Hardy and Heredity
Sherry Moorehead Class of 1998
Jennifer Williams Class of 1997
The aspects of heredity in Hardy's work were influenced by his own life experiences. Throughout his life, Hardy was very interested in his own lineage. He was a descendent of the Le Hardys who came to Dorset from the Isle of Jersey in the fifteenth century. In the subsequent centuries, the family experienced a rapid decline from their noble status. Hardy was obsessed with this idea of decline, as were other Victorians.
Hardy's thinking was influenced by the scientists Darwin and Huxley and the rationalist J.S. Mill. The ideas of these men were published in many popular magazines during the nineteenth-century. Particularly, Hardy was interested in Darwin's "blood theory" which states that parents genetically transmit their characteristics to their children. Hardy may also have been influenced by Huxley's view that nature is non-ethical. Hardy probably read Francis Galton's "Heredity Talent and Character" in 1865 which suggested that certain characteristics such as drinking, gambling, and criminal activity may be inherited. In 1890, he noted in his biography that he read Weisman's Essays on Heredity as he was writing Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Because Hardy noted this reading, one can assume that it had an influence on the composition of Tess as well as on his earlier novels, such as A Pair of Blue Eyes.
In A Pair of Blue Eyes, heredity as fate appears in the pedigree, physical appearance, and nature of Elfride Swancourt. The reader learns that Elfride is a descendant of the grand Luxellians: "Miss Elfride would be Lord Luxellian, Lady, I mean. But as it is, the blood is run out, and she is nothing to the Luxellian family by law, whatever she may be by gospel" (p. 313). Thus, blood travels full circle with her marriage to Lord Luxellian. Physically, Elfride looks just like her grandmother: "they two women be alike as peas" (p. 312). Steven and Henry fall in love with the physical Elfride and nothing more. Elfride also dies in childbirth, just as her grandmother did. Most importantly, Elfride's behavior is explained as a hereditary disease: "That trick of running away seems to be handed down in families, like craziness or gout" (p. 312). With her actions, and their repercussions, viewed as something inherited, Elfride's fate is predetermined.
Fitzpiers, of The Woodlanders, is an early example of Hardy's use of an inherited pedigree as fate. Fitzpiers is all that remains of a once great and noble family, and it is this ancestral tie that persuades Melbury to allow the doctor to pursue Grace. Melbury's ego is tempted by this possible link to an ancient family. An early example of Hardy's interest in the repercussions of a family's past actions appears in the downfall of Giles Winterborne. His father did not renew the lease on his land, therefore, Giles loses his houses and subsequently, his chance of procuring Grace as his wife.
Hardy's views on heredity are most clearly depicted in his most famous novel, Tess of the d'Urbervilles. The d'Urberville name is what sets the whole tragedy into motion. Tess is a young woman caught at the end of a dying family. The feckless attitude and impoverished state of the Durbeyfields only magnify the lure of pedigree in their eyes. Alec chooses to prey upon Tess because he knows that she a naive country girl and he assumes that she is uninhibited, for he says, "You are mighty sensitive for a cottage girl" (p. 97). Her nature also seems to be inherited because "the personal charms which Tess could boast of were in main part her mother's gift" (p. 58). Tess's freshness is what attracts Alec to her. When Tess strikes Alec with her glove, the blow resonates the harshness of her ancestors, for Hardy states, "Fancy might have regarded the act as the recrudescence of a trick in which her armed progenitors were not unpracticed" (p.411). In this sense, Tess's actions are determined by a force that is beyond her control. In reference to Tess's loss of innocence, Hardy states, "One may, indeed, admit the possibility of a retribution lurking in the present catastrophe. Doubtless some of Tess d'Urberville's mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time" (p. 119). Through this statement, Hardy seems to be justifying the rape of Tess as though she were paying for the crimes of her ancestors.
Like her charms, Tess's physical attributes, her "luxurience of aspect and fullness of growth" (p.82), are inherited from her mother and arouse Alec's sexual hunger. At the point in the novel when Tess and Angel confront each other about their pasts, Angel cannot forgive Tess, for he is influenced by the portraits of Tess's ancestors. When he sees these paintings, he is shocked by their unflattering features and their similarities to Tess. It can be inferred that their appearance persuaded him not to enter Tess's room.
Hardy's preoccupation with heredity as fate stems from his personal interest in his lineage and also from the general Victorian obsession with Darwinian theories and the degeneration of noble families. His obsession can be traced throughout his early novels and early poetry, but culminates in Tess of the d'Urbervilles.
Bailey, J.O. "Heredity as Villain in the Poetry and Fiction of Thomas Hardy." The Thomas Hardy Yearbook. Vol. 1. St. Peter Port: Toucan Press. 1970, pp. 9-19.
Beckingham, Cushla R. "The Importance of the Family in Hardy's Fictional World." The Thomas Hardy Journal. Vol.5, No.2. Canterbury: Thomas Hardy Society. 1989, pp. 62-68.
Greenslade, William M. Degeneration, Culture and the Novel: 1880-1940. Cambridge University Press, 1994.