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The Ruined Maid

'The Ruined Maid' is a satirical poem by Thomas Hardy that was published in 1901 in his collection Poems of the Past and the Present. This period was during the Victorian era, a time known for its strict moral codes and societal norms, which Hardy often critiqued in his works. Using pre-hipster era irony, it humorously handles the themes of Victorian morality and gender roles. A dramatic dialogue highlights the double standards and lack of choice faced by young women in 19th-century England.

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The Ruined Maid

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'The Ruined Maid' is a satirical poem by Thomas Hardy that was published in 1901 in his collection Poems of the Past and the Present. This period was during the Victorian era, a time known for its strict moral codes and societal norms, which Hardy often critiqued in his works. Using pre-hipster era irony, it humorously handles the themes of Victorian morality and gender roles. A dramatic dialogue highlights the double standards and lack of choice faced by young women in 19th-century England.

'The Ruined Maid': a poem by Thomas Hardy

'The Ruined Maid' Analysis & Summary

Published In

1901

Author

Thomas Hardy

Form / Style

Victorian Realism

Meter

Iambic and anapestic trimeter.

Rhyme Scheme

AABB CCBB DDBB EEBB FFBB AABB

Poetic Devices

Dramatic dialogue, repetition, juxtaposition.

Characters

Amelia, a 'ruined maid' and an unnamed acquaintance.

Tone

Satirical, sardonic, ironic.

Summary

The poem is set in the Victorian era and follows a conversation between two women who used to work together on a farm.

  • One woman, referred to as the 'ruined maid,' has since left rural life and become a prostitute in the city.
  • The other woman, still a farm worker, comments on the 'ruined' woman's improved appearance and sophisticated way of speaking, clearly seeing her former companion as more elegant and refined now.

Themes

Gender roles, class and Victorian morality.

Analysis

Hardy highlights moral hypocrisy and the double standards applied to women and men.

'The Ruined Maid': Thomas Hardy’s biographical context

Thomas Hardy, a sometimes-controversial member of the Western literary canon, was born in a small village in Higher Bockhampton, Dorset in 1840. The county of Dorset inspired many of his novels and characters, as well as influenced his views on social norms and class structures. He died there in 1928, close to where he was born.

Considered a Victorian Realist, the Romantics and the work of Jon Stuart Mill influenced Hardy. The themes that run through his work are gender and class inequalities, the role of religion in defining social norms, marriage, and education.

The Romantic movement was a reaction against the order, rationality and logic of the Age of Enlightenment and the spread of industrialisation. It was characterised by a focus on emotion, nature, the individual, the spiritual and the supernatural.

Hardy wrote 'The Ruined Maid' very early in his writing career in 1886. It was published in Poems of the Past and Present (1901). In this poem, Hardy expressed his disapproval of the hypocritical sexual morality of the Victorian era. This was a theme that he would continue to explore in his novel, Tess of the d’Urbevilles, A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented (1891).

In Hardy's time, any woman who had sex outside of marriage, whatever the circumstances, was considered ‘ruined’. Women and men of all classes would then ostracize her. That women should be sexually virtuous until marriage was an ideal that Hardy challenged in a variety of ways in both Tess of the d’Urbevilles and Jude the Obscure (1895). Both novels led to so much controversy that Hardy never wrote another one.

While 'The Ruined Maid' and Tess of the d’Urbevilles focused on the plight of women in the Victorian era, Jude the Obscure dealt with the effects of Victorian morality and its rigid class system on both men and women.

In his portrayal of Amelia and the character of Tess, Hardy invites the reader to assess whether a woman’s morality is related only to her virginal status or if perhaps some other factors might be more relevant.

Jon Stuart Mill was an economist, philosopher and civil servant. His then progressive ideas on the emancipation of women influenced Hardy. Mill penned one of the earliest gender equality books written by a man, The Subjection of Women (1861 - 1869).

'The Ruined Maid': summary

'The Ruined Maid' is a poem about a lack of viable choices. In particular, the lack of choice faced by Victorian era women without independent means.

