Saturday, 29 September 2012

The Ruined Maid, by Thomas Hardy


Thomas Hardy's poem “The Ruined Maid”, written in 1866, takes the form of a dialogue between two girls or young women who previously worked together on a farm. The girl who speaks first is still a farm-hand, and she has just met the other girl, Amelia, by chance in town. She is surprised at how different Amelia looks since she last saw her, but Amelia explains that she has been 'ruined'. This term actually means that she has become a prostitute. The poem is full of contrasts between the two speakers, as well as between the past life and present situation of the 'ruined maid'.

The poem has six stanzas of four lines each, or quatrains, and in each of the first five the farm girl speaks for the first three lines. The 'ruined' girl replies to her in the fourth line. In the first stanza, the farm girl expresses her surprise at meeting 'Melia, and asks her where she got her lovely clothes from, which are a sign of 'prosperity' – 'Melia seems to have gone up in the world. Amelia asks the farm girl if she hadn't known that she had been 'ruined', in other words had become a prostitute. Using the term 'ruined' conveys the idea that once a 'maid' has turned to prostitution, she will have no chance of finding a husband and settling down to married life.

In the second quatrain, the farm girl begins by remembering how differently Amelia was dressed when she left the farm. She wore rags, 'tatters' and was barefoot. She goes on to talk about Amelia's reasons for leaving the farm: she had had enough of digging up potatoes and also dock leaves, which are quite large weeds. The farm-hand then describes some of the details of the prostitute's appearance that are in sharp contrast. She has lovely bracelets as well as feathers, probably in her hat. The exclamation mark emphasises the farm girl's surprise and presumably also her admiration for such fine accessories. Amelia's reply is that any girl in her profession will be dressed in that way.

The farm girl turns in the third quatrain to recollections of the way Amelia used to speak when she worked at the 'barton', or farm. The 'ruined' girl has already used the word 'you', but the farm girl remarks that she used to use 'thee' and 'thou', which are more rural alternatives for 'you'. The farm-hand goes on to give more examples of words that the prostitute used to use when she was a country girl, but then comments that the way she speaks now is typical of a higher social class, or 'high compa-ny'. The farm girl herself uses an abbreviation of 'thee' – ''ee' – instead of 'you'. This time Amelia's reply is that when a girl is 'ruined', she gains 'polish', in other words refinement.

In the fourth quatrain, the farm girl comments on Amelia's hands and face. She says that the 'ruined' girl's hands used to be like 'paws', implying that the girl used to be in some respect like an animal, perhaps with rough and dirty hands. Her face used to be 'blue and bleak', suggesting that it looked unhealthy and unattractive. Now, however, the farm girl is amazed or 'bewitched' by the change in Amelia's face. In contrast, her skin is now 'delicate', giving the impression that it is smooth and fair. The farm girl must be envious of the prostitute's gloves, which she finds to be very ladylike. This time Amelia's answer to these remarks is that prostitutes never do any work, in other words nothing like farm labour that could be detrimental to their complexion or hands.

The dialogue in the fifth quatrain revolves around Amelia's former attitude to her life at home, on the farm. The country girl remembers that she used to describe it as a 'hag-ridden dream', a hag having connotations of a witch or ugly old woman. Now, however, the farm girl sees that the prostitute shows no sign of 'megrims', meaning depression or unhappiness, so she must be enjoying her life.

The sixth quatrain is the final one, and here the farm girl speaks for only the first two lines. Amelias reply fills the third and fourth lines, ending the poem. The farm girl does not make any new comments in her last remark, but shows how envious she is of Amelia. She wishes she could dress in the same fashionable way and walk the streets of the town rather than work on the farm. The prostitute's reply sounds arrogant, and she condescendingly calls the farm girl 'my dear'. She reminds her that a 'raw country girl' cannot hope to wear such fine clothes. Amelia is contrasting her situation with that of the farm girl, but ironically she uses the word 'ain't' in her final phrase, showing that in she has not in fact rid herself of her low-class speech completely.

The 'ruined' girl's full name, Amelia, means work, effort or strain, and on the farm she would certainly have had to make plenty of effort in her job. The farm girl shortens the name to 'Melia when she meets her. Melia means rival or emulating, having ambition, as though the girl is now striving to appear to belong to a higher class of society. There are those who also comment on the similarity of the name to the Latin word 'melior', which means better: Amelia has made attempts to better her appearance, but she has not improved her situation in life.

Hardy does use several poetic devices in the farm girl's speech, even though she is a 'raw country girl'. Her comments often feature phrases in pairs, such as 'digging potatoes, and spudding up docks'. These are occasionally given more emphasis through the use of alliteration, as in 'you'd sigh and you'd sock' or 'megrims or melancho-ly' in the penultimate quatrain.

The rhyme scheme is AABB, and the rhymes of the third and fourth lines are identical throughout the poem: prosperi-ty and she in the first quatrain, three and she in the second, etc. The hyphenation of words at the end of some of the third lines, such as prosperi-ty, separate the final syllable which is the one that rhymes with the fourth line. The rhymes of the first quatrain match those of the final quatrain, creating a feeling of symmetry perhaps. Overall the structure of 'The Ruined Maid' is regular, with each stanza being a quatrain; the farm girl speaks for the first three lines of all but the final quatrain, with Amelia's reply coming in the fourth line.

Hardy has created a fascinating picture of young women in Victorian times in 'The Ruined Maid'. Labouring on a farm cannot have been an attractive prospect for a country girl, but the poem shows us that perhaps the only way to escape it was through prostitution. The chance to wear fashionable clothes, jewellery and other pretty accessories would appeal to most young women. Walking around a town might also seem more interesting than spending time on a farm. The irony is of course that these opportunities were only available to lower-class women if they became prostitutes. The fact that the term 'ruined' was used to describe prostitutes tells us that their chances finding a husband and having a family would be non-existent. The country girl may have been envious of Amelia, but her prospects of marriage must have been far better.

Here is the poem in full:

O 'Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosper-ity?” -
O, didn't you know I'd been ruined?” said she.

  • You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
And now you've gay bracelets and bright feathers three!” -
Yes: that's how we dress when we're ruined,” said she.

  • At home in the barton you said 'thee' and 'thou,'
And 'thick oon' and 'theas 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.

  • 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.

  • You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
And you'd sigh and you'd sock; but at present you seem
To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!” -
True. One's pretty lively when ruined,” said she.

  • 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.

Originally published on

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