Thomas Hardy’s stories are set in rural England before the Industrial Revolution, and after the Boer war, in which many men were killed, and so there were more women than men. At this time, there were very few large cities. England was very much a rural country of villages and farmland. Women worked as servants, cleaners, cooks, scullery maids, etc. for the landed gentry. A woman’s place was traditionally in the home, raising children. Being a domestic housewife was a full-time job – families tended to be large.
It was important for a woman to marry, and was the focus of every female’s attention. Back then, the main aim of a woman’s life was to get married, as they weren’t financially independent, but afraid of being left alone. Because of society’s expectations, women would do their best to get the man they wanted. It would seem as if some women were so desperate for a husband, they would do just about anything to get one, as reflected in ‘Tony Kytes, The Arch-Deceiver’.
In the story, three pretty women are vying for Tony’s attentions, even though he’s not that good-looking, “with a seam here and there left by the small-pox”, but as men were quite a rarity following the war, he was considered quite a catch in the area. From the story, you get the impression that Tony was very much a ladies’ man and a huge flirt, “He was quite the women’s favourite, and in return for their likings he loved ’em in shoals”, and also not bothered about being faithful, as he proposes to three different women during the short story.
He lies to them all, but they all go along with whatever he wants them to do, as they are that anxious to find a husband and don’t want to put him off by being difficult. When Tony asks Unity and Milly to climb under dirty sacks in his wagon, they gladly oblige, even though they have probably put on their best clothes to impress him. Without hesitation, they do as Tony says in the hope that he’ll like them better for being co-operative “Then would ye creep under the empty sacks just here… ” “… I don’t mind, to oblige you, Tony”. Tony is disrespectful and deceitful to all three of the girls, yet they still are willing to marry him.
It can’t be underestimated how vitally important it was for a woman of that time to marry and start her own family, so as not to cause embarrassment to herself and her parents. This is obvious when, in the short story, Tony picks the other two women first over Milly, and only when they turn him down, does he ask Milly to marry him, and she still accepts his proposal. She seems in denial of the fact that Tony considered her only as a last resort. He even forgets about Unity and Milly for a while because he’s so busy concentrating on flirting with Hannah – “and forgetting Milly and Unity, and all the world besides”.
In Hardy’s time, the pace of life was much slower than it is today, and morals and standards were different to how they are now. Women couldn’t vote, couldn’t get a well-paid job, and were expected to find a husband, stay at home, look after the family and do the housework. It is taken forgranted now that every woman wanted to marry, but the ‘done thing’ was to wait to be asked, although she does have the option of turning down a proposal if she wishes. The important point is that the right to propose a marriage, and therefore the power, rest with the man.
Men were considered superior and it was as if they owned women. Women were expected to give up paid work once they were married, and stay at home to be a full-time housewife and mother. She had to do every household job, and it was much harder for a woman then than it is today. All the toughest jobs she’d have to do by hand, on her own. There were no modern conveniences or machinery. Raising a family was hard work, and extremely labour-intensive. All those years ago, a woman would be working hard from getting up early in the morning until she finally went to bed at night.
Behind the situation in ‘Tony Kytes, The Arch-Deceiver’, are the social and economic facts of life in the early part of the century (when the story is set). Tony is a working man and is offering a home and a decent living to the woman he marries, in return for the performance of her duties as homemaker and the mother of his children. There wasn’t really an alternative for the women of that time and class like there is today. The woman who does not marry will have a very hard time of it, and will risk being pitied by the community.
A woman couldn’t afford to stay a spinster, either for her reputation or lack of money. If women weren’t married by the age of 30 (which was classed as middle-aged then), they were considered ‘left on the shelf’ and had to carry on living at home with their fathers. Because this was the only alternative to marriage, a woman would desperately search for a husband so this wouldn’t happen. Even when Tony Kytes blatantly lies to each of the three women, they always believe him, or maybe they just want to, because they want to believe they’re the only girl for him, when deep down they know otherwise.
The women don’t necessarily believe him because they trust him, but because they want to be able to, and in the hope that they will become his wife. One of the girls was even prepared to put her reputation on the line by riding in the wagon with Tony, who, not only is she not engaged to, but is also engaged to another woman ! This was considered scandalous activity in Hardy’s England. She was well aware of the constraints of the society of the time, but didn’t really care as long as it got her a much sought-after husband.
As well as financially needing a husband, a woman of Hardy’s time socially needed a husband, because it would’ve been a humiliation to her to stay unmarried and be kept by her father all her life. Any unmarried men around after the Boer war had their pick of women in the area they lived in, as there were so many women to one man, and all the women would fight for his attention. The men had the women ‘under control’, and no matter how rude or disrespectful the men were towards them, the women would still try and work their way into his affections through fear of being left alone.
Women would go out of their way to impress, with high hopes of becoming a bride. This is shown by Milly in Hardy’s Tony Kytes story. People would have to walk miles to get to the nearest market when they lived in the country, as she did. Yet even when Milly discovered that Tony had forgotten to meet her and she’d had to walk all that way on the dusty roads in her best clothes, she didn’t stay angry with him for long. She must’ve known it was crucial for her to stay on his good side, trying to ensure that she got her man.
Although the tone of the story is light-hearted, the social expectations of the women of the time are obvious throughout the story. Tony is a shallow, cheeky, sly, deceitful cad, yet he has all these women wrapped round his little finger as though he is perfect. This was the case with many relationships between men and women in Hardy’s England. The women were the lower class, the men laid down the law. It was very much a man’s world, and they controlled everything and everyone in it at the time. Women were expected to go along with what the men wanted, and nobody bothered or dared to argue otherwise.
Tony Kytes is very immature when he goes against his father’s advice out of spite “Now of all the things that could have happened to wean him from Milly there was nothing so powerful as his father’s recommending her”. He is unsure of his own mind. As it turned out, his father’s decision was the right one, as Milly was actually the only one out of the three who truly cared about Tony, and was willing to forgive him even after he left her until last when deciding who he should choose, which must’ve been a huge insult to her.
Milly was stood there sobbing her heart out while Tony asked two other women to marry him right in front of her, before eventually turning to her, and rudely implying that they must be meant to be together, and she reluctantly agrees, although she knows herself that he’s only asking her because the other two don’t want him any more. This emphasizes even more how essential it was for a woman to marry back then, and how she couldn’t afford to throw a relationship away over anything unless it was really serious.