The poem begins with a chance encounter between two women in London. A dramatic dialogue makes the reader aware that they are both from the country and already know each other. '‘Melia', (Amelia) is now well dressed and prosperous, so her unnamed acquaintance highlights the contrasts between her rustic life of grinding poverty as a farm labourer and her current city life. As the woman goes through a litany of details about her previous situation, Amelia repeatedly advises her in an off-hand and flippant way that her apparent wealth and cultured air are all because of her 'ruin'.

The woman also comments on Amelia’s new way of speaking, her happy demeanour, and her stylish clothes. She then expresses her wish to be in a similar situation. The reply is a sardonic one. Amelia advises the woman that she can only have these things if she is 'ruined'.

Do you think that Amelia is better off than the other woman? How would you describe each of their tones and use of words in the dialogue?

'The Ruined Maid': analysis

'The Ruined Maid' is a poem by Thomas Hardy that features a dialogue between two women, a farm worker and her friend who has become a "ruined" woman, or a prostitute. The poem subverts expectations as the 'ruined' woman appears to be better off, wearing expensive clothes and speaking with an improved accent. Hardy highlights and contrasts the two main options available to young, rural, working-class women. A respectable life of poverty, children, and marriage, or a relatively well-heeled life of ostracised ruin as a mistress or prostitute.

On the surface, 'The Ruined Maid' is a light-hearted poem that pokes fun at Victorian-era morality, city versus country life, and the class system. Hardy uses irony and satire to highlight what was a depressing lack of choice for most women of the time while challenging the reader's preconceptions about 'ruined' women.

'The Ruined Maid': structure

'The Ruined Maid' has six quatrains that follow the rhyme scheme below. Hardy uses two sets of rhyming couplets to create each of his quatrains. This mirrors the dramatic dialogue between the two women as each quatrain is a dialogue of different couplets. The first and last quatrains have the same rhyme scheme.

The Ruined Maid, A diagram showing the rhyme scheme of The Ruined Maid poem, referring to how the rhyming couples make up the quatrains, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The poem uses rhyming couplets to mirror the dialogue between the two women in 'The Ruined Maid'.

'The Ruined Maid': meter

Hardy mixes up his meter to create a rhythm that supports his juxtaposition of Amelia’s old and new life. Many of the lines in this poem start with an iamb, but then he switches to anapestic trimeter. This contrast of tempo and emphasis also replicates the contrast between Amelia and her acquaintance.

An iamb is the most common meter in English poetry. It is a foot that has two beats of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. It looks like this daDUM. The effect it achieves is to create a contrasting rhythm to the more gentle, singsong anapestic trimeter.

Anapestic trimeter can be easily understood by breaking down the words. Trimeter, means ‘three beats’. An anapest, is a foot with three syllables. These are two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. It looks like this: dadaDUM. So, put together in an anapaestic trimetre, there are three anapests which is nine syllables per line.

Below is the first line of 'The Ruined Maid'. It starts with an iamb (daDUM) and switches to anapaestic trimeter (dadaDUM).

Who could have supposed I should meet you in town? '

'The Ruined Maid': themes

'The Ruined Maid' has many undercurrents but we can consider its main themes to be gender inequalities, social mobility, and the realities of working life in the country.

Theme: Victorian morality and gender roles

In the character of Amelia i.e. the titular ruined maid, Hardy portrays an unrepentant prostitute without condemnation of her choice, situation, or attitude. This was unusual for an era when society harshly judged women who were ‘unchaste’ outside of marriage.

In Victorian England, the definition of a prostitute was broad and covered a variety of circumstances, from mistresses to any women who had pre or extramarital sex to women who would be what we classify as sex workers today.

A woman’s 'virtue' was so tenuous a thing that a satirical article from the Saturday Review of 1865 advised respectable Victorian women to:

Dress thoroughly unbecomingly. Let them procure poke bonnets, stint their skirts to a moderate circumference and cultivate sad-looking underclothing.' 1

This highly sarcastic advice was given to help women avoid appearing attractive, which could lead to being looked at, particularly as this might somehow then lead to the assumption that the woman was a prostitute. The piece is an amusing and interesting insight into the era.

Victorian prostitutes were most often condemned or portrayed in literature as women in need of moral redemption or salvation. In contrast, Hardy depicts Amelia as happier, better dressed and better off than before, but aware of the significant and unavoidable cost of her choice.

Underneath Hardy's use of irony and total absence of any judgement, is the obvious portrayal of a lack of viable choices that young women like Amelia faced. Impoverished 'virtue' or temporarily emancipated 'ruin’ are not really ideal situations.

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.'

Theme: Victorian morality and social mobility

Although any young Victorian-era woman without independent means had very limited choices for financial stability or respectability other than marriage, rural working-class women faced the worst of limited options.

The difference between Amelia’s old life in the country and her new life in London is highlighted and contrasted during the dramatic dialogue. The stanza below captures the poverty and harsh working conditions she escaped versus her new life. Amelia's ironic retort shows her unrepentant nature and her awareness of the personal cost of her liberation.

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'

Do you think that Amelia's life as a mistress or prostitute is easier than the one of hard labour that she left behind?

Although Amelia’s speech and dress now reflect those of a more wealthy woman, she will never be accepted. For her, because of the rigid Victorian class structure, the price of relative comfort is to be ostracized by all classes of society.

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.'

Whether deliberate or accidental, her use of the word 'ain’t' in the last line, 'You ain’t ruined', shows that Amelia is still in some ways the rustic girl she once was. The repeated use of the word 'ruined' indicates that despite the casual irony, she is very aware of the repercussions of her choice, however blasé she may appear.

Do you think that opinions on what makes a woman moral or virtuous have changed since the Victorian era? What is your opinion on this?

'The Ruined Maid': characters

'The Ruined Maid' has only two characters, Amelia ('Melia), and an unnamed friend or acquaintance from her old neighbourhood. One is poor and 'unruined', the other has chosen 'ruin' as perhaps the only way to escape poverty.

The Ruined Maid - Key takeaways

  • 'The Ruined Maid' is a poem by Thomas Hardy that has themes of gender roles, class mobility, and Victorian morality.
  • Hardy was considered a Victorian Realist.
  • 'The Ruined Maid' has six quatrains made up of two sets of rhyming couplets per quatrain. The rhyme scheme looks like this: AABB CCBB DDBB EEBB FFBB AABB.
  • The meter features contrasting usage of iamb and anapestic trimester.
  • 'The Ruined Maid' is a poem with a dramatic dialogue between the only two characters, Amelia, and an unnamed acquaintance.

1. Flanders, Judith. The Victorian City. Everyday Life of Dickens' London. St. Martin's, 2014.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Ruined Maid

Hardy uses satire and irony throughout the poem to highlight the double standards of Victorian era morality and gender roles.

'The Ruined Maid' is not necessarily about love. Amelia may or may not be in love with the man or men who financially support her.

The  Victorian word 'ruined' refers to a woman who has been 'unchaste' by having premartital sex or becoming a mistress or prostitute.

In 'The Ruined Maid', two women meet in London. One is a ruined woman who was previously poor and employed on a farm. The other still lives that hard life. 


The 'ruined' woman, Amelia, has become well spoken, well dressed and happy despite ironically referring to herself as 'ruined'.

'The Ruined Maid' features a dramatic dialogue between Amelia and an unnamed acquaintance.

'The Ruined Maid' was written by Thomas Hardy in 1866, but it was not published until 1901 as part of his collection, Poems of the Past and the Present. This period was during the Victorian era, a time known for its strict moral codes and societal norms, which Hardy often critiqued in his works.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Which is the correct 'beat' of stressed and unstressesd syllables for an anapestic trimeter?

Which part of the opening line is an imab?

What literary or poetic devices does Thomas Hardy use to create contrast in his poem, 'The Ruined Maid'?

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