowered. Always have. Always will.
   While mid-Victorain anti-aristocracy rhetoric bolstered a growing contingent of industrial, professional, and bureaucratic class interests, Hardy's late-Victorian aristocratic villains undermined the Conservative party's rationale for limited representative county government. In the 1880's  Local Government Act debate, Conservative M.P.'s argued that a fully representative local government would led to the agricultural laborers' takeover of county government. Hodge, after all, was granted an electoral stake in the nation by the Reform Act of 1884, which expanded the national franchise by shifting voting qualifications from property ownership to occupation. The Conservatives contended that the landed powers provided the best class for rural government. As magistrates, assize judges, and justices of the peace, they had long been the traditional governing powers of rural England. These county government positions were to be shifted into newly crafted county councils open to electoral representation. Checks must be built into reform. Hodge mustn't be allowed to oust the landed powers from their traditional seats of power. Sizable portions of the council must be exempt from elections and granted out of hand to the status quo. The fate of the nation, nay, Englishness itself, hung in the balance.
   Except dramatic shifts in ownership of estates belied this rhetoric. Following an estate bubble during the heady mid-Victorian period, the aristocracy and gentry found themselves heavily in debt or holding estates of rapidly decreasing profit. The agricultural depression that began in the 1870's slashed the rents and agricultural profits funding the very class charged with the governance of rural England. Once locally involved aristocrats and gentry took up residency in London or abroad. In dire cases, they sold their estates to wealthy industrialists, professionals, and businessmen. These shifts to absenteeism and new ownership created a vacuum in county government, which was filled by men like Hardy, who became a Dorset magistrate in 1884.
    Alec's and Felice's sexual exploitations sensationalize this power vacuum. Hardy's novels shout: the new landed powers aren't simply aloof from traditional responsibilities; they will exploit their power for their own self-interests -- self-interests like those infelicitously served by the Conservative party in their push for restricted electoral county councils. Withholding complete representation in county government leaves rural England as helpless as Tess exhausted and lost in the Slopes. Here, at least, Hardy was a radical.

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