To those who think of Thomas Hardy as predominantly a purveyor of doom and gloom, it may come as a surprise to find that he could also be rather funny, as in this encounter between a working girl who has stayed on the farm and a friend who has chosen a somewhat different path in life. Of course, it is possible to read the poem in a morally earnest way: to wonder if Amelia is not whistling in the dark, as it were, and whether the life of a ‘ruined maid’ back then was really that much fun or if it was not simply exchanging one kind of servitude for another, less honest one. It would certainly be typical of Hardy to present the choices of human existence in such a lose-lose way, but I think that really he was just getting a bit of his own back by poking fun at the moral conventions of his times that had led to so much censure of his work.
The Ruined Maid
‘O ‘Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?’ —
‘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 ‘thik oon,’ and ‘theäs 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.