Analysis of Thomas Hardy’s An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress

First published in the New Quarterly Magazine in July 1878, “An Indiscretion” was never collected by Thomas Hardy into any of the four volumes of short stories that he produced during his lifetime. Its eventual printing in 1934 caused a public dispute to erupt between Florence Hardy, his widow, and Sydney Cockerell, his literary executor. Much of the story’s essential plot was clearly drawn from The Poor Man and the Lady, Hardy’s first novel, which he wrote in 1867 and 1868 but never published.

“An Indiscretion” details a forbidden relationship between Egbert Mayne, a poor schoolteacher in the town of Tollamore, and Geraldine Allenville, the privileged daughter of a member of the local gentry. Egbert’s desire for Geraldine is kindled when he saves her from being killed by a mechanical threshing machine. After the incident, Geraldine visits Egbert at his school under the pretense of inspecting it on behalf of her father, Squire Allenville, and a tentative friendship between them begins to take shape. When Egbert’s grandfather is in danger of being turned out of his house by the squire, Egbert prevails on Geraldine to intercede, and she does. The two continue to meet clandestinely, and one night he kisses her in the schoolhouse.

Despite a series of missteps, the relationship grows until Egbert, conscious of the dangerous social gap between them, determines to leave Tollamore for London, where he hopes to build his reputation and fortune to a level that will allow him to finally marry Geraldine. After five years of steady effort, he achieves a modest amount of social success as a writer and publishes two books. At first, he maintains a correspondence with Geraldine, but this soon dwindles when her father learns of their relationship. When he hears that her family is visiting London, he contrives to sit near her at the opera. Quietly sneaking behind her, Mayne grabs her hand, and she declares that she remains “Yours now as then” (87). His hopes are quickly dashed, however, when he soon learns that her father has arranged for her to marry Lord Bretton.

Dejected, Egbert returns to Tollamore, where Geraldine’s wedding is to take place. There, he experiences more emotional upheaval when he hears Geraldine’s voice outside his window. Still in love with him and fearful of Bretton, she has run away from her father’s house. Determined to save his lover, Egbert arranges for them to be married secretly, and they elope to the seaside town of Melport. After the ensuing scandal, Geraldine returns to the squire’s house to attempt a reconciliation. The encounter with her father puts too much strain on her fragile state; she suffers a ruptured blood vessel and collapses. At Geraldine’s request, Egbert is eventually admitted to the home, but Mr. Allenville ignores him. Geraldine’s health declines and she dies. Egbert sits on the right side of the bed holding her hand “while her father and the rest remained on the left side, never raising their eyes to him and scarcely ever addressing him” (113).

Thematically, “An Indiscretion” establishes the author’s (very personal) preoccupation with questions of social standing. But, unlike such later novels as Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, in which Hardy rails against the Victorians’ fundamentally snobbish attitudes about class, here he seems much more muted. The difficulties experienced by Egbert and Geraldine in their relationship are not used as the vehicles for scathing social commentary. A useful point of comparison is the conclusion of Tess. Each text closes with its heroine dying as a result of circumstances that stem directly or indirectly from her desire to marry outside of her social station. But, whereas the narrator of Tess greets her death with the embittered, ironic proclamation that “ ‘Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals . . . had ended his sport with Tess” (314), the narrator of “An Indiscretion” displays an unmistakable relief that “this strange family alliance was at end for ever” (113). Though a sense of sadness pervades the scene, the indignation that constitutes a hallmark of Hardy’s mature writings is noticeably absent.

Dalziel, Pamela. “Hardy’s Unforgotten ‘Indiscretion’: The Centrality of an Uncollected Work,” Review of English Studies: A Quarterly Journal of English Literature and the English Language 43, no. 171 (August 1992): 347–366.
Hardy, Thomas. An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress and Other Stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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