Hardy and Hill both present the reader with female characters who are isolated and ostracized by society. Compare and contrast the ways in which both writers deal with these themes. Susan Hill and Thomas Hardy are clearly both interested in the role of women and their position in society. The female protagonists, in `I’m the King of the Castle and `The Withered Arm’, are insecure as they lack a man to provide them with social status and respect. As a consequence of their troubled pasts, they are rejected from society, and are both left vulnerable and desperate. Helena Kingshaw represents a certain class of women in post-war England, the setting for Susan Hill’s novel, who found themselves lacking the emotional and financial support of a man. The superstition in those days left these genteel, unskilled women in a shameful position. Society rejected those spurned by men and many became objects of gossip of a malicious nature. Similar nonsensical teachings in Victorian times, the setting for `The Withered Arm’, also left abandoned women, such as Rhoda Brook, viewed as social outcasts.
Thomas Hardy is clearly sympathetic to such women, especially those reaching the stages of their lives where he suggests, through a careful adjective selection “worn”, they may be becoming desperate for a husband. He seems to consider them as isolated victims of the stereotypical image of women as a possession, classed by looks and fortune, and his novel exposes the hypocrisy in society. The isolation of the female protagonists is immediately obvious in their places of residence. Warings is “some distance away from any other house” and Brook lives in “a lonely spot high above the water meads”. Also, references to their past hint at their isolated feelings, “Tis hard for she”, and this is confirmed in how they act around others. Brook’s way of coping is to silently work “somewhat apart from the rest.”
Conversely, Kingshaw tends to babble and desperately try to please others and make a new start in life. Hill’s language choices for Mrs. Kingshaw’s affected speeches reflect her desperation to belong to a certain class. This is the opposite of Brook, who would rather survive without pity and stay in isolation. Neither woman ever admits that it is isolation and loneliness which make them act as they do, for example, their unusual attitudes towards their sons. Kingshaw practises superficial mothering gestures, “she always wanted to lean over him…,” whereas Brooks’ life is completely lacking in affection towards anyone, until she meets Gertrude Lodge. However, at least then it is genuine, unlike Kingshaw’s desperate attempts to `do things by the book,’ without actually meaning any of it. She just wants to be satisfied that she has all she can get, while Brook is more accepting of her fate. Brook is however similar to Kingshaw, in that she is extremely self-absorbed; she asks her son to discover, “if she’s tall, tall as I,” and was, “not observing that he was cutting a notch…in the chair.”
This could be compared to how Kingshaw never realises the trauma Edmund Hooper puts her son through, as again she is not observant enough. In spite of the women’s preoccupation, both children are very accepting and obedient to their mothers. The more archaic language of Hardy’s novel makes it easier for us to identify with Rhoda’s concerns which seem, especially to the modern reader, to be over small things, such as how “ladylike” a woman is, and this again promotes the roles of women in both societies. In `I’m the King of the Castle’ it is frowned upon for a woman, with the status of housekeeper, to wear make-up and dress up. As in `The Withered Arm’ this is because a woman’s dress sense reflected their position in society. We see how the Farmer Lodge’s pretty wife’s wealth gives her the right to wear, “a silver coloured gown”. On the other hand, the affect a woman’s appearance on the male protagonists of each novel is different in that Hooper’s opinion of her looks seems relatively insignificant to how he had been “impressed by the graceful letters of Mrs. Helena Kingshaw.”
Whereas, Gertrude was worried about her disfigurement because in `The Withered Arm’, “men think so much of personal appearance.” Both writers also convey to the reader how lack of status generates a fear within the women to change from their set principles. We notice this in Kingshaw’s displays of stereotypical motherly affection and more subtly in Brook, through her indignancy when her son suggests she goes to see her successor; “I, go to see her!” The two women are forced into these ways of dealing with their isolation by their shared insecurity. Their two different ways of coping both have their drawbacks: Kingshaw is so busy trying a good impression and secure her future with Kingshaw that she cannot form a proper relationship with her son.
Brook is so busy ignoring her past and avoiding her problems that she bottles up her bitterness, again destroying a relationship, with her friend, Gertrude Lodge. Eventually, their sad positions lead both women to make a “last, desperate effort” to conquer the things on their minds, but in both cases it results in another’s unhappiness. For Kingshaw, achieving a life with Mr. Hooper lead to her son’s suicide. For Brook, trying to overpower the “confronting spectre” in her dream lead to disfigurement of her only friend. This also shows how, like Kingshaw, her isolation makes her romanticise things and let her imagination get carried away. However, where Brook gets upset by guilt of what she brings upon others, “I hope your arm is well again ma’am?”, Kingshaw is portrayed as a much shallower character and never notices her effect on others. Instead, she romanticises things such as her relationship with Mr. Hooper; “He likes me.”
Effective grouping of words, such as the description of Brook being held to Gertrude Lodge by a “gruesome fascination” also show the obsessive behaviour of the female characters, due to the amount of time they spend alone, thinking. Kingshaw is obsessed with determination to believe that her “life is changing, everything is turning out for the best.” In contrast the simple platitudes of her speech, Hardy writes in long, complex sentences, allowing us to see the depth of Brook’s worried fixations. Through these obsessions, there is an underlying fear for both women that they will lose the person in their lives who means something to them, and could save them from complete ostracization. This adds a sense of dread to both novels, and pathetic fallacy reflects this darkness in the hostile environments surrounding them; “the wind howled dismally over the heath.” Hardy is able to convince us of Brook’s isolation through her introspective thoughts and memories.
However, the limited capacity of Mrs. Kingshaw to think and understand leaves even her speech artificial. So Hill uses `flashback’, interspersed with the episodic narrative to emphasise Kingshaw’s troubled past, showing us how her life has been shaped and influenced, convincing us of her isolation. Also, being a rather claustrophobic text, we given an increasing fear of unavoidable disaster in `I’m the King of the Castle’, as all the action takes place over a ten-month period. On the other hand, ‘The Withered Arm’ is set over a much longer period of time and informs the reader of ill-feeling towards Rhoda from outside the immediate circle of protagonists.
Through these very different structures, Hardy and Hill both create an increasing sense of doom for the two female protagonists. The absence of love in both characters’ lives undermines their confidence and relationships, resulting in isolation. Warings reinforces the theme of isolation as it is completely set apart from events in the normal world and, as in `The Withered Arm’, the accumulation of hostile imagery of the surrounding countryside further emphasises their loneliness and vulnerability. In both novels the main requirement of women was dynasties, so those rejected by men were despised and ostracized from society.
This put both Brook and Kingshaw lacking status and in a very pitiable position. Nevertheless, due to the way the two writers deal with the themes of isolation and ostracization of the female protagonists, as a reader I never felt for Kingshaw quite the sympathy I did for Brook. As Hill presents Helena Kingshaw as so shallow a character, we feel so much anger at her dismissive attitude to her son that it is almost as though she deserves anything. By contrast, Hardy deliberately presents Rhoda Brook, “her red eyes weeping”, as a more pitiful character who seems much more the victim of her bad luck.