The conventions and attitudes of Victorian society within the heath figure greatly in almost every part of ‘Return of the Native’, based within the 1840’s. The conventions and attitudes are almost designed to twist and turn the plot, considering how great a part they play in almost every Chapter. Within ‘Book First – The Three Women’, we can already see how simple attitudes towards class, wealth and profession figure among the society.
Eustacia bothers not even to consult the reddleman on his name, but merely remarks to him as if a common peasant, unworthy of speaking with her, because of his trade.
This simple convention of the Egdon society, however are often misleading and quite confusing, considering even a reddleman, “perhaps I am not so worse off than Wildeve”. Diggory is a member of society outcast by himself as punishment, set to travel the plains alone, as what he thinks he deserves(it is therefore ironic that he turns red, a colour of passion and romance).
Once again attitudes towards profession hold great weight in a persons mind within the society, as the news of Wildeve’s former failed professions grants him much disrespect by all members of the heath, with even a furze cutter commenting “I felt myself that he was hardly solid-going enough to mate with your family”. Another prominent feature of the heath, which would also command social respect, would have been marriage.
As Thomasin returns to the heath an unmarried woman, she confesses to her aunt Mrs Yeobright, “Excuse me – for humiliating you, aunt, by this mishap”; apologizing for bringing the shame, a crime so great upon the heat.
It is interesting how Mrs Yeobright carefully considers the opinions of others and their attitudes towards her, in respect towards her attitudes of the local heath folk, as she considers few people eligible to wed her son, Clym, and her niece Thomasin.
As Diggory Ven returns Thomasin from Wildeve, Mrs Yeobright tries her deepest to mask what she is thinking within the presence of Diggory, speaking softly to Thomasin, “nearly home, my dear”; But when the reddleman “had withdrawn so far as to be beyond all possible reach of her voice”, Mrs Yeobrights thoughts and feelings return as she displays her disgust at Thomasins failure, beginning talking “sternly” with no public presence. She later says don’t for a moment dispute that it is the most proper thing for you to marry him”.
However even Wildeve, the reason behind Thomasins failed marriage views on the subject are deep, as he is aware that “we must now marry”. Marry Thamosin, or run to America and avoid being disgraced within the community, were Wildeves only choices, as the conformity of Victorian society ruled so harsh. The social attitudes towards Eustacia upon the heath are typical of Victorian society, considering how she chooses to spend her time and live her life.
She asks her uncle “Why is it that we are never friendly with the Yeobrights? receiving a reply of “I recollect that I once accidentally offended her” ; displaying how a small event from the past can bring immense shame, due to not only the conventions of Victorian society, but also the desolateness of the heath. Eustacia is from the seaside resort of Budmouth, and hence views herself as a member of a higher society, hence why she laughs at the reddleman, and considers few of the people round the heath even contemplatable for marriage, treating people such as little Johnny and Charly with little respect, trying to complete her agreement of hand holding wearing a glove!
However her ability to negotiate the heath at night is a result of her intimate knowledgeof this landscapeand when a bramble catches her skirt she is said to “yield herself up to the pull”. Conformity strikes upon Eustacia once again, considering her imprisonment upon the heath; the society would never allow a woman to leave by herself. She doesn’t love Wildeve; she loves the idea of love, and hence not only is interested within Wildeve due to her attitude towards love, but also of the conventions towards her escaping the heath – towards America, which inevitably brings tragic consequences later in the novel.
This convention helps us within the novel to assess characters within the novel too, as at first Wildeve seems to be in control and plays on Eustacias insecurities, but the balance swings as Eustacia asserts the power she has over him, toying with the idea of his failed marriage being due to his love for her. The fires upon the heath have become a custom there, a convention to ward off the night. It represents the attitudes of the heath folk, at the same time as providing a reason for them to gather in a communion, discussing the various gossips upon the heath, a convention of which is apparent within such time and destination.
Their lack of Christian faith is apparent (“I’m so dead sleepy of a Sunday; and ’tis so terrible far to get there”), as is their strong sense of superstition; Christian Cantle is especially, and somewhat comically, fearful and accepts his destiny, caused by his birth on a moonless night, as “The man who no woman will marry” . The fires also provide imagery with respect to the heath, after the embers burn out they leave”red corals of perishing fire”, “greeting like living eyes in the corpse of day”.
The fire also strongly correlates to the passion evident between Eustacia and Wildeve, so from merely describing a custom traditional upon the heath, Hardy has used it to describe Egdon, the local furze cutters, and the relationship between Wildeve and Eustacia. The social conformities upon the heath are everywhere, from the respect given by even the lowest peasants cutting furze all day, to the highest member of society present upon the heath, Mrs Yeobright.
The implications and desires of several heath folk are restricted by what is viewed as ‘proper’ among the heath – restricted by social conventions and attitudes within a contemporary time. The ‘bands’ for instance, which Mrs Yeobright places upon her niece and Wildeve within the church is a conventional idea within Victorian England which changes the plot as we would expect, forbidding them to wed, but then places herself within Wildeves power.
Clyms return to home for Christmas from “the rookery of pomp and vanity, Paris” was not only just a contemporary event, but an event present in Victorian society at the end of Book First, which helps the novel to develop greatly between books, raising suspense as we are left to speculate his effect upon the precariously balanced relationships between the characters so far.