Analysis of Thomas Hardy’s The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid

In this much-anthologized story, Thomas Hardy combines realism and imagination to create a romance that illustrates the danger of allowing sexual desire to influence one’s marriage choice. Set in the village of Silverthorn in Hardy’s Lower Wessex, “The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid” focuses on Margery Tucker, a young milkmaid whose rustic life is unsettled by the Baron von Xanten. Margery unwittingly prevents the baron’s suicide when they first meet, and when von Xanten offers a reward in gratitude, Margery asks him to take her to a ball. The experience sours Margery’s relationship with her fiancé, the local lime burner Jim Hayward. She has fallen in love with the luxury of the baron’s world and desires the baron for herself. When she misses her own wedding to meet with the baron, the nobleman finally realizes the damage he has done. He helps Jim impress Margery with expensive furniture and other household items, but she still resists Jim’s advances. Finally, the baron, apparently on his deathbed, arranges a surprise marriage ceremony for Margery, and she marries Jim on the condition that their bond is kept secret. They live apart for several months until Jim settles on two new schemes to attract Margery’s attention. He joins the yeomanry regiment to impress her, and he courts a local widow, Mrs. Peach, to incite Margery’s jealousy. The schemes succeed until the baron, now in better health, returns and whisks Margery away toward the coast where his yacht is moored. Von Xanten asks Margery to join him abroad, but when she refuses, he returns her to Silverthorn, where she finally reunites with Jim. Years later, Margery and Jim learn that the baron has killed himself, and Margery admits that she would have accompanied von Xanten had he pressed her to do so.

Hardy published this tale concurrently in the Graphic in Britain and, serially, in Harper’s Weekly in the United States. Contemporary reviewers criticized the improbabilities in the text, and subsequent critics have dismissed it as a mere potboiler not worthy of critical attention. Indeed, Hardy’s biographer Michael Millgate notes that although Hardy included the story in the collection A Changed Man and Other Tales in 1913, even he had a “low opinion” of the entire volume. However, “The Romantic Adventures,” often reprinted and pirated, was popular with the public, and it deserves serious scrutiny. Margery’s experience with von Xanten and Jim provides a fine example of female subjection in the 1840s society in which the tale takes place. Beyond its examination of women’s roles, the tale also provides cautionary advice to readers who might aspire to higher social standing. The true genius of Hardy’s story lies in its attention to psychological nuance as the relationship between Margery and the baron unfolds and complicates Margery’s marriage decision. By the end of the story, the innocent relationship of the carefree country girl with the dark, brooding, Byronic foreigner transforms into a complex of unstated sexual desire. Hardy develops the characters well enough for readers to speculate about their motivations and to sympathize with their anxieties. Simultaneously, he introduces enough ambiguity to give the characters vitality and mystery. The baron, for example, could be interpreted symbolically as a satanic figure whose purpose is to tempt the inhabitants of Silverthorn and disrupt their idyllic pastoral existence. Given the length of the tale, critics are unable to agree on whether it is a short story, a novella, or a short novel. Regardless, it effectively displays Hardy’s characteristic style and poetic fascination with detail.

Analysis of Thomas Hardy’s Novels

Allingham, Philip V. “The Initial Publications of Thomas Hardy’s Novella ‘The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid’ in the Graphic and Harper’s (Summer, 1883),” Thomas Hardy Journal 16, no. 3 (2000): 45–62.
Benazon, Michael. “ ‘The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid’: Hardy’s Modern Romance,” English Studies in Canada 5, no. 1 (1979): 56–65.
Hardy, Thomas. Collected Stories. Edited by F. B. Pinion. London: Macmillan, 1998.
Millgate, Michael. Thomas Hardy: His Career as a Novelist. New York: Random House, 1971

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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