by Maille Halloran
Author and poet Thomas Hardy served as a Justice of the Peace in Southern England for over thirty years. His period of public service was complemented by a sincere fascination for the law, especially divorce and the law’s effect on women. Merely glancing at the blurb of Hardy’s novels would reveal a preoccupation with the anguish of separation, particularly for female protagonists such as Tess. Hardy presided over many cases which provided the fodder for his fiction. He also sought such cases out, through courtroom visits and correspondence with High Court judges and officials.
A legal reading of Hardy’s novels will supply all the information needed for an adversarial trial. Take Tess where the agency, consent and will of the “pure woman” are all debated in the context of Alec’s assault. Hardy explores the established Victorian distinction between rape and seduction suggesting that while legally, the lines may be blurred, morally they are not. This is just one example of the author criticising the legal absurdities of the Victorian era